Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Guide To The Trees Of New England \ Lines Written In Illness

Nancy: In the shattered aftermath of an ice storm, the hackmatack assumes an elegance all unexpected.

A Guide To The Trees Of New England

The Elm:    chosen by patriots, a rallying point,
          also favored by poets, who use words like o’erarching.

The Oak:    another patriot tree, singled out no doubt
          for its connotations of sinewy strength.

The Maple:    valued for goodly shade, sweet sap,
          roadside glory.

The Sycamore:    so fine the roads went ‘round it.

Apples, Horse-chestnuts, also Catalpas:    domesticated
          to swings and backyard castles.

The Old Pines:    named patriarchs, groves of historic

The Spruce and Hemlock:    dark dignity, our formal guardians,
          required in suburbs.

The Junipers:    a regimental touch, often seen
          standing at attention.

The Balsam Fir:    for garlands, for wreaths, for green,
          for celebration.

The Birch:    once a naiad, now known to many
          as a lawn ornament.

What’s left for the Hackmatack but to be queen of adversity?
At dawn, in the eye of a winter hurricane, it wears all
the jewels of Opar.  The hackmatack accepts ice as its destiny
and wears it gracefully.  Hackmatack, Queen of Diamonds.

Alan:  Sick in bed, mind smaller than the skull, senses muffled but for the rush of blood in the ears, waiting, waiting...

Lines Written in Illness

Fevered, the mind drifts, helpless, in its shell
Like a dismasted boat within its round
Of blank and ever-shifting fog.  No sound
But the pulse and fizz of each passing swell;
No motion but the motion of the waves
Heavily rocking the water-heavy
Hull, and the inexorable levy
Of half-felt currents binding us, their slaves.
Will we hear at last the comforting bell
Clang at harbor mouth?  Or the terrifying
Groaner warning of the impending shoal?
Will we hear, will we hear its moaning tell
Our years as we sink, broken, cold, and dying?
It speaks not yet.  Endless, gray oceans roll.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Forcing The Thicket \ Pilgrimage

Nancy: The old trees, mine and those I can see from the roadside, marking long forgotten house sites, are succumbing to time and shade. Perhaps, here and there, a stump sprout or a seedling from some wild forgotten meal, still bears witness to the comings and goings of settlement, still reminds us we aren't the first.

Forcing The Thicket

The apples –
not wildlings – three, no, four –
the apples are leafless;
most of the fruit has fallen
(as it has for years),
What were they, Sheepnose,
Summer Rambo, Famuse?
Does it matter?
These trees have lost their names.
Now they belong to porcupine,
to deer,
to anyone who’ll force the thicket.

Their flesh is sharp, green;
it starts the saliva.
But to be shared as a sacrament,
they’ll do (remembering that they had,
once, names –
and were planted in hope).

Alan:  Many years ago, in London, I picked up a little paperback copy of Burton Watson’s translations  of  100 poems by the T’ang poet Han-shan.  I have been searching, in one way or another, for Cold Mountain ever since.

for Han-shan


It is not a state of mind,
these mud flats, scabbed worn woods –
nothing as jagged and cliff-like as your poems:
nothing to lead the imagination skyward through mist;
only the outward-flowing fog, sea-smoke
obscuring the ledges, islands:
a singular, ordinary coast.
Yet it is the mind that starts, here,
seeking Cold Mountain’s paths
along the shore, among the winter-fallen leaves
that trail further and further inland
away from this actual place, this actual sea.


Within a scrolled landscape
of inked strokes and washed space
I struggle, bent, the loaded basket
weighting my back, brim of my straw cone hat
almost brushing the steep ascending track.
Far above, unseen gibbons in unseen pines
ululate sorrowfully; below
the stream flashes in its rocky gorge.
Somewhere a heron fishes by smooth water
or flaps up ponderously over waves
of bambooed ridge.  Somewhere
the cataract spills, sojourners rest at an inn.
I am so small here: lost in another’s world.
If I should meet anyone, I will ask:
is this the way?  is this the way?  but already I know
it is not.


The Black Monahka lived at the foot of my road many years ago –
many years ago the Black Monahka’s shack fell down.
The people who knew this, the people who told me, are dead.
The Black Monahka lived alone and died alone, long ago.
Today the garbage truck turned in my road.
A bag of garbage fell off the truck as it turned –
the black plastic split open, spilling its garbage.
All the papery trash blew into the woods, into
the place where the Black Monahka lived all those years ago.


Laughing, he ran from the temple kitchen
with his friend Shih-te, shouting and pointing
at the scholar-official
who came to pay them homage.
Pursued into the hills
they disappeared in a cavern
that closed behind them forever,
leaving only the three hundred poems
on bark, rocks, the village walls
to be quickly gathered
like wild mushrooms after rain.
With me, it is the poems that swallow me up,
and here is your windy cave, shallow and empty,
except for a few old toadstools at the mouth.


I walk out under a blurred egg-moon
haloed in ice,
the sky striated,
the wind edging toward snow.
The lane is hard under my feet;
there is no give anywhere.
This is a hard place: a land,
not a landscape.
Even Han-shan might think twice
about staying here,
as you and I have now, foolishly, enduring
these twenty years.


For forty generations you have lived –
if you ever lived at all – in this verse:
these eights, these fives; parallels, allusions;
character by character the hidden, the revealed.
Even in my own thick tongue with its slack rhythms,
paltry tones, you speak, offering
the same world as ever of poignancy, delight.
Somewhere among green fissured crags you yet dwell.
Reading these lines, I think,
what of my own fine teachers
a thousand years hence?


When we first came here
I imagined some day
an old man and old woman
living harmlessly and quietly
apart from the world.
Little could I know
how surely the world would find us.
Our house had to grow legs
like Baba Yaga’s hut
to chicken-dance away from danger;
the garden can be rug-rolled
and hidden at a moment’s notice.
So it is that folks 
arrive to find only an owl and a crow
looking down very solemn
from a nearby tree.
In this manner we honor
through our various stratagems
the ways and teachings of the ancients.


I have tried for decades
to reach Cold Mountain
by every means I know
even though you say
I can never find it.
The closest I have come
is when, waking from a dark dream
to listen to the wind
I lie for a long time, eyes open
unsure of who I am
or where.


Ice fills the ditches, mottled, lumpy
under the coldest month of the year:
ditches that flow for a time and then stand parched
while we long for summer rain.
Ice rises on the bay in plates with a noise like animals
surfacing to breathe.
Ice forms, melts, reforms, holds the color
of evening, sloshes
at the edge of white or black water,
skins the low tide flats, marbles a line
on the shore at high.  Ice is everything now.
If Han-shan wants, he can find me here,
choosing a hot afternoon some August,
sky intense, tide flowing in.  We will plunge
our pale bodies in the sea and then
warm ourselves on the broad smooth rocks.
We will scoop up mud and shells,
scribble our nonsense on the stones,
watch it dry awhile and then be washed away.

“Forcing The Thicket” first appeared in Living On Salt And Stone (Stone Man Press, 1984)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On A White Day \ Corvids

Nancy: When "color" is defined as white and black and shades of gray, a cleft in the rock sheltering a streak of moss is astonishing in its brilliance.

On A White Day

With a brush and black ink
I might sketch the stepped ledge,
the frozen bay, even the spruce
that takes all the light into its dark hunger,
but could I ever risk that slash
of moss, the broken lip of rock
green green greenest green?

Alan: Sometimes poems write themselves in reaction.  This one did, to the lines quoted.

    for DLB
          “two flapping, hoarse malevolent shapes – ravens for sure –”

Crow wakes me, early.
Raven soars, stately, mocking the eagle.
Jay mimics the hawk, crashes invisible gates in the trees.

Raven inspects my work-in-progress, spring and fall.
Crow guards me, warning of owls.
Jay chides me for keeping cats; jay chivvies the dog.

Raven sings to me, secretly,
singing the Dharma
in the season when everyone sleeps.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Bare Bones \ Wild Geese Crying All Night

Nancy: Winter's here, and yet memory provides the colors of summer. Instant replay on the pages of my mind.

Bare Bones

Remember the lilies?  Over there?
Warm sunrise, gold, dusk?

And on the fence to the west – there –
remember the roses?

Never mind that the bay
is more nearly blued steel than blue sky,
that the sky is as sharp as knives.

Someday these bones will rise,
and dress themselves, and dance.

Yes, they have.
Someday they will.

Alan: In winter, on calm nights, we know the Canada geese are out there on the water in their scores and hundreds.  Not seen, no, but heard.

Wild Geese Crying All Night


All night, the music of wild geese
rises from spraddled, indeterminate bays,
casting the riddles of chill, woven, unseen tides:
antiphonal, convivial, conversational –
below the silent house, out over the back ridge,
through the comb of black trees –
ensembles, solos, choruses:
shawms and sackbuts in unhuman, ancient keys.


When Shantideva offers to the Buddhas
“the endlessly fascinating cry of wild geese,”
I see them on nights calm as this,
flying swiftly above the high peaks,
their voices quavering from 30,000 feet,
remembering in hollow bones the new grass.
I see them falling like late snow on milk-white glacial lakes.
I see them settling their wings, becoming ovoid,
floating, their heads tucked in, at rest.
I see them waiting to be born again.
I see them home.


It is so bright, we should all be outside on the snow,
looking up, straining to hear the miraculous, distant foghorn,
the hard, mute stars overhead,
feeling our bodies gathered, then lifted by the geese,
lifted and borne away on moonlight –
if only we knew the songs and the water’s songs –
towards Orion, his wavering sword,
and the farther attending spheres.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Enter Winter \ Walking In

Nancy: Suddenly, if not surprisingly, it arrives,  like the parade that you know is just up the road.  Some drama, some beauty, exciting until it wears out its welcome and we begin to count the minutes of returning light.

Enter Winter

with a sun turning, saying no
no, I’ll never leave you, tiptoeing
back up the hill

with a moon hanging sweet, yellow
as a plum in bare branches

with a tide flooding its sprills
and riffles through the poplar grove

with a proclamation: here
a small bird
black and white, is singing
a song of himself, here
in the scarlet brambles

Alan: For 12 years our road was impassible in winter.  From mid-December sometimes until the end of April, we’d walk, snowshoe, ski – whatever it took – dragging our groceries or clean laundry behind us on a sled.  No lights, no sound of traffic, just the land and water and the prayer of a small house at the end.

Walking In

Snow in our faces,
foghorn in our ears,
you a stiff child-shape
against the blank where the bay must be.

Fenceline, crazy leaners,
this is a long way in
for the bloodhounds of the snow.

The packed edge sliding away underfoot.
A tuft, here and there, dried spoor of autumn.

A rise, a slowing,
drift of spent wood smoke
from that hole in the sky
that must be home.