FOUR POEMS FOR ELIZABETH

FOUR POEMS FOR ELIZABETH

Feb. 1904–Sept. 1998

1.

You always made me tea.

The love and sorrow of your life

tangible in your kitchen

as sunlight through the windows:

your husband dead, your son, 

barn crumbled, pastures overgrown.

 

You carried the tray yourself. 

Slow, but I always get there.  

At the table you poured Earl Grey 

from the green pot into thin cups,

gave me homemade cake, a linen napkin.

 

Outside, daffodils and appletrees,

irises, roses, blew wild in tangled beds.

What’s the worst thing that can happen to me,

here, alone in this house?  I’ll die?

Your elegant French gesture of dismissal, 

the amusement in your eyes.

 

2.

One day I said had no time for tea

but you would not let me go:

 Nonsense!  No time! 

We stood by the sink, 

nibbled date cookies from a tin.

More;  they’re so good.  

I’ve been saving them for you.  

Have more.

 

The first stroke carried you back 

to the house by the lake

where you spent seventy summers.

You laughed from the hospital bed,

your eyes open to the sky. 

Waves shimmered through your ceiling.

Can you smell the water?

Can you hear the gulls?

 

When that last boat came to carry you away 

 you shrugged and smiled again.

Home or abroad, it doesn’t really matter.

There’s goodness everywhere I go.  

 

3.

The day you died, I was picking apples,  

snapping them easy off the trees.

Above the orchard, two ravens

and a red-tailed hawk spiraled

in a kettle of rising air 

and I heard your voice.  

Acceptance, you said, remember.

Remember, to every thing a season.  

 

When the harvest was over

I drove to your house alone.

Someone had raked the leaves from your garden, 

piled pumpkins on the wide stone step.

Under the rippled clouds

a ragged scatter of snow geese

so high I could barely hear their call.

 

4.

You’d had a sheepdog years ago

who woke you one November night.

Your husband got up to open the door,

saw the heavy falling snow.

That dog went up the hill to find the sheep.

We didn’t even know it was snowing.

She put them all in the barn, 

came in, lay down like nothing had happened

Why can’t people be like that?

Pay attention to things?

 

I don’t leave my friends,

I told you, but I did.

Somehow, with all the miles between,

I could not find a time.

 

We sat one afternoon 

in your cooky-scented kitchen,

looked out at the snow falling on your garden.

You began Frost’s poem about the crow

and the hemlock, and I joined in.

We laughted to know

we loved it best.

 

I would like one more cup of tea with you,

just one more.

 

 

(It’s been 20 years, and I still miss her.)

RALPH NADING HILL CONTEST WINNER, MARCH 31, 2004

TOTAL EECLIPSE OF THE SUN

Last year at this time, we were heading South. I wrote this description of the event when we returned.

 

A TOTAL EECLIPSE OF THE SUN

 

We drove to Virginia and picked up John’s sister, then drove on to North Carolina and put up in a hotel about three hours from totality, planning to get up early and drive south if the weather looked good. In the morning, reports indicated very little chance of clear skies in South Carolina, and perfectly clear skies where we were, so we opted for 100% chance of 96%.  With the blessing of the hotel clerk, John set up a sun-filtered scope in the courtyard of the inn, and we made our headquarters in the long hallway just inside. Staff people, who had seen John setting up, asked us if we were there for the “ee’-clipse.”  (We decided that we much prefer the southern pronunciation.) We said we were, and invited them to come back at 1:15, if they could, for a look.  And they came. We shared our ee-clipse glasses and John kept the scope aligned, and for the next hour people came and went and came back again to follow the progression of the moon across the sun. The manager stopped by and offered us coffee and told us that he’d studied astronomy in college. A few guests came out—one a remarkable woman whose blonde hair was piled on top of her head and decorated with plastic fruit. Two people told us that the last time there was an ee-clipse was when Jesus was crucified. We said, “Well, that’s interesting.” A young black chef who had joined us several times asked if it was okay if his mama, who had come to pick him up,  looked. “Of course,” we told him, and she joined us. She and I got to chatting after she had looked through the glasses and the scope. I found out that she was from Queens and had a sister in Poughkeepsie, near where my son and his family live. At the peak of the event, she and I agreed that the shadows were different; that the bright sunlight had changed. We were both wearing beige shirts and white caps. Her son stepped back from the scope and nudged me, then turned his head and said, “Sorry. I thought you were my mama.”  And I, a white woman in the country’s whitest state, without thinking, said the perfect thing:  “That’s okay. All of us mamas look alike.” He looked surprised for a minute, and then laughed, and nudged me again. One tall, elegant woman with silver hair stopped to look every time she passed through the hallway carrying a stack of linen, and every time, she jumped up and down and clapped her hands. Another woman, who had promised her husband that she would not look, even with eeclipse glasses, watched her and said, “I’ll just enjoy her happiness.”  After the moon started sliding away, people began thanking us and drifting away. John was packing the car, and I was in the hall, clearing the last of our things from the table, when the tall woman stopped by once more. “Thank you, honey,” she said. “Oh,” I said, “It was so much fun to share this with all of you.” And then she threw her arms around me and kissed my cheek. “I can’t wait to tell my grandkids about this,” she said. “I can’t wait to tell mine,” I said. Better than totality.

PASSAGE

PASSAGE

She went to the oracle

bringing an offering

of incense, a white pebble,

a drop of blood

on a leaf of thyme.

I am empty she said.

 

            Go deeper the oracle said.

 

But I’ve seen the crystals

growing from the floors

and ceilings, I’ve slipped

into the green waters filled 

with white salamanders

and blind fishes, 

I’ve touched the walls

covered with luminous worms

and spiders with legs

as long as my arms.

 

             Go deeper the oracle said.

 

I’ve been all the way in,

she said, all the way

to where the walls

are covered with paintings

of antlered men

and dancing women,

of suns and moons

and disembodied hands.

I’ve tripped over the bones 

of wild bulls and giant bears. 

 

             Go deeper the oracle said.

 

But there is no door, 

no passage, 

leading beyond that deepest cave. 

The only way left

is the way back out.

 

         Ah then, said the oracle.

         Ah.

OAK AND MAPLE and FOUR LITTLE POEMS

OAK

Drop your leaves for now.

Stand alone in the cold,

squirrels sheltering

in your hollows.

 

Under your feet,

forgotten acorns already

swell, each holding

your pattern encased.

 

Length of day, 

strength of sun, 

depth of rain, 

the air, 

 

the axe,

your future 

contingent 

on the world.

 

 

MAPLE

Sweet ladies in green, 

whispering secrets, 

flirting with birds, 

drawing sugar from the sky.

 

Bold ladies in scarlet, 

throwing their favors 

profligate to the winds, 

the soils, the streets.

 

Skeletons of ladies, 

cracking 

their knuckles 

in the night.

 

Generous ladies–

oh how generous!–

filling our mouths 

with blood made of light.

 

 

4 little poems

1.

You see what is there:

the dying trees.

What can the sun do?

The wind?

 

2.

Learn to worship dirt,

to worship water.

Under your feet is

every thing you need.

 

3.

Do not waste your mind

on the future.

All you have is seed

to plant today.

 

4.

At the end, abundance

of distinction. Like human

hands, no duplication.

Every loss a loss.

MEDITATION WITH ANIMALS

MEDITATION WITH ANIMALS

 

I set my coffee cup on the table, 

open the book for lectio divina.

I will not light the candle today

because the north wind blows through the window. 

The white cat creeps up onto the table

and asks to be in my lap. I comply. 

I open the book. The dog, who has been

asleep on the couch, looks out the window

and sees a rabbit in the yard. She screams

to go out. I set the cat down, cover

my cup with a saucer to keep the coffee

warm, replace the bookmark, and get up to

let the dog out. My husband, who had trouble 

sleeping last night, is still asleep on the

porch, so I guide the dog past him, silent. 

I hold the dog’s collar till I’m sure 

the rabbit has escaped through a holes in

the fence, and I let the dog go. She tears

around the yard. I return to my table 

and book, listening for the dog’s call to 

come in. The cat settles back on my lap. 

I read a sentence, and there is the bark. 

I do not cover my coffee this time, 

but go through the porch to the back door 

and let the dog in without waking my

husband. I give the dog her rawhide bone

dipped in peanut butter and return to 

the table, the cat, and the lukewarm 

coffee. I read another sentence.

STREET DANCE–and the process

I wrote this last year. The finished poem, if a poem is ever “finished” is the first one. It’s followed by the rough draft and various revisions.

 

STREET DANCE

We have not come so far;

we are so close to home—

our brains—those soft machines— 

still live in caves of bones. 

There are bears among the stones.

Everyone knows how to dance—

the woman twirling in her short skirt,

her partner in his green shirt,

those flirting girls, 

old people and their little dogs,

the children in their wild cavort.

 

 

how I got there:

 

STREET DANCE

At sunset, young animals 

make ephemeral alliances 

and run and run.

Human children here are doing that now

while adults dance, or watch,

or play in the band.

Everyone knows how to dance,

even the people sitting in the folding chairs

chatting, eating ice cream.

Mostly it works, 

what we do. Even though

we’re too far away.

We think we’re here, 

but our brains—

those soft machines—

still live in caves of bones.

A tiger behind every tree.

We need mates, enough space

to gather and hunt and defend.

Our children.

Bands of brothers. 

A powerful sisterhood.

Sharp memory of every fear.

The gods need room 

to speak to us—

they leave spaces in our skulls.

If the gods are gone

we fill the holes ourselves.

What will become of us—

these children in their wild cavort,

the woman twirling in her short skirt

and her partner in his green shirt,

those flirting girls, the old people

in their baseball hats, sitting

on the benches in front of the post office,

holding their little dogs 

or resting their hands on their canes.

July 17, 2017

 

STREET DANCE

Consider: our brains—those soft machines— 

still live in caves of bones. We need 

mates, children, enough space to gather and hunt. 

There are bears among the stones, panthers in the trees.

We remember every fear. The gods 

need room to speak to us.

If the gods are gone we fill the holes ourselves.

 

At sunset, young animals make ephemeral alliances 

and run and run. Human children 

are running together now while adults

dance, or watch, or play in the band.

Everyone knows how to dance,

even the people in the folding chairs

eating ice cream. Eating ice cream

is another way of dancing.

 

What will become of us—

the woman twirling in her short skirt,

her partner in his green shirt,

those flirting girls, the old people on the benches 

in front of the post office, holding their little dogs 

or resting their hands on their canes.

Our children in their wild cavort.

August 28, 2017

 

STREET DANCE

We have not come so far;

we are so close to home—

our brains—those soft machines— 

still live in caves of bones. 

There are bears among the stones.

Human children in their tribes

hunt across the green.

We all know how to dance—

the woman twirling in her short skirt,

her partner in his green shirt,

those flirting girls, 

old people holding little dogs 

or resting their hands on canes.

Young primates in their wild cavort.

undated  but with the comment: (Fairly soon, there will be no poem left.)

 

STREET DANCE

We have not come so far;

we are so close to home—

our brains—those soft machines— 

still live in caves of bones. 

 

STREET DANCE

We are so close to home—

our brains—those soft machines— 

still live in caves of bones. 

September 14