She doesn’t understand their language,
so they dance
in naked feet and leather boots,
hooded and robed, in cotton shirts
or bare-chested, with fire sticks
and petals on their faces.
Alone, in packs of five or six,
like the wings of rock doves,
dancing poetry in the world of acts.
And it may be that once she did understand.
Eons past, our guttural sounds had sense:
she formed our throats, whittled bone,
the small muscles of our voices /
but time passed.
She lost interest.
So now they jig-step like jesters
at the heart and edges of power,
on the all-consuming
blind and toothless crone.
with a finger,
they inscribe on her broad, flat palm
the word for water.
There have been times
as the season froze or thawed
when watching, you could see their tracks,
deep after warmer days.
Whether they took our path to the woodshop
or took the trail down to the ravine
by the old chicken coop /
or other times,
because the snow suggested it,
carved out their own path
straight down to the road.
We never see them.
The peach tree and the shade
doesn’t hold them now,
the cold too great.
But in the morning there are new tracks,
bold things that happened in the night,
invisible like us —
along the trail
or off the trail, like us.
They say the ermine will kill
even when it isn’t hungry,
slipping through dry corn
like a wisp, a flicker of light
from a passing car, and then quick
at the back of the neck.
The local mastiffs stay in the barn.
And they say the ermine makes its home
sometimes in the den of its prey,
jealous of the memory
of the poor beast’s comfort,
decorating the place
with the skin and fur
of its targets.
But it may be misunderstood.
It’s in a state of perpetual
metamorphosis, after all,
and over the years my words, too,
have changed color in the snow,
marked by cinders from railyard fires.
They’ve also rubbed their teeth sharp,
but against the strop of better writers.
So now I send them out in the dark.
When they don’t come back
I imagine them warm
in the burrows of skulls,
to the mouth of the den,
the arctic night
dressing itself in silk,
hiding the moon for camouflage.
I’m all that’s left after the thrill
of homecoming and nesting,
in my black and white,
skipping into the road
for car kill, to pull
at squirrel skin and
your suddenly toneless thoughts.
I’ve come into focus again,
like spilled oil / I’ve remembered
where I keep
the bones of winter.
But they were always there,
while you summered,
distracted by the full green,
the snapdragons, the pink petunias
hung on the railing,
the spending cloud.
It’s more pensive now.
Can you feel it?
Even the escarpment frowning over
the reservoir stays in,
writing its journal
with cuttlefish ink and sienna.
And while it was not
what you wanted, this year:
you didn’t have her,
the pool was less clear,
the work was unsatisfactory,
you aged ungracefully —
whatever it was.
I’ve watched you.
I’m here to help.
If you let me,
we’ll pick clean
your memories, too.
I walk our kitchen scraps to the compost pile:
ragged red-leaf lettuce, long English cucumbers
forgotten at the back of the fridge
moist, soft as sponge.
The flu is going around.
I had congratulated myself that I escaped it,
that others were more mortal,
but it has hit me hard.
I glower: neanderthal, punished
and miss a step on the deer trail,
slipping on the rock.
It strikes me that this vegetable box full of earth
tucked away behind the woodshop
(overflowing now — too cold and too dry to decompose)
is the most important thing I own:
a memento mori masquerading as gardening.
There will be a time
when my body, too, will stop working,
when it will break down,
become a part of the cottonwood,
animate the catnip and the chokecherry
feed the mule deer in spring
take its place on the Hogback —
On the compost pile /
like my own hands
the cucumbers are familiar and strange.
I grab the haying fork,
mix them in,
and forget again.
In the summer we sat out by the reservoir
and watched the water shrink.
The city sent us notices
about leafy spurge and spotted knapweed.
Sometimes we mowed lawn,
picked apples, Elberta peaches;
canned some, saw the rest rot,
the grass to our knees, the driveway clear.
Hummingbirds stopped by —
and jays, cowbirds, and robins —
so many even I, fifty years, tired of them,
remembered the old Indian
who taught me to bury birds
so I could dig them up
stripped of feather and skin
and learn their bones.
But not a word about the season
how when the cold came
they had all moved on,
and now, just the prints
of deer and foxes in the snow.
So starting out this morning
I disturbed you shaking in a branch
and only heard the sound that you made leaving.
Something I had never heard before:
a cry the snow the pines.
I don’t remember
Februarys so empty:
the house wrens are gone
the elk are in the white hills,
the earth so old it forgets
it misplaces things:
deer file past without stopping
the grass never wakes
there’s a hole in the pine tree
where scrub-jays used to chatter
but it is nothing.
it is nothing April can’t.
April can’t erase.
nothing April can’t erase.
nothing it can’t remember.