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I place the yellow warbler on the big rock
at the head of the path
where it hugs the hillside down into the gulch.
She had hit the south window,
and unlike the thrush last summer
which righted itself, sat up, and later flew off,
she had died.
Holding a wild bird,
warm as an oat cake in a your hands,
ties you to the living wild,
but the odd sweet smell of death,
of these small deaths,
comes from somewhere else.
And so, obeying an ancient voice,
I place her on the big rock
knowing she will be gone in the morning —
like the bones of the wood rat
that lay on the path for weeks
until I put them on the rock.
even the sun will eat the earth in time,
but what does a rock eat
if not still, unmoving things?
Is it the coyotes and the cats
and the scavenger birds at night,
the interns and understudies of decay?
while we’re sleeping,
the great mass of the earth itself
tidying up, absorbing itself,
too old for teeth.
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Ten years ago, approaching my 50th birthday, I was in a rut. Not suffering from writer’s block, just too long moored. I’d written poetry for almost as long as could remember, in whichever country and under whatever circumstances. Writing on a computer if I had one, on scraps of paper if I didn’t, composing lyrics in my head walking to class if there was no napkin or envelope. I called the walking variety “street poems”, and I recommend them: they improve memory, and your words learn their rhythm from your feet, uniquely yours, always idiosyncratic and metrical. But ten years ago I had reached a little backwater of self-image, feeling as though each new piece, instead of stretching my own mythology a little farther into Middle Earth — new landscapes — barely extended beyond pale middle age. Too lacking in energy to touch even the last boundary.
And so I did something I had never done before, on impulse. I decided to write under a pen name. There was no forethought. I didn’t wake one morning thinking I had to call myself Zebeedee Galileo Starwinger now, and that Zebeedee was the product of a brief union between interstellar Comic-Con attendees, gender indeterminate. Instead, I turned in the chair and caught a glimpse of Lili, our Russian Blue, stretched out on the back of the sofa. Cat and couch. And so it was Kat Couch — although I’ve tended to pronounce the last name like Cooch, as in Hoochie Coochie — but less Muddy Waters and more Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Cornish novelist and editor of The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1250–1918). Like my parents, Sir Arthur was a Bard of the Cornish Gorseth Kernow, and devoted to the county.
The pseudonym had an effect, although I can’t say it had any predictable effect. Who was Kat? Was they a she? Twenty? Thirty? Older? Two principal things happened. I stopped writing first person confessional poetry and began to tell stories. In one, a girl in Las Vegas stares at a reproduction of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, once attributed to Bruegel the Elder, and the subject of poems by W.H. Auden and William Carlos Williams. She’s bored; she texts a friend. In other poems, a woman tidies the kitchen after her husband leaves on a sales trip; in another, a homicidal country girl takes revenge for social media bullying; parents taking a walk with their young son Dylan lose sight of him when he wanders off in search of a bear. A perplexed mule deer observes a man living on the property come and go from a great “unnecessary” house. And so on. Subjects ranged wide and wildly. And that was good.
Gradually, Kat began to come home again, absorbing the middle-aged male, and accepting him well enough as long as he continued to write about the three-leaf sumac and the black-billed magpies of these foothills. I still defer to her: she has no tolerance for self-indulgence; she wants to spin a good yarn. And if she shows a preoccupation with animal death and, for lack of a better word, “bioempathy,” she at least doesn’t require room and board. And she never eats the last ginger snaps.
Over the past six months or so I’ve posted one hundred and twenty of Kat’s poems. They fall into three sets of forty, and one day soon I’ll publish them in print, in a slipcase edition. Fewer than ten were written this year; some date from that 50th birthday. I’m not inclined to move on from Kat. She may be it for me now. But I do know that the poems here amount to a distinct body of work, and everything from this date will be something else.
I’ve been making videos lately — for introductions and job interviews, and I marvel at my favorite ASMR folk, how generous and expert they seem in their digital skin, in their public personas. In my brief clips I am a slow-witted neanderthal who rarely smiles. I bite the ends off words like cheap cigars; pauses reproduce, begetting ums and ahs. That public persona is as strange now as Kat’s was in 2010, but I plan to get to know it a little better. So I am going back over these poems — I hope near-weekly, if not daily — and recording a video reading of each one, to be posted. Expect an occasional disembodied head, a pair of hands, an Apache pepper plant on the sill, words tumbling from curtains and cactus. Lili, still with us, may show up, demanding an appearance fee, salted crackers, royalties, naming rights.
The little straw hair boy climbs on,
grabs an earful pink and blue,
pats her neckful clotted cream,
shiny even in the darkish,
shiny even in his dream.
No dad! (Come, we’re going home).
He knows it isn’t real a pony,
knows in ways the opposite of horse,
planted by the sand
on three-inch pipe and
only bobby, bobbing only,
idea of moving painted like a horse.
(Of course we must go to Gran’s —
hold while I put your shoes on.
Him in bowl shape sweaters turned,
mittens tethered to his wrist,
but all he thinks,
and all his thinks of flying
painted like a horse.
His autopsy showed a fatty liver
and not, as some would have thought, a cinder.
There was note of pneumonia
complicit in his death,
but as with all the other autopsies before him
the cause was put down as life.
Outside the Chelsea Hotel some tut-tutted.
Life again, they said.
They knew the stories:
that with a dram or a sniff here or there,
him being a credit to Wales,
his kind tended to song.
It didn’t take much.
Rumor had it as many as five women
had a restraining order against him
for singing too close to the house,
and wandering in the fields in just his undies
mumbling synonyms for anthracite.
Anything could set him off —
grain instead of beer,
smoke instead of malt,
thin light on a cox.
He preferred a kind word
to a cruel joke,
a cruel word to a cliché.
He was a king, of course,
but not of column inches.
He traced his lineage to that obscure
Owain, Glaw, or Alun who, the stories say,
when the bows and the knives
were put away,
rose in front of the fire
and sang against the darkness.
In Cape Breton, perhaps, some fiddler
could tell me what it means:
it’s the only place I’ve tracked the phrase —
a reel by that name that plays in the Dungreen Set
after “The Primrose Lasses”.
And for him, I’m sure,
there was no connection
when he offered up the line
one morning in a sales meeting,
off-hand, slightly abashed.
He said, “So I told him where
the bear goes in the buckwheat.”
I know very little about bears
but I do know it’s
always the imagined bear
that disturbs our sleep.
The real bear roots in the furze,
tunes out the hiker,
and then turns away
to his termites and his truth.
The image remains from that day —
the animal’s brown flanks
disappearing among the grain,
the stalks shuffling shut behind,
the rooks wheeling in the prairie sky,
and the field left
undisturbed for memory.
For Jeff B, dead of a heart attack