The squirrel isn’t baffled by the shape of the new bird feeders installed
inside the lilac; his tail flirts, second by second, a hummingbird’s cousin,
as he chases the pressure-treated T to grab millet and peanuts, then scamper away.
The doves do not mourn, they just bill and coo as they hop on the ground,
tip-head chicken-pecking at black oil sunflower seed, their preferred feed.
Their tails bob in weird counterpoint to their fat bodies and wee, tiny heads.
This year there aren’t any pigeons or seagulls, though come February or so,
I’ll resist the urge to chuck stale bread in inedible chunks from the porch so those giant pests leave some for the sparrows, the starlings, the other smaller brown birds;
that murderous want will remain despite how that late in the winter,
those unfallen sparrows are the fattest things in the county, almost too big to fly.
Their small, symmetrical shapes are a soothing roundness against the bright red fruit
they’ve disdained to eat from the ornamental crab tree,
the yellow points of rose leaves still twined against the grey-stained trellis
they perch on in hordes, their fat silhouettes clouding the top of the fence
the demented old neighbors next door are convinced is a declaration of war.
Dad hogs the pantry window, waiting for cardinals and blue jays, the woodpecker
with its red crest and habit of darting in at the suet.
He highlights those flashes of color against the now-drab of the yard,
the dormant raised beds and the mulch of spent seed hulls
and guano. I like the blood-orange beak and dull coat of the lady cardinal myself,
the way she seeks cover, here and gone again if we have not done our job
of putting the seed far enough under a bush. On any given day, though, I’ll feed
and be fed by whatever wings in.
It takes time to rebuild what one tempest brings down. (Tempest in literal hours or metaphor as months or years, pick your perspective.) First, you’ve got to cut back the wreckage of roses, years’ worth of beautiful growth, heirlooms and hybrids, all tangled and thorny and a veritable reminder of what you’ve left lying dormant too long, then let it lie until the blooms have died back and you’ve filled all the vases all over the house with the beauty that still (still) is there, no matter the mess of it all.
And then, when it’s all been cut back, runners and canes gone to ground and all of the pruned bits are bundled and bagged and then (inspiration!) why don’t you have stackable trashcans for this (the old dog has tricks in her yet, because you may be a bitch but that term doesn’t mean anything here in the yard) it’s all set aside and you’ve even remembered the date for yard waste pickup (it feels good to be organized, like a real adult, yes it does) you’ve got to pull down the wreck of the wood you put up with some kind of “help” decades ago. Now, power and hand tools and pry bars and sledgehammers at hand, your shoulders and arms ache in different ways than they did when the trellis went up the first time, when much shouting and swearing about levels and measures and the “right” way occurred, when really, roses don’t care as long as there’s some kind of solid support. Eight-five degrees versus ninety won’t kill a wild thing as long as the inches and feet all add up and the ends meet, more or less. (Now your eyes sting with sweat and sawdust and your arms shake with effort, but you shoulder the support beams yourself as you pry them away where the masonry anchors are rusted fast to the wall, and that rip-crack feels good, in a way, saying something final the tempest did not. Destruction can be good for the soul.)
And then it’s time to rebuild. There’s the handheld masonry bit, your grandpa’s whom you never knew except through his tools and this house with its ancient wiring that holds, that and the set of your father’s chin, just like his dad’s in the photographs on top of the silent piano. The chink of old iron against stone is satisfaction itself, the reverberation through your body from the bit/hammer/swing of your arm placing new anchors (ones that you bought without interference from dudes who may well have wanted to help, but you’ve got Storey’s Wisdom and the internet, too, not to mention a basement full of a dead master contractor’s bits, bolts and bobs and why not put history to your own use, this time?). There’s a feel not just of power but of placement, creation, in the whir-grind-hot burr of the old (as old as you) Skil power drill, extended from the garage thanks to the trench you dug through the yard two years ago and the line you had laid out from the house (sometimes it’s okay to accept you have your limits) as the special concrete bits dig in and bite, take anchor and pull you forward as you push, cast your anchors in stone and then set your planks, two by four by eight hardwood cut to fit the wonky dimensions of mortar and stone.
Vertical struts go on first, drilled and anchored and screwed as the sun crosses the sky and hits your neck and shoulders around the crabapple tree (and today you don’t look up for Icarus, no, today you’re not flying too close or falling, not trying and failing, glorious in momentary success, today you’re just a gardener, because catching a fish feeds you one day, but fixing your garden feeds you for months in more than just the physical way), and then once they’re done, the horizontal slatwork, easy, compared, but un-anchored and needing more verticals to hold the whole rigging in place. It’s a sailboat of sorts, though it’s a ship that sails with the seasons and sun, and not with the wind– at least, you hope not for a while, not like the last blow that brought the last bout of hard work cracking down.
And then last but not least, the oil stain, rubbed on by hand as the ladder teeters a bit underfoot– but it’s not far to the ground, and you’re not wearing wax wings, nor will you be hurt by more than some thorns (would that thorns were all that could hurt us), because you’ve been careful in your construction to pick up the nails, screws and bolts as you go, to be tidy and not leave too much scrap because as you’ve worked, the roses have already budded green, inches and feet gained back from the retraining you gave them at the start of this all. There’s a moment of silence for the dragonfly who flew too close and was wing-splattered with stain. He is still, stiff by the time you see him, resting on top of a thatch of Lillian Gibson’s regrowth, a fingernail’s worth of driftwood-colored weatherproofing forever stilling his flight. It’s an unworthy thought, to think that some flies must die so that things bigger than them can live, but still, there’s something else, if not worthy, than worthwhile of acceptance: even when you’re rebuilding a rose trellis with as much care as you can, you can’t look everywhere all the time, and there are bound to be splits in the wood, spots that you’ve missed, and tempests that you cannot predict, somewhere, off, outside the yard.
Too, it’s a comfort to know (grounding, it is) that just you, Storey’s Wisdom, a well-planned trip to Lowe’s, and the contents of your dad’s and grandfather’s basement built you something your roses, crabapples, and other things to be fruitful and counted-upon in the future, built this all by yourself, give or take five degrees. You’ve taken a measure, and somehow, it fits.
I’m reading reviews of the Godzilla film (film, like it’s art and not just a circus, projected onscreen) and thinking— boy, Anthony Lane just doesn’t get it. Sure, snappy dialogue & good jokes would be nice, good acting too, but the point of any and every Godzilla film is Godzilla. Period. Exclamation point, even, dig in with the tips of one of the spines on his capable back. If you get some token A-lists to chew scenery and one of them happens to know how to say the monster’s name with the “right” “Japanese” intonation, then, well, they’ve done their job. Of course there’s going to be some kid in peril, some stupid sideline love story to propel the “action” along, a landmark bridge or three to threaten or wreck, a city or five that gets smashed. You can throw all the ecological or cultural subjugation/appropriation or globalization or global warming or nuclear threat metaphors you like at the screen— heavy-handed dialogue about all the wasteful and stupid things humans do is all well & good, it’s not like it isn’t true, but the point of it all is this, at the end:
Spines, rippling through water. Strong, scaly thighs stomping onto the shore. A monster so big he re-defines awesome each time we see him, each time we re-do him in clay or plastic or hi-def CGI— he’s hard to grasp except in glimpses— lashes of tail, swipes of his stubby yet capable arms, that instantly recognizable (and always surprisingly higher-pitched than we thought it would be) roar that he has, as he throws his head back and says, in his way— move it, I’ve got this, this is bigger than anything that you can handle, and I’ve emerged, yet again, from the depths of your oceanic subconscious to defeat all the monsters— the Mothras, King Kongs, the aliens from outer space— that your small monkey brains can only shoot guns at, or nuke, when we all ought to have learned from the last dozen films that the nuclear option is not the end of the story, it’s just a waste. When Godzilla roars, it’s just the buildup, and while he might go down, he always gets up— in the end, he rips off Mothra’s head and screams lightning down her throat, crisping her into insect BBQ that always has us roaring hooray, even as Godzilla himself thows his head back again to let loose that primal yell of “I did it, all by myself.” Sure, the humans might have lit a nest of eggs on fire, maybe, but who’s to say Godzilla wouldn’t have gone back and done it himself once the real fight was through? The point of Godzilla is this— the monster, rising once again from the dust and the wreckage, surveys the bodies of the more monstrous monsters strewn about, then snorts to himself in private amusement as the monkeys on shore cheer and he slides, once again, into the ocean, cool and home. Godzilla, the king of the monsters who saves us from ourselves when we don’t know what to do. Godzilla, Prince Charming, swims off to his underwater castle again, spines cutting through blue-green until it’s time to submerge, and we, a whole race of Princesses, wave from the shore, not certain when he’ll return. We know one thing for sure; poets will tell tales of the deadly lash of his tail and the blast of his death-ray until those spines through the water are sighted again.
It’s not summer yet– we’re barely broken from winter
but the days are starting to hold that verge of wet
of mud, of emergent green, and the breeze may still bite down to the bone
but the sun is just that smidge brighter, the light a little more gold.
It’s enough of a promise to make the tangle of brush littered under the
thornhedge, the long brambles themselves in dire need hacking
a challenge, not something so daunting to send me back under cold covers.
The just now full moon is low in the still twilight sky–
not day, not night,
but that inbetween state when everything waits,
I am finally ready to leap even though last week, or was it last night,
I was ready to fall, or was it to crash?
Still, each day is different, I’m learning,
and today I heard a poet reading her verse about whelks.
I remembered that time toward the end
when we took a walk and collected our own– beautiful, broken,
all hollowed out. I left them in the bowl your brother’s wife gave us when I left,
along with so much else of our life. In abandoning most of our things,
it wasn’t so much a clean break as the fact that you can’t take it with you,
and it’ll just break your heart if you try.
Those whelks, though– it’s strange, the things your memory holds on to.
I know there were good times enough to make me stay so long,
not just my own fear or yours that kept me hanging around,
but all those times are blurred versus those last few trips
all tinged with the last light of summer, that and the things
that still make me burn with rage.
In hindsight, I should have leapt in the spring, but I’d hoped
you would be able to make the leap with me, to try to hold on,
so I won’t fault myself for trying. Someone had to.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
You, unable to help yourself, much less me, and me,
asking for help you couldn’t admit I was always going to need?
It wasn’t so simple a matter as clearing out the winter’s detritus
or waiting for spring. It wasn’t as clean as admitting
that things had changed, like the way sand and tide
whittled those whelks.
I still don’t know what a partnership is,
but I do know to walk away
from those who cannot choose joy simply
because they will lose it some day– that knowing, at least
is a prayer that I be my own best companion.
People and things are evanescent, it’s true.
I don’t know what you were expecting
in a world where we’re all born to die.
It is all wild and precious and, for the moment,
part of our life. I know how to pay attention to that,
even if the attention is caressing the brittle shells of late winter,
rather than admiring the slime trail the snail leaves in June.
The snail doesn’t know how long he is here.
He just takes his time, and enjoys each blade of grass
during his slow, messy, mucous progress.
Perhaps that’s the first kind of prayer, the steady snail crawl.
Slow, onward, with your home on your back.
(With apologies to Mary Oliver & The Summer Day)
Late night bus drivers are the worst martinets. Everyone wants to be home, even them, and the only thing the driver can do is be early or late, pull up short of the stop so everyone who’s queued at the sign is now at the back of the line and as furious as you, driver 0638, you who mash the brakes far too hard and charge up the hill, lurching and carsick. (Lifesick.). I hope you get home safely, (if that’s where you want to be) but I do think you should know I’m the only one to write you a poem instead of a realtime smartphone consumer complaint. That muttering at the back of the bus isn’t sympathy, pal. Better to pull up to the sign the next time. The 11p.m. after work crowd will let you pretend you were late between runs, but disrespecting the line? Maybe you should let someone else take the wheel for a while.
The Mary Oliver poem that isn’t maybe my favorite but certainly sets a fire in me every time I read it is up at the Writer’s Almanac today– The Journey.
Two double rainbows, four days.
Rain and sun, cloud and clear.
It’s all an illusion, but really, it’s not.
As if one rainbow wasn’t enough,
that its echo should bow,
clear, over the top.
Illusion? It’s there. It’s beheld.
It isn’t unreal.
Elusive, yes, because water dries
as the sun warms the air,
and the fading of a rainbow
is nothing if it’s not proof–
it’s hard for such different things
to occupy the same space.
Different, yes. Impossible, no.
Four rainbows (well, one stacked
on top of the other, two days apart,
because I’m the one counting,)
is certainly proof.
Elusive can mean ephemeral, rare.
Sometimes, though, in the case
of two double rainbows in only four days,
it means something else.
Frequent. Lovely. Rubberneck-worthy.
Occupying the same space as
everyone else who goggles and says–
ooh. Double rainbow.
That feeling may fade–
but it will come back, right as rain,
sure as the sun rises and sets.