Who Knows? That Lifelong question
i. He Risks a Walk
Between two pock-marked beech, on a strand of wire
For cows he recalls from childhood, the cruel barbs shine,
Blossoms of brightness. When darkness stoops, Orion
Will shine likewise, as always, among the stars.
Hell nock his arrow, as if to kindle mayhem
Below. For now, the old man thinks of the house,
Where his wife must still feel disquiet. The weather scared them
Last night with sideways rain, which in due course froze.
When he all but trips on a winter-kill, he wonders,
Has he read somewhere of a people who buried their dead
As the grouse in his path is buried, neck and head
Alone protruding, or was that just some old torture?
The grouses stiffened ruff is lustrous with frost.
The bird had hidden in powder. When it turned to ice,
It sealed the body in. So peculiar a sight
Has stopped the old man cold in this foolish walk.
Todays no day for wandering under trees
Going off around him everywhere, loud as guns
The clap and crack of bursting limbs and trunks.
Sunbeams garland the forest in silvery beads,
Every branch and bole, both shattered and whole,
A radiant filament. He cant see why
Death looks so brilliant. Its dead eyes rimed and white,
The head might be a flower, or maybe a jewel
Carelessly dropped by somebody roaming here
Where the walker feels his way, the trail so sheer.
ii. He Walks and Stops
His trail so sheer, his knees not what they were,
The walker finds himself
Pausing more often than stepping, and in these lulls
Although hes tired of memory,
Damnable habit thats been the stuff of his life
The past creeps up again.
He muses how its the biggest surprise hes known:
The fact that hes gotten old,
That, for example, hes forced to put a hand
On each of those cobbly knees
And push down hard whenever he needs to step up
Onto even slight swells or rock-forms.
Its what he did, he recalls, on grammar-school stairs,
And then, in adolescence,
Went on to mock the younger boys for doing.
He sees those small ones still,
Their untucked shirts and trousers and untied shoes
Gone muddy out on the playground,
As they pant on the steps, their little mouths agape,
The dread, imperious bell
Reminds them that theyre late again. Theyre late.
The old man also sees
In this red oak grove a few stumps here and there
Of long-gone trees he hewed
Forty years back or more, their wood turned dozey,
Such that he all but pictures
Their turning to air itself were he to kick them,
Although of course he wont,
For fear of losing balance. Imagination,
Vision its all he has,
It seems, by which he means the ceaseless function
Of selective memory.
He thinks of war in Syria now, for instance,
And thinks he ought to be thinking
Of that, or of any news his mother described
In his boyhood as current events,
Rebuking his idle dreaming. He hears her voice
To this day and cant gainsay it.
Three cord in eight short hours: thats what hed fell
And cut and split and stack.
Why shouldnt he still be strong? Another surprise.
He walks on fifty feet
And pauses once again. A random gust
Blows in a scent of winter.
He cant identify it, although its familiar:
Hes taken this odor in
For seven decades, but now he wants to ignore it.
Hed rather not be mired,
For even a moment in even the least old question.
Yet how does one look ahead
Or out from here? The prospect appears absurd.
For all of that, he notes
The buds of February tending to purple
The way theyve always done,
And he cant help it: he has to conjure spring.
He cant resist somehow.
Is this mere habit too, or might it be
An authentic sense of revival?
He walks a while again and stops again,
Walks on and doesnt know.
iii. Hell Stay With That
He doesnt know as he walks,
That two coyotes are mating
Within yards of where he passes,
In that late-growth fir clump northward.
He knows only enough to imagine
Theyre there. If he passes again
In eight weeks or so, the bitch
Will howl, if she exists.
Shell be guarding her whelps from the walker
Unless or until he moves on.
If she feels fear, shell hide it.
Ice out on the river
Will have loosened up its suction
To either shore, and he
May not witness this either. Who knows?
Who knows? That lifelong question.
He tries not to prophesy
What constitutes his future,
Quietly urging himself instead
To consider what little he can know,
Or at least can see: for instance,
These tiny, wriggling specks
In the granular stuff under trees:
Snow fleas, harbingers
Of the sugar makers season.
Perhaps hell stay with that,
Will end with sweet figuration
As home rises into sight.
Storytelling at the Res
Joe hopes hes a good guy now, but by jollies he wasnt a good one once. He says he even stole his own wifes hairlong jewelry to pay off a deal.
I had to smile: hairlong.
If you need a drink or drug, Joe went on, believe me, youll take what you got to take. Go ahead and rob your buddies or, like he just said, even your very own folks.
Outside, cold rain was coming steadily, but it felt so warm indoors I was afraid Id doze, even though I wasnt exactly sleepy, and Joes story wasnt boring. Not at all.
There was a time he worked a big saw, the whole while plastered. Its a wonder he never got himself or somebody wasted. There was a lot of days like that, and a lot in the joint too. Once he broke a white cops arm with a tire iron. The cop and his pals didnt like that, you can bet.
Joe wore a raven feather in his hat, which he joked about, telling how it showed hed gotten better, because it sure wasnt no war bonnet. He tried to get humble was what he was saying, just that one feather. He prayed all his war days were done for.
Anybody else got something? he asked now. Everyone nodded, but afterwards most just looked shy and kept their mouths shut, except one guy in the room whose tribal name was See-Quickly, but people called him Jesse. He wore braids and had half an arm missing. He spoke up just enough to say he was out from prison. Again. I heard some scattered applause.
Theys a bunch of other people not here, Joe said, some of them clean and sober for years. Then they disappear, and then you hear theyre locked up, or else dead.
What about you? Joe asked, looking at me, one of the few white guys. What you got?
I tried to say something, but it seemed too hard to come up with anything.
No, no, dont nobody feel on the spot, Joe continued, shaking his head, which made his jowls shake too. He was just a guy himself with some habits. Like check out this gut too many doughnuts.
But doughnuts dont make you lose it. I wanted to say that, because we were all in this place for being crazy once.
You got something more, Jesse? Joe said. Lets hear about it. Once you put stuff right out in the open, see, that helps you get it out of your system. You start in with that, then maybe you can get some healing.
Jesse said, I dont even own no hat, never mind some bonnet. I aint got shit.
Joe called that Gods will.
So when I chopped off my arm at the mill, that was God working his ways on the res? Jesse asked Joe, but he wasnt pissed off; or anyhow he smiled.
Joe knew Jesse didnt mean anything bad. What happens, whatever it is, is what happens, he said. You might as well think theres a reason for it. I mean, check around here. Joe nodded his head at everyone in his seat. I looked down at the floor when he came to me. Were supposed to be where were at. I just call that a God deal, even when our asses get throwed in stir, maybe even if were killed. What do I know? I dont know what God is, except He aint me.
I wondered if what he said next might not just be right, and it could include me: he said we all went to different schools together.
My trouble was, I wanted a story, and not just any story, but a knockout like Jesses. The fact that I kept looking for that sort of thing meant maybe I wasnt so much better after all. I had to be a lunatic or just a fool to have wishes like that, to believe I hadnt been beaten up enough to be interesting.
The blue tattoo on Jesses stub showed only the top halves of letters; I couldnt make out the word they spelled.
Through a frost-flowered pane I watch his truck disappear,
Sole moving thing in a wide tableau
So still with cold it might be an abstract painting
White on white
And under that pall, hunkered in fear,
Small harmless creatures seek cover from ravening foes.
The huge man gulped his coffee, then he scampered
From our wood-warmed kitchen. Hes here for a week
While he takes a course not far from his childhood raising.
He dare not be late.
Hell soon be a wilderness first responder,
An apt description: our son has always been quick
To ease whatever pain he can in others.
As for me, when the same weeks end arrives,
Ill take the first step from seventy toward my eighties.
Should I celebrate?
Until then, that son will train in weather
Stalled for some time at zero degrees, or just shy.
I cant hide, of course, from predator age forever.
Nobody does. I remind myself
The mere fact that Ive survived so long is maybe
No more than fate.
My father fell, and one of my brothers,
Too young. I picture our child knee-deep in drifts.
For hours today, hell study lifesaving means
Against near-drownings, cuts to the bone,
Hypothermia, ski crashes, shivered limbs.
How the hours have raced
Since he, blond child in grass-stained jeans,
Tore breathless up from our field that afternoon
And into the kitchen with a handful of bluets so tender
That before he could bring them inside theyd shriveled .
Mom and Dad, he blurted through an urgent grin,
His words a spate:
Look what I did! I picked you flowers!
If I permit myself so much as a sniffle
Just now, the tears behind it will follow for hours.
The Couple at the Free Pile
Autumns church bazaar is over, all the stalwart, weathered tents of the vendors struck except the one over the White Elephant table. Early this Sunday morning, such tatty wares as went unsold still sprawl on the plastic tablecloth or on the ground, but the sign up front reads FREE.
No car approaching or following, I brake to a crawl so I can observe a man and woman making their deliberate ways through the jumble. I naturally notice that their goods are gathered in the rusted bed of the wheelbarrow my wife and I donated to the event, which nods on its fat, limp tire like a weary draft animal.
For me to stop completely might be to embarrass this couple, who covet what we congregants had considered encumbrances. And yet, however it shames me, my curiositylike desperate thirst, or lust also impels me. Ill drive on, circle the village common, and pass back this way again from the other direction. After all, the two scavengers seem devoted to their scrutinies; I doubt theyll notice my second inspection.
I turn by a picket fence enclosing a big houses tidy lawn at the south end of the common. The owners held a well-attended garden tour there last June. Then I swing right again, north, going by the famous corner elm, which residents agreed at town meeting to save, approving a line item that funded the tree surgeons services.
During the festival, I visited the White Elephant booth myself. As the saying goes, one mans trash is another mans treasure, and you never know. As I predicted, however, nothing appealed. Among other bits of uselessness, say, I found a basketball so worn it had lost all traces of its original, pebbled orange; three recumbent, saucer-eyed ceramic deer; a few chipped plates, inscribed Disneyland, 1974 and showing portraits of Mickey, Goofy, Donald; raveled rugs; tarnished lampshades and sconces. So on.
Passing the elementary school, I make a right again, and, before the turn that will take me to another view, I stop at the intersection, just opposite the village store. My wife and I will be having lunch there in an hour or so. Its deli is the best-stocked one for miles, the staff all cheerful.
As I drive, even more slowly than before, past the White Elephant display, I see a car seat in a Bondod pickups cab. It holds a child, and he or she its hard to tell through the windows grime must have been sleeping a few minutes ago, but now I can just make out a mouth, gaped in a yowl I cant hear, even if I can imagine it. Surely one of the parents, or both, will step out of the tent to tend the toddler. For now, though, they stand motionless, one on either side of the wheelbarrow, eyes on me. Their stares are furious.
Vermont Poet Laureate
P. O. Box 9
Newbury, Vermont 05051