Poems read at
Member's Night - January 2012
LAST PHOTO WITH MY MOTHER
It’s all there: the path through the Audubon Sanctuary (where I would later write so much of my first book),
me standing next to my mother (who would be dead before I finished that book).
It is autumn and the path is full of yellow beech leaves.
We stand close together, her shoulder against my arm,
but we do not hold each other, just the slight leaning in.
How alike we are: neatly built, straight-spined, those long Irish cheeks.
And the genuine smiles. We, who often look hunted in photos,
are happy in golden October, the leaves deep on the path.
We both look directly into the camera, which is held by my beloved,
about whom my mother once said, “She is so honest. I can’t imagine
her ever telling a lie.”
If I was as honest, I would say this photo does not tell the entire story.
But another part of me, equally honest, says, once again, it’s all there:
the path, the autumn woods, the warmth of her shoulder against my arm.
On the shore this morning, a north wind, end of summer. Low tide, mussel beds exposed, the wind riffling the shallow water. Further out, cormorants swim, snaky dark heads above the water. They move across the cove, the birds out ahead diving, those behind rising awkwardly from the water, flying to the front, diving.
I remember walking with my mother along Narragansett Bay. Before her troubles. When I enjoyed her company, her delight in the world. A delight that shone again in her last years, a child’s way with the world.
Five or six cormorants stood on a rock across the bay. They were not so common then, their hunched stance a curiosity. “Look at them standing there,” I said, “like a bunch of undertakers.” We laughed and I was so pleased to have given her this, the cormorants and laughter at their grimness.
I do not know how to mourn. I carry gestures and laughter like stones lodged in the base of my skull. My eyes are trained to look forward. When words rise in my throat I clench my teeth to keep them in.
Crickets call in the dry weeds by the jetty. I scrape a file across my flinty heart and sing with them.
BLOWN AWAY NEARSHORE
A street-smart coastal bully,
the great black-backed gull
turns his switchblade bill
on an exhausted dovekie
blown inshore from a desolate oceanic home
by winds of a passing storm.
The tiny alcid is ill-equipped
for urban battle on foreign turf.
Shaken and tossed, he is a rag doll
on the water's surface.
Too large to be swallowed whole,
the dovekie gags the gluttonous gull,
now mindful of a gathering crowd
of avian on-lookers looking for a rumble.
But, he can't lift the soggy corpse
for the short flight to shore
for a plucked meal on firm turf.
Interest waning, he wanders off, nonchalant,
as patrolling gangs of stragglers
whet their scavenger skills,
all the while squabbling over dibs.
ON THE DEATH OF A VEERY
This veery is very dead.
Minutes ago, confused,
he flew headlong into the picture window
and fell mute at the feet of my wife,
who was tending the garden.
The valiant troubadour
had just arrived from winter quarters
in the cool, forested mountains of Central America;
his annual mission, carved by eons of evolution,
suddenly cut short.
I shall miss the liquid song
cascading like champagne in a fountain:
this breezy Pan, bearing his flute pipes deep
into the old growth forest.
We mourn the squandering of precious habitat
at both ends of his journey,
but death by picture window
seems yet more needless.
THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD
slowing towards the end, then repeated.
A clown-faced yellow-bellied sapsucker has discovered
my newly hung bat house
whose thin plywood roof provides a hollow drum
of extraordinary tone.
His sonorous drumming permeates the still forest
like an urgent news broadcast, the avian code
to a mate remaining coyly out of sight.
The bats would tell this feathered Lothario
to go suck sap
and let them get some sleep.
But they haven't yet moved in...
their realtor may have warned them of a problem.
THE LIFE BIRD
I want to be a Life Bird
not the woman you take for granted.
I want to drive you to a fine frenzy
when I refuse to show my profile
or the patch beneath my chin.
The Life Bird simply beckons
and you follow. Anywhere.
Just north of the border, you pursue
a White-Tailed Hawk as it flares
into the sun and clips the edge off a cloud.
Binoculars lifted, you are entranced.
A Chachalaca roams the underbrush,
a marauder with subtle and nervous
companions. Little does it know.
I want to be a Life Bird: a Masked Duck
at King Ranch paddling across the pond.
King who? it seems to say
before nudging a black beak
into its wing feathers for a morning nap.
You know who rules the kingdom.
In a swampy refuge, the Life Bird invites you
to witness its luminous sheen, spreads
luxurious white wings or sleeps stiff and alert
on either leg. It could be a Whooping Crane,
Horned Lark or Bearded Tyrannulet.
Beardless, I want to be a Life Bird:
tiny, solitary and so rare you drive
thousands of miles for one sweet glimpse.
Better keep my eyes on the traffic
streaming towards Newburyport and resist
the scrappy drama of red-winged blackbirds
harassing a crow, that sacker of nests.
Yet how splendid the torment as they dart in
low above the marshes to peck his rump,
his mean beak. I slow down, shift to the right lane,
and follow the scuffling birds
as if they were an augury Homer would describe
in assiduous detail, introducing the seer
to render its meaning, the lives of the birds
foretelling his hero’s destiny, the clash
between peoples, the vicious conflict.
Blackbirds flash scarlet epaulets; the crow banks
and turns, flummoxed. Today the only seer available
is navigating the road, cursing a truck
that looms up, blocking my view. It is something
to witness the crow getting his due, something
to wonder at the news: an augury for us
in the Gulf of Mexico? From the depths of the earth
a maelstrom of oil so powerful
it blackens the ocean itself, coats the turtles
and pelicans in gummy sludge, seeps
into the Mississippi marshes,
fouling the beaches, invading ocean currents
and our worst nightmares
like a relentless curse, like revenge.
About a hundred miles south of Albuquerque, turn left
towards the Rio Grande and Bosque del Apache.
Bring your binoculars, not to view the Apaches—
were there any likely to be seen
from a polite distance, but to observe sand hill cranes
and snow geese wintering along the canals
in the world’s loveliest sanctuary, its mountain backdrop
drifting towards the sky. Don’t think about wily Geronimo,
captured at last, shipped away from his tribal lands
to Florida. If your mind must wander, remember him fierce.
Give thanks to our government for one thing done right,
these acres, this sanctuary open to nothing but sky
and birds: cormorants, pin-tail ducks, marsh hawks.
Their refuge is this fertile plain, its harvest remnants
of corn, wheat berries, alfalfa. You need do nothing
but sit quietly and watch snow geese preen and court.
Mainly they feed, feed, and feed some more, their trip
from the Arctic much longer than yours, more arduous
and wired into their brains for millennia.
So eat your sandwiches, sip from your thermos and pay homage
to creatures whose patterns are deeper than the schemes
of men: the ranchers, developers. When a hawk ventures
too close, watch the snow geese lift off, the flock shaping
and reshaping as tagalongs enter, shifting spots of white
swinging out like strands of pearls, luminous.