Night Herons

 

 

By day at the marsh

droll waiters wait

seeming asleep

‘til night

to fly

from pondside roosts

invisible bearers

of death

 

their funerary finery

grudgingly displayed;

green-black watch-cap pulled

low into shoulders

hunched and brooding

showy-crown of plumes

discreetly smoothed down

cold, denying.

 

At night by the lake

dark waders wade

silent sentries

for fish

that flash

from bottom silt

secret black-beak lighting

dispatched

 

their strike-toss-swallow single-sound

silhouette of stealth;

stalking rats along

shores of treasure-trash

bait, abated

gullet and gizzard

working to grizzly

and lethal effect.

 

 

 

 

 

A Persistence of Sisters

— a proffered collective noun

 

Birthed singly or in pairs and, rarely, sets

sometimes with a brother or, rarely, two

alone or in a bevy

sisters are linked

to one another and to all of life

 

in ties of blood

that reach beyond the grave

in spite of hate

that stains our holy souls

in cries of pain

that rise to sighs of song

in eyes of strength

that see beyond the day

 

through all the searing firestorms time

the persistence of our sisters has resisted

 

through anonymous

days    nights    years    lifetimes

of suppression

through the isolation

of their blood

through the darkness

of their pain

through the deaths

of sisters brothers mothers

through the murder

of their children

through rape

of bodies minds souls

through the selling

of their strength

through abuses of the wars

of ever-angry men

through all their pride

of place replaced

through all the years of loss

of death that drips

through their veins like chemo

of strength renewed

through heart

the pain endured

 

they nonetheless persisted,

revenant trees

renewed beyond

the fire and the axe

to rise above

their ravaged bodies, born

to heights unreachable

by merely males

 

yet dreamt of

in the red tents of the mothers

dreamt of

in the blood-sweat of their labor

dreamt of

in the dust of chattel-fields

dreamt of

in angry suburban kitchens

dreamt of

in the books that were not written

dreamt of

in the forgotten ones that were

dreamt of

in their silent pride in weaving

plowing rooting hauling feeding caring

 

and loving

even in the face of pain

and loving

even as the village burned

and loving

even as the children died

and loving

even as they gave their lives

for people who still haven’t learned to love,

 

as from the crimson sea within

she rose again

to make the family strong the children laugh

to set the world aright and make it one

she rose again

to feel the living skin beneath her touch

and sing her pleasured song for all to hear

she rose again

to touch her sister’s mind her brother’s tears

and sleep unknown to fear though knowing death

she rose again

to see the future solid as the truth

and find the source of love within us all

she rose again

to shine and be a light for all to see

and give, forgive, and heal the wounded world

again she rose

to know   to weep   to reach   to gain   to shine

to sweat   to bear   to grow   to judge   to learn

again she rose

to sow   to reap   to sing   to reign   to find

to laugh   to come   to run   to fly   to burn

with life unto herself withal in full

to be again

the living earth we dream of in our hearts.

How and Why My Mother Was a Singer

from Before and After Letting Go, A Poememoir

I listened to my mother sing.
We didn’t sing together.
She heard me singing but I never felt
that she was listening.

Patsy Cline, Theresa Brewer, Connie
Stevens, Gwen Verdon, sometimes Lena Horn.
Never Mary Martin. Though we listened,
the songs sounded wrong for Mary Francis—
not enough sultry longing, too much pep.
I think the singers Mom aspired to
all smoked and drank before they sang,
not drunk
but if they’d had a drink they sounded best.

She sang in the corner of the kitchen.
Washing dishes or not, this was her place.
Her hips leaned in to the countertop
vibrato vibrated cupboard cups.
She sang there for reflection and acoustics;
a pane on either side, wide corner sill
two frames, a double arch, one faced the porch
the other open driveway and the street—
her stage looked out upon the neighborhood.
She’d hum and sing softly many places
around the house, the patio, the yard—
but only at that corner kitchen sink
would she let go and sing with all her voice.
No one ever said a word about it,
though we heard her up and down the block.
I still recall Sweet Dreams (of You).

But I remember Judy Garland first
because of Somewhere Over
the Rooney moony
Clang, Clang, Clang
of the Have Yourself
a Merry Little Easter Parade.

Later,
watching Judy, with my mom, in movies
where her characters would smoke and fret
and try to strut in sequined dresses, hips,
legs, and breasts in tight constraint, I saw
sad lines on her face and the way her eyes
did not match her mouth when she smiled
and came to know
that she was like my mom in more than voice.

Marilyn Monroe’s voice was nothing like
my mom’s contralto,
but there was Mom in her as well—red pout
of mouth, the need to please, yet so embarrassed
when she pleased herself—
It’s nothing! Something silly that I like!
Only later did I see when it was
shown to me by women in my life that
those black-n-white TV mother/women
only lived in their relationship to men.

I saw my mother try to be herself—
she read, she listened to music and danced
slowly, softly,
but only when she thought she was alone.
She sang.
I didn’t know what she was doing.
As a child, then a man (never that far
from one another) I could see things
only in relationship to my needs
she was not meeting.

When she didn’t show an interest in her
two grandchildren, I took offense. I mean,
these are your son’s children! Pay attention
to them! Adore them. Put away that book!
Give your time and thought to them alone!
Defer to me, your son, by making them
the center of this ending to your life.
Sing for them! How rude to do otherwise!
What life have you
that supersedes this obligation?
I’m sorry, Mom, I ever had these thoughts
but glad I never spoke of them to you.

Much later,
in assisted living she lived only
for herself—
still scheming toward the few men left alive,
but it was fun, just for her amusement,
echoes of what had once consumed her life.
The happiness I felt for her was healing
to us both, I hope, before the end.

Like other male toxins exiting
my body ’til I die, these oppressions
made me sick inside
but at the time the infection was still
virulent,
the symptoms—swollen hubris, bloated pride—
I celebrated in male rituals
of casual violence and humor.
I feel now the symptoms of shame—more like
ulcerative colitis, low-grade fever—
that rise when memories strike of being
part of this disease.
I take the purgatives of listening
and quiet reassessment of the heart.

Now I sing as if my mother hears me,
and hear her in my daughter’s lovely voice,
in records of the singers she admired,
in women who are not as silent now
as their mothers were, and in all of us
who sing in the kitchens, yards, and bedrooms
and in the streets of this American
sweet blue dream.

 

Breaking Silence

 

We rise to break the silence, open up

a cogent pattern in a mindless mist

uncaring for the human heart it feeds—

a medium that holds both oxygen

and virus, gentle rain and hurricane,

hail of destruction, calm and balm.

 

The stars roar with subatomic plasmic

explosions human ears will never know;

solar winds make no sound we can hear.

Silence is the ground, our voices figure.

 

First sounds: the sheering sheen of slapping waves

as mountains rose to pipe the quiet gale

through basso canyon walls and waterfalls;

the coloratura ring of reaching peaks;

the tenor of unending newborn sands

finding one another in multitudes

of dunes; the alto laughter of settling

silt sifting down into the leeward shade.

 

Then arose the reedy swells of slender

slips of cells fed on sunlight as they sliced

the silent breeze with life’s insistent force;

another then another, standing each

alone, extending their expressive genes

first in patches then in green expanses

that grew to thickets of life, ahum with

stubborn strength against wind that never stops

but that is silent without resistance.

 

Broken silence mends when we stop speaking.

It will not stay in pieces on the ground

but must be broken again and again.

We rise to break a silence that smoothers

us with indifference; silence, not a thing

itself, but preexisting condition

that will continue without the action

of our words. We break it with our voices,

(viruses and leaders notwithstanding)

the snapping hand, the strike of drum, the slap

of skin on skin, wet with sweat, wind taken

in with effort of our torsos and will;

a breath is drawn, then pressed from the canyons

of our lungs between narrow cataracts

of gorge and larynx, valleys of our tongues

through dover teeth and lips like worms that writhe,

alive to form the meaning of our voice.

 

What can we speak of if we do not see?

What do we see that can’t be spoken of?

Listen to the voices all around us,

though muffled they may be through frightened masks—

masks that were there all along but unseen;

eyes shut, both blind and sighted see alike;

the mask of silence mutes only our thoughts—

masks that ease the edge and cut of struggle

but cannot shut it down. Our masks will help

our voices blend, attenuate their clash,

and help us to forgive our human faults.

Masked, our voice intones a common accent,

a shared shape to our personal keening,

enfolds our angry shouts, and blends our grief.

 

Yet still I see your eyes. Uniquely yours,

they look to me to be the eyes of all;

your song, the voice of all, still singular

but dampened, intimate, reflective. Though

its laughter and weeping may sound the same

through generations, across seething seas

and silent land, this shape of air, these words,

have not been heard, nor even thought, since ere

the sky first moved across the face of Earth.

 

Fallowed and Becalmed

(with acknowledgements to Billie Holiday & Abel Meeropol, Jim Morrison, and Devo)

1

This fallowed field frames our time:

the structure of our soil redefined

untilled until the flood we know will come.

 

Well-worked before the blight

we test its tilth in silent streets

quiescent public spaces, empty slips.

 

But the abandonment is shallow

only surface-bare, the ships and buildings

bleed, so thick they are with life and longing.

 

Still we shelter in our cabins, becalmed:

the flesh retreats to salty sallow bones

of sickness and regret. In desperation

 

we borrow the youth of our children’s lives,

secretly reverse our parents’ mortgage,

and pawn grandparents’ legacy for booze.

All to justify the past.

The bill is due.

 

2

Ironic elect-ronic comics co-mix on the air

virus protection severed at the head

logic circuits shorted-out with hairspray

spurring minions on to armed denial:

Open up! Damn the data! Full speed ahead!

Yo! Gallows crooners! Sing to the rafters!

Appeal for more applause as trapdoors drop!

 

We sail away to reap unfallowed shores,

to use the heated tide to raise all boats,

but though flood waters rise, there is no wind.

Lulled, we pull from dinghies, coxswain hoarse

reshouting orders never understood

masks cover both his ears but not his mouth

weak wet breath fogs face shields as we row

we squint to read the signing hands behind

propaganda podia performers

reality stars spew unreality

The Situation stalks the Situation Room

he’s been elected Captain of the World

the Ship of State is in his grip of doom

the lemming-rats escape into their tombs

sailors in shallows schoon into reefs

pursuing loyalty not buoyancy

they kiss the ring of commander-in-thief

setting canvas as the virus rips our hull

while body-bags of new Strange Fruit are hanged

from the pure white yardarms of Good Ship Hope,

its red double-crosses spawning tent-morgues.

Embalmed.    Becalmed.    Fallowed.

 

3

Horse Latitudes breed coarse platitudes

still-birthed currents tiny monsters.

Flail or fallow further, dance or drown:

legs furiously pump the volume

cranking up confinement music

break on through to cardio panic:

Keep it going! Keep it up!

Pant! Fetch! Roll over! Play dead!

Get spiritual-minded!

Don’t let yourself and others down!

Don’t fallow idle! Teach the children!

Spur your hobbies! Make more art!

Up and download! Stream and binge!

Zoom around your partner’s screen

forget to clear your history

schedule make-up sex, forget your makeup

sext your landlord by mistake

pandemic virtue-news is fake relief

relive, retrieve your life in full

pass-time all the time

pass time    times past    time’s up.

 

4

Now the fever fills the lungs and shallow

intubated breathing clings to life.

We cultivate, we culturate

evacuate occult blood from our bowels

as all around us human tallow drips

and draws the sea-salt sorrow from our eyes.

 

Ground-fog rises to lowering sea-clouds

the vampire-mist brighter than the slate-sky

as dawn-light splits the air from darkened hills

grey rainbows wet the backs of starving cows:

the morning comes, yet no one wakes.

We sleep.    Becalmed.    Fallowed.

 

5

These naked fields will in time be fecund.

Weeds that we call crops will intercede.

Though oceans we pretend to sail are beckoned

to hollows in the earth to salt the seed

the earth below, slow burning, will explode.

 

Our culture is at work at home

the culture of the loam

the tunnels of the worms

the nematodes of joy

the nodes of nitro-fixing germs

we till to live we live until

untilled    becalmed    we fallow.

 

How will the callow children of this night

begin to find their hallows of delight?

 

 

The Virus This Time

 

This is how it looks

when nature strikes back:

not the power of wind

in fire or water

nor roiling temblors

lava tsunamis,

the earth not being alive

it cannot care,

but the smallest trace of life

arises filling our cells

with endless doppelgangers

robotic progeny

efficient entropy bursting forth

to cool the engine of our pride

in our medically induced

economic coma.

 

Viruses do not eat

they only reproduce

images like squeezy tension balls

knobs pop out and in

raping our cells.

Are they really pink?

Do viruses have souls?

reincarnated from? To?

Are they the reservoir of souls?

Interstellar cysts?

Or is it just too improbable

that they would not exist?

But they are us, we they:

we too have RNA,

and we make more for them

they do not care

cold biomachines

of death.

 

So shelter in place

without a place

days and nights unchanged

from former crises:

under bridges

cloverleaf encampments

sleepingbag bodegas

wash your hands

without clean water soap or sink

without.

Within the bodies of our siblings

on the streets

t-cells muster antibodies

to the cellular front

their bones and blood

the battlefield

in the breach for all of us

heard immunity?

 

Staggered entry to the food co-op

everyone polite

in six-foot isles people nod

a little bow

wide around the corners

a dance of distance:

You gonna go? Namaste.

Pirouette with shopping cart

just beyond arms reach

the air between us thick,

foreboding.

 

Plenty of food to be had

for cash or credit.

People’s Foodbank,

sewage backup, had to move.

St. Vinnies serving soup in paper cups

and bag lunch take-n-go,

sidewalk spaces being

cordoned off with chainlink—

got mask?

Can’t eat on the street

with a mask on your face.

Eat and shelter

in no place at all.

Stay strong be well

 

Finches Through a Window

 

The finches are back in the swamp maple

yellow sharp among the rusty ‘copters

Where do they go?

What do they know

 

looping in & out of its springy ‘do

grasping purchase on diagonal twigs

spy-eyeing what I only imagine

What do they see?

When will I see

beyond the frame?

 

I joined an online photo group this morning:

“What do you see

from your window?”

Pix from Portugal, moose in Norway snow

vineyards on Carolina’s outer banks

fall in Tasmania, Moscow sunset.

Where am I?

What do I know?

What do I see?

 

Spiderweb around the edge, a pasture

there beyond the lawn, the street, barbed wire

fence then ridge above the river willows

jagged line of redwood green on blue

for who? Where?

For you? There?

 

The one I know and love is here, her hum

throp-drop of the foot, her bobbin spins

the warm dry scent of heated fabric fills

the hall between us, pieces of her heart

snipped, stitched & quilted all for Linus kids

her offering to me upon the bed

below the window pane where finches fly.

Where else is there?

A billion billion places

not to be.

 

Yo! Spain! Like Hoyt Axton never been there

but you might like a distant redwood tree.

Romanians in the Carpathians!

Look! Here it’s the western edge of the world!

See egrets ply the wind among the fields

then count the snowy plover on the dunes

and pull the purple ice plant from the marsh!

Is this enough?

Within this frame?

 

In Capetown there’s a southern sea of hope

a friend in Rio pines for cool north wind

another caught in South America

struggles to return home to Murry Road.

Vermont may have the real sugar maples

but there are steelhead in the Batawot

across the field and redwoods on the ridge

swallows swoop and yellow finches frenzy

the day-bed’s made, the cider’s in the fridge

I hear a pause in her machinery

and we are here

behind the edge of dunes

beyond the web of frame

Humboldt County

time to shelter

safely in our own warm place.

Bovinity

 

In the muddy pasture at the end of the lane

black cows graze.

Tufts of fur brushstroke their backs

mud-manure cakes their sides

fresh-wet slurry down sturdy shanks

their modest beef-cow udders

lurking turgid in the dark between.

Their occupation of ripping

grass and vetch with a tearing crunch

of looking up to chew    to gaze    to drop

manure in flat splatter-piles

barely interrupted by my approach—

the nearest of the dozens raise their heads

and turn their massive necks

shifting cracked mud-scales

to level onyx eyes assessing me

still and steady a steamy breath

before without the faintest trace of thought

they swing their shining snouts back down to earth.

 

Egrets in a Pasture

 

gray on gray in morning

white on green at noon

glowing coral in the gloaming

gone by night

 

so many egrets in the pasture

now as winter nears feeding together

still    slow    steps

sudden spear staving hunger

indifferent in their scattered flock

swallowing frogs and gophers

or picking maggots from the dung

 

looking up I see the honkers rise

from the bottom to the dune

flapping wing to wing

each a unit of the whole

as in the other’s blind

jostle squawk scramble

the V taking shape then losing squadrons

coming apart at the turns

spawning smaller Ms and Ws

that surge and straighten to another V

 

but these stilted specters in the thistle

single flames atop impossible stems

do not seem to know each other

as if they are the same bird

each in a different part of its own life

then as I watch I see

that they are moving like the geese

aware without the fanfare of their place

but more the space between them as they graze

they take no heed of me

I think they know about the fence

a patch of safety for their quest

zoned and plotted not yet subdivided

plowed and fallowed remnant of a meadow

of which they do not know and would not care

a movement in the mud the pulsing prey

is all their flight-bred minds are focused on

but fly they will when darkness hides their chase

across the bottomland and bay

together mostly silent and alone

to light upon the boughs of home.

 

Wallet

 

If I don’t lose it

this is the last wallet I’ll ever have.

I’ve got it all lined out now, penciled in.

As the leather wears, so will I,

the rest of the way.

Broken in, life down pat,

just as it all wears away.

 

I remember the wallet I lost at fifteen.

It was like my dad’s—

shiny black calf’s leather for a birthday—

but Dad’s was old, buffed by wear

stretched and rounded by mysterious bulk.

Mine so light, was it in my pants or not?

 

It fell from the back pocket of my white

navy-style bellbottoms while I watched

a matinee at the Fox Fullerton.

I think the movie was The Happening

with the Supremes’ hit song of the same name.

 

I don’t remember what I had to keep

in a wallet when I was young and hapless.

I must have had some money now and then

from paper routes and mowing lawns.

 

I recall a picture of a girl

tucked away in there: the lingering whiff

of leather scent is sexual and warm.

I can see a face, hear a name and feel

the weekend afternoon, the tree we climbed,

the fort we dug in black suburban soil

but cannot reach the photo held so deep

in the slots and sections of the billfold.

 

So she and I, the matinee Supremes

their song the tree the fort the afternoon

my father, all will fall to crevasses,

the creases and wrinkles of red-grey time,

the convolutions of my dying brain.

Not only will my memory of her

be gone but I myself will not exist.

Someone else will get the wallet. It was

already dead.