Dirt. Just dirt.
Above the spare tire but below
the blower and its orange cord,
among pruning shears, dog treats
and bags of bone meal; beside the hula hoe
and the bottle holding emulsion of fishes,
its cap askew, dockside scent wafting over all,
somewhere in there IS a set of knee
pads: blue nylon, foam-filled,
velcroed fore and aft.
Queenly knee pads.
I could go get them.
Already these knees in less-than-denim,
in gray and blue striped once-pajama
bottoms nearly bare of thread,
already these knees have sunk
deep into loam, are cradled in cool
beneath this loropetalum,
among the spotted spurge.
weed: green growing where I did not intend,
and faster than it has a right to.
I could, this April afternoon—
it’s too warm, too almost-summer-three-
only by the wahwahwah
of the mow-and-blows downstreet—
I could and probably should climb
that pergola and snip brown heads
from Lady Banks’ rose but oh! the shade
beneath the loropetalum!
And the spurge, the dandelion and wild strawberry
crowding rudely the helleborus! quite
rudely and so I remain, slide wet knees
further between the branches.
No one can see me.
I pluck, toss each weedling onto the walk.
A red worm, freed from the walls of her self-made
tunnel, thrashes in air. I scoop a hollow
into last year’s leaf mold, drop her in.
A privet has trespassed—tall. I pull.
Its root mass, tough and too large
for its top, lets go
in a spray of soil and scent.
Dirt. Just dirt.
I press that root ball to my nostrils.
The old smell:
suddenly I am two, set down in the garden,
briefly unwatched, a private silent moment engaging
the scents of my world, aromas
yet unnamed as I cannot now name
layers in a bouquet of chocolate, or speak
of how this bar differs from those,
except that it does, and all
Loam. Soil. Earth. Marl. Glebe. Alluvium.
Once rock. Before that, molten
rivers far below what was not yet our feet;
before, free atoms
in the hearts of stars.
Whump! A car door.
My client has returned. She’ll see
boot soles protruding from the shrubbery,
green piles on the walk and know
I am doing something horticultural
She will not see
the dirt on my nose.
And so, says my friend, this friend of a friend of a friend buys a cactus,
and in her living room this cactus starts to shake and shimmy
and generally carry on, so she calls the nursery people
who call the grower who calls UC Santa Cruz and behold the botanist says
“get thee out of the house” and they do and the cactus explodes
and sprays infant scorpions all over the draperies
and the shag carpet. That’s what she said, my friend.
—from an urban legend
Sleeping in the Desert
I might, on entering even a stranger’s house,
infer her family from the shoes by the door,
from the layered scents of years of coffee
and shampoos, of smoke or its absence;
might by noting the magazines, the wallpaper and the china,
hear its voices, the cadence and idioms.
I do not know you this well.
Your night: its rustlings and callings,
its movements sending ripples across my blue nylon—
I shrink into my center, zippered tight.
Your daylight: touching nothing but my stove,
water jug, coffee, mug, I watch for snakes and ants,
wrap pants close, tuck into socks,
eye with suspicion your great saguaro
which could explode at any moment.
The Desert Fathers lived in your places,
not because God abides here rather than there,
but because here is where God may be heard.
I’ll sleep for the nonce on your playa
on my way from there to here,
but I could pause my journey, stay on
while your weathers turn full circle;
listen to the secrets of lizards,
seek the Divine among the yucca.
One day I’d know you well enough:
my bare feet would part the waves
of biting ants, fingers would know from the faint humming
which rock hides the scorpion, I’d know how
to scoop the sand just so, so water rises
to my searching lips.
I will know you well enough—
snakes will make bracelets
around wrists and ankles, scorpions
will ride my toes.
I won’t be afraid.
Barking all Night
the stranger bark, those hounds—
nip the heels, send trespassers flying;
yip the yip of a trodden tail,
or a welcome:
where the woof have you been all day!?
They’ll bark all those, they will—we will—
and wag as well.
But then, oh yes then,
one day comes the long bark, all night
the long bark: baying, savoring
the rumble in the throat, the chest.
The long bark, lord save us all
from barking the long bark, from giving voice across
the winter-bare fields, in vacant rooms, all night,
barking all night because
the road is empty
and there’s nothing else to do.
smooth, so solid, so smooth.
We’d put in at the boat ramp,
not at the grocer’s dock, though that was closer,
paved lot shaved smooth. We put in at the ramp,
and not that our boat or any boat
was going out that day—lake ice thick,
two feet or three, shore to shore.
its gravel lot was full of snow.
The dog, first out the door, peed steaming yellow
and flung herself from drift to drift.
Full of snow, and easy, the ramp slick and easy,
easy, and so our toboggan load of weekend kindling
and charcoal, of romaine and olives—the olive oil
already in the cabin and clouded with cold—
of milk and steaks and onions,
of red wine and dog kibble slid
like hot butter down to the lake.
We were new.
The toboggan was red, its poly ropes
yellow, and we took turns pulling. The wind!
In the middle, ice was bare and clear—we lay down,
pressed our noses to it, looked for fish
or something, and marveled that we
walked on water.
Two days, three, solid to the touch:
fire and wine, no sign of melt to come.
But we, freshmen to this country,
did not know its seasons.
The Body Speaks,
no need to be told how. Infant body
carves learning deeper into cells. Grown body
speaks without speaking:
the crossed arms, the open arms
the arms akimbo,
the crossed legs, the tapping
foot, the swinging foot,
the shrug, the shaken finger,
The smile and the frown,
the head—the nod “yes,” the shake “no.”
The shake from side to side, slight rocking:
“Maybe, but probably not.”
The innocent body knows its own dance,
the glossary of Home, knows not
of knowing only one until waking
one day in Kathmandu.
He shook his head.
“Yes” he’d said, but I heard “no”
and walked away . . .
Pine, Passing Through
Bark-rough arms spiral upward, resin grabs
at sneakered feet. Gods of air
wait at the top—chickadees scatter
at my clattering ascent, little sisters
chatter in the lower branches.
Below, granite mounds and between them
poor patches of oats and milkweed, scent of gasoline,
the balky tractors and muffled shouts
of the ones who’ve always lived here—
the sons and fathers, their hay,
the neat squared bales. Their radio—Tammy
stands by her man.
Also below, our rented house—
our family flock perched lightly
between these fields,
brief neighbors to Holsteins, horses.
I brush away needles and the offerings
of birds, part branches till I see
the great Saint Lawrence; blue Canada
fills the North beyond the silver Seaway.
In time I will descend my perch
and move on to that very same Canada,
but not today.
The makers of hay may stay as fathers did,
or not; may also move along when hay
is not enough, milk is not enough,
when sons and daughters say, “enough”,
but not today.
Today, the sun will set, as it does,
motors will clatter to a stop, cows
will head home without being called.
The sisters and the sons, the fathers,
will wash our sticky hands in well water,
will put our feet beneath the mothers’ tables.
My sister went back last summer.
The pine was still there.
She didn’t climb it.
Butter passed, potatoes passed,
and peas; the roast, salad;
the talk—casting lines downstream
into the river we’ve named our past.
“I remember this,” and tell the tale.
What I tell—
its coinage, color and shape, tone
and time of happening—
has no importance. Consider it only one
of a thousand moments-of-family
played out in every place and time, of no importance
except that I‘ve remembered and brought it
shyly to our late-in-life table.
“No, I never did that.”
“She never did that.”
“You dreamed it.”
“Never. Oh, no no.”
I could doubt myself,
call myself forgetful, blurry of mind,
claim mistake and cast the recollection
back into the family river,
I do remember, it did happen, did.
I step back, silent,
hold the fragile droplet close—
I know you, I was there—
and guard it, as with open palm
I would guard a candle’s flame
from the gusts of unknowing winds.
Jacks, a game…
The setting is southern Michigan, a tornado alley, at the height—or the depths —of the Cold War . . . the numbers and fanciful expresssions are part of the Game.
Onesies, twosies, threesies.
Ten metal stars, red ball—the game
no grown-up knows—the secret game
girls teach to girls.
Foursies, fivesies, sixsies.
I never saw a boy with jacks, not ever.
Sevensies, eightsies, ninesies,
A smooth floor, a cee-ment floor,
all we need. Sandy’s porch—red-painted
and cool, red-painted and flaking.
We pick at those flakes between turns,
pick idly, no grown-up to stop us
Who will begin? flip hands
backs to fronts, jacks atop, catching,
catching—who stumbles first goes second,
We are matched—back to front,
front to back till I slip, jacks tinkle.
Onesies—toss and throw, bounce,
scoop up one jack, two, three,
catch the ball before the second bounce, easy
easy that’s why “babies”, that easy,
but even so Sandy fumbles threesies.
far enough from Motown to hear only
the whistles at nine, at noon, at five—
nothing happens now, here: mothers and children
alone in this curl of new and shadeless streets,
seeking basements and the north sides of houses.
Our little-girl legs in cotton shorts
stick fast to cee-ment porches,
shift to find the cool spots.
I drop on foursies.
At five, a whistle will blow,
at five thirty fathers’ Fords and Jimmies
will turn into driveways up and down the street.
We will be called, at five.
Carts before horses. Kisses.
At one, at two, mothers are indoors
with infants; mine naps with our twins.
The house rule is: silence after lunch
and so jacks are at Sandy’s, Sandy the youngest
whose mother does not nap.
Pigs in a pen.
Sandy scoops her sixsies.
I lie down, sight along the outside edge,
a straight line of porches west down Miami Lane
to the corner of Cloverlawn, all our houses
hatched from the same architect’s egg,
all our houses new, so new only aquas, pinks, lime greens
set us apart. New, new—only this summer
are the squares of once-mud in front yards
spiky with new green we may not play upon;
infant lawns seeded in April
by fathers dragging rakes across topsoil,
by fathers misting daily till gray seeds split.
Sevensies, hers. At the street’s other end,
the swamp remains swamp despite attempts
to drain, to make sewers and streets, sidewalks;
this swamp the only green in our world,
the only wild in our world,
where we may not go.
Around the world.
This humming afternoon . . . we are old enough
to know what lies beneath its simple surface
as we know what lurks beneath the bed
and in the dark of stairs.
Cochlea vibrating, fine hairs
inside our ears quiver and we listen.
Balls bounce and eights give way to nines—
we listen, as children of other times and places
listen in the midst of games
for the sound of guns, of rotors. Our listening:
for the first low notes as air raid sirens
wind up to full voice, the call to duck-and-cover.
Double around the world.
And, flickering beneath lashes,
our macula—alert for the drop in light,
the shift from blue to gray to black,
the mammiformed sky—
and us scooping up tensies, alert to the southwest,
waiting for the downward-pointing finger,
the funnel cloud
that will scatter our game.
Our Moon, Reunion
Days and nights we walked your garden—
spent petals of camellia softened our steps.
Our moon fell and rose, our shadows
on your perfect stucco walls; our arms
fell and rose in cadence with our words,
the perfect rhythm of our words. Their brimming pools
flooded the parched years of our silence.
When we parted, I took a stone.
My own garden, your stone warm in my hand.
A blossom falls, finished,
and wrapped in its pink heart,
one of your words.
Gardenia, saucer full beneath its pot;
I tip the water out. What spatters on the flags
is the joke you told. Our moon rises—I hear again
the story of your dream.
The Red Hour
Not an hour, not truly—not even half.
In fact, she nearly missed the whole show
by turning seaward,
entranced by that westering sun
just sliding beneath the water;
nearly missed red, hoping
to catch the green flash they talk about.
The Red Hour, not an hour though the earth
does stop for a breath or two,
stops while the eucalyptus grove
on the other side of the coast road
turns that Maxfield red,
that copper-filled gold
so loved when Art was still Nouveau;
stops while that red sweeps silently
from trunk to tops and grays
And she would have missed red,
but for a noise from the road behind her—
a shout, the slam of a car door—
a suddenness that turned her face, frowning,
to the east.
And there it was…