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Every morning, as I go out,
I catch sight of my Nikon
on the hallway dresser
where I have deliberately left it,
charged with promise,
the magic lantern of schoolkids’ stories —
knowing that if I don’t take it
I’m sure to see something astonishing
and only have these dubious words.
I am always right:
the cones of the blue spruce
in the late winter light
drape on the top branches
like streetseller wares, plumbed fruit
hanging from his shoulders.
Or along the base
of our eastern slope,
where stubborn white pelts of snow
depress the prairie grass,
the veins of deer tracks
trickle out and finger.
I take the camera, then,
convinced that I have made
the whole world suddenly dull.
And I am always right:
what I saw in the spruce
I couldn’t tell you,
the tired interminable drupe of the bough /
not at all like vulture wings,
or the ratcatcher swinging
from a shoulder yoke, by their tails,
this late winter catch of cone.
How the deer are gone again,
and left us the mundane definition
of their feet, more loss
Camping one night in the national forest
I got up to pee again
against a bristlecone pine.
You come around often, the pine said.
I’m an old man, I shrugged.
Same here, said the tree.
New married, they lived one summer
by an apple tree,
and watched the fruit
turn green, then oxblood red.
And watched the sun
and watched the shingled sea.
untended in the long grass.
At picking time
he found a bright pot
and shook the apples down,
his hands around the branches.
He was awkward in his wedding ring:
the smallest finger rubbed it,
like a tongue with a new tooth,
where it blazed against
the thick gray boughs.
Where apples fell,
they stewed in pockets
of unclipped grass,
in earthen cider smells,
in a garden quick
with snakes and sowbugs.
He stood among them
in a fine independence,
satisfied to not be
mad with growing,
while Sara watched him
from the kitchen.
She must have seen him as he was:
not simple and apart,
but a kind of metamorphosis,
some mythic thing —
legs, wrapped and rooted
to the earth by snakes,
his arms in apples,
and all his skyward fingers, leaves.
I’m guessing the last thing Custer saw
wasn’t the pied pony dead,
or the infecting iron of the arrow
looping through the air,
the leather of a cartridge belt,
dropped when the man dropped,
but the colorless grass of that knoll in Montana.
It is hard somehow not to blame
the ground for the sky.
Against reason I hang Boston ferns
in the corners of the living room,
and for several weeks, over-fertilized,
still lush for nursery customers,
they pop like vegetable fireworks.
And still for weeks against reason
I take them out to the porch when they pale,
water them again, talk sweetly,
sing them songs of the Queen Charlottes
and Scapa Flow lullabies
when they go,
and think ruefully, comically,
how nothing survives the high plains —
when of course nothing survives
the channel and the undercliff.
We just die wetter on the coast.
when I put another one out with the trash,
if they dreamed, still damp,
in their dark green potted plastic,
of the shortgrass prairie and the chaparral,
if they were tempted,
like the sibyl suspended in a glass cage,
or the boy in the bubble,
to exit, to open the door,
to say the hell with it,
to hell with all our circumstances
I’m going anyway.
I take a bag and the machete
down into the ravine
where, when the snow melts,
our intermittent stream slips unnoticed
under the plantain and the nettle,
among the wild rose and the big cottonwood.
But the end of summer
belongs to the bull thistle,
a legion of it tall as linemen,
packed so dense between the sloping sides
you can barely raise an arm
without one stalk or another stinging.
I shuffle skeletal,
a string of white stones
covered with flesh and leaf,
the centrifugal swing of the blade,
the smell of vanilla from the dead stalks,
cotton seed flying in the air,
the smell of paper paste and lavender,
my sweat under the pommel, slick as blood.
And perhaps it’s the narrow defile,
the thick wood behind,
but I think of the Queen of the Iceni
advancing against the Romans,
driving her raped daughters ahead,
so sure of winning, the tribal women
watched in wagons
from the flanks of that great lost mass.
Did it ever smell like lavender
in the butcher’s work of the afternoon?
Did any legionnaire swinging the short sword
in the crush of green stems
stop for the incongruous vanilla
and the bright birds singing
in the thistledown?
Did he, like me,
knowing I’d just brought eighty thousand
thistle seeds closer to the ground,
ground into the earth by my boots,
see spring translating into spring,
life passed in a winter whisper,
and think revenge, even freedom,
is a small flag to raise on futility,
when given the choice we could
lead with love,
with hopeless love.
Taking a stump for his lectern
he arranges a page turned out of his pocket:
a yellow ball,
a ball resembling clay,
which he rolls with a thick hand
into the flat of the cedar.
Once there were words,
the page was new, veined
with blue ink like a suckling,
but the forest took them first.
A drizzle fell from the lodgepole pine,
a fine mantilla fell on his fingers
where they worried with paper
and the running ink.
Once there were whorls
milled in the paper,
ridges like those of his thumb,
enjoying their feel, dryly enjoying,
he had left for the forest
but the forest took them.
A syllable fell from the sycamore,
a veil more gentle than thinking,
on his fingers, where
they evened the smooth, pale page.
He didn’t speak then.
The ferns breathed out instead,
mosses sweat into pools,
chickadees jibed and jigged
in the chokecherry bushes.
Two hundred mornings pass in the same way.
Approaching the stump, he removes
from his pocket an earth-colored pea
soft as hashish
which he crumbles with thick fingers
into the flat of the cedar.
He presses the grains of his words
into the lichen and the old sawcut,
into the salt and the weeping damp,
and reads, by heart,
the ring in the wood.
Copyright © 2019 Lilibug Publishing.