Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Struck Tree \ Black Salve

Alan: Getting to know each local tree and boulder is one of the satisfactions of living a long time in the same place.

The Struck Tree

“Take it down,” you said,
seeing the wild corkscrew wound
running to the roots, and the blasted top.

We had held on, that previous day,
through a storm so loud it was within us,
flashes and cracking faster than our frantic hearts,
and one sizzling jolt so close
we thought the house must smoke.

Now we looked and found,
down the slope a hundred feet, near the well,
one hackmatack among the scattered many,
wrecked.  “Take it down, it won’t live anyway.”

But other chores insisted, and a small
reluctance to cut a tree not yet a hazard,
so it stood.  And has stood this quarter century or more,

shorter now, and missing limbs;
the white, bleached scar forever resisting,
the scabbed seams forever reaching out
as if seeking some way back
to some prelapsarian wholeness:

this tortured, favored tree,
made newly green each spring, furred with fresh growth,
and in the fall green-gold and gold before the snows.

Still here, I say in passing, still here,
alive to every breeze and all the strokes of earth and heaven.
Still here, old friend, still here.

Note: This poem replaces “Crash Course,” which was originally posted on July 27, 2011 and posted a second time in error.

Nancy:  In the Depression, families were responsible for their own health care, even if that meant horse liniment and home-made ointments.  Like our family’s black salve, I expect most of these medicines came with stories, personal folklore, and enough mystery to make the process – ritual, really – unforgettable.

Black Salve

Like all good medicine, ours
was passed on; it was told and retold;
it had its roots in mystery and shadowy healers,
and it came to us as a gift.

Like all good medicine, ours
had a keeper; my grandmother was the one
who gathered together the mystery,
and this is mostly her story, this medicine story.

Granny called me to begin the ritual.  Getting
clean jars and lining them up in rows
was my part of the ritual.  Folding and unfolding
papers, aromatic mysteries, was my part of the ritual.

Granny stoked the fire.  Granny emptied
the sweet, pungent, oily, powdered
contents of her bottles, cans, papers, jars
into the kettle.  Granny cut the stirring stick.

Granny stirred.  This part of the medicine was more homely
than mystery; all the women of my life knew stirring
and testing.  I knew jam before I knew multiplication,
the pull of it in the pot, the slide of it on the spoon.

Granny talked.  She talked me back to the wilderness.
She built my family out of a clearing in the woods;
her grandfather was a child, she was a child, I was a child,
and all the while she talked, steam rose, steam with the sting of turpentine.

Granny’s story ended.  I should be, now, the keeper of the mystery.
I should tell the story of the falling tree, the broken bone;
I should mime the gratitude, the gift, the silent melting away
into the forest.  I should cut my own stick, and stir, and stir.

Black salve is my story now.  Even as everything changes, I remember
my part, the essence of my part: to take a gift, to pass it on.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Teaching What Happens \ Day Faces, Night Face

Alan: When I first met Nancy, over 40 years ago, she was known for doing things like taking her pocket knife and cutting the heads off of very ripe roadkill dogs, then tying them under the school bus for some budding young naturalist to take home to boil down for the skull.  Thus the following, which my friend, the poet Keith Emmons, helped me make better.

Teaching What Happens

Someone had to do it, she said.
Pick up dead things.
Teach children what happens;
after the stench
the beauty of bone.
People assumed she liked it
seeing the rolled bags and the knife.
One child said later
it was the animals spoke to us through the knife.
With their skins and teeth,
their feathers, their hair,
their claws of hair and horns of hair
they danced at the roadside
and fell, their hair in grass,
their eyes domes of cloud.
They were taken back without ornament.
Yet it had to be done, she felt.
It seemed it was through her
they learned to speak.

Nancy: The life around us may be amusing or may be unsettling.  But oh the early dawn face of the bat, clinging to the window screen, is so unlike ours.

Day Faces, Night Face


Peering out of a thicket of knees and elbows,
mantis turns her head, revealing a face so alien
I would be unable to imagine it, so alien
it surprises me again and again.


Sometimes toad backs himself into the ground
until he is all face, chin resting on long
fingers, eyes deeply gold, unblinking, and I
feel myself observed, I, would would be observer.


Nose, tongue, eye, ear, vibrissae, cat chases
squirrel, dog chases cat, their faces curve as
if laughing, and I laugh too, to see how like
they are to some half-hidden inner self.


Ah, bat, you on the other side of my window
screen, yours is the night face.  We may love
the bat, our friend the bat, for his sharp
teeth and convenient appetites, but I would rather
see a fox look back at me from a mirror.  Bat,
now, before dawn finds you, slip out of mind,
slip back into the dark shelter of the eaves.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Small Potatoes \ Dusk, New Moon

Alan: Each year’s garden starts in hope, ends in melancholy.  There’s always something that flourishes, but it’s hard not to mourn the failures.

Small Potatoes

Some years there are only
small potatoes.
Something about the seed,
too much rain early
or too little late.
Each April's planting
goes underground
with a little more effort
and ache.  Still, we weed
our few rows: Carolas,
Onaways, maybe Red Norlands,
and, in October, dig.
Small potatoes again
this year.  I stare
at the little piles
of white and yellow,
no reds at all, sort
out those big enough
to get a peeler on,
gather the others up,
as if collecting tiny hopes,
carry them to the compost,
give them to the mice and worms.

Nancy: Gray dusk steals the color, stills the cove, gathers around me, waiting in silence.

Dusk, New Moon

A woman carries water.
On the far shore of the bay
a raven calls once,
breaking the silence left by the thrush.
The hill slope fades;
the flowers go out, one by one,
the roses, goldenrod.
Gray the doorstep,
the meadow, gray
the spruce,
the bay.

A woman waits.
Her doorstep is a gray stone
in a gray sea,
where nothing moves, there are no ripples.
Then into the cove of night
swim the stars.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

How We Die Here \ Recycled Childhood

Alan:  The drownings of two young women this past summer (lines 2 and 3), which darkened a usually beautiful time of year, spilled for me into memories of so many other local deaths we can’t shake off, an ever-extendable list.

How We Die Here

Death by pulp truck.
Death by driving off the end of the road in the fog
where it becomes a boat ramp into the frigid bay.
Death by chainsaw.
Death by the forked tree that twists as it falls
or that snaps as it falls
and you a mile from help.
Death in the embrace of a tree at 2 a.m.,
the sharp curve catching you unawares.
Death by snowmobile missing the curve,
by ATV, motorcycle, pickup truck missing the curve.
Death by black ice.
Death by deer or bear stepping out on the road at dawn.
Death particularly by moose: nothing reflective, not even the eyes,
and the body on its stalks crushing you as it falls.
Death by the drag catching far below as you run against the tide,
the stern suddenly under, no time for the survival suit.
Death by the tide creeping round and behind you
as you dig for a few more clams at last light.
Death by honey-pot, quick-mud grabbing as you cross the flats alone.
Death by logs coming off the truck as it rounds the sharp curve,
or by logs backing off onto you as it starts up at the light:
death by unsecured load.
Death by the tractor tipping you off and falling on the too-steep cross-slope,
or by the auger that un-jams suddenly, your arm still in it, the PTO engaged.
Death by wood chipper.
Death by the known assailant, the spouse or ex-spouse
or ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend.
Death by your father in the murder-suicide that includes the kids.
Death by gun, alone in the woods out back, or in the next room
while the family gathers for Christmas dinner.
Death by the friend, the drinking buddy, the crazy out-of-nowhere argument.
Death by wearing white mittens when you go to check gunshots
near the back yard in deer season.
Death by sitting on a stump listening to the radio at the edge of the woods,
your uncle hunting.
Death by falling through the ice, your snowmobile still running
as you crawl toward the hole your friends just made
on the lake you thought you knew so well.
And death too common to think about: by cigarettes, by alcohol,
by drug overdose, by overweight, by wearing out in Winter, by cancer.
Ah yes.  We must not forget.
Death by cancer.
                                   Death by cancer.
                                                                    Death by cancer.
                                                                                                   Death by cancer.

Pulp truck: a truck used for hauling pulpwood or whole logs, often overloaded
ATV: all-terrain vehicle (“4-wheeler”)
Honey-pot: a hollow in the tidal substrate, covered and hidden by soft mud
PTO: power take-off; a device that transfers power from a tractor to other equipment

Nancy:  Growing up in the Depression, my first “grown up” underwear was made of a flour sack; our handkerchiefs were scraps of worn pillow cases which had been sheets; and my winter quilt was made of men’s jackets and trousers.  Very few girls failed to learn to sew a hem stitch, and I applied a lot of rickrack to hide the worn edges of my skirts.  Bacon fat became soap, and no jar went to waste.  In no way did we feel deprived by all this creative re-use.

Recycled Childhood

Now there’s a word for it,
a campaign, a commission, but hey,
we lived it; our soap
was grease (what we hadn’t eaten)
and lye, and I helped, wrapping
the new-cut bars in old bread wrappers
and carrying them to the attic to age.

We saved jars, put jelly in any old jar,
baked in coffee cans.  Granny put her black salve
in milk white glass pots that our neighbor
threw out.  Black salve!
Thick black salve spread with a match on a scrap
torn from a paper bag is what
a cold-cream jar means to me.

Black glassy cinders paved our drives,
our table scraps fed roses, sugar sacks
dried dishes.  My Mama would be amazed
at this sudden new trend – I wish she could see herself
leading us, in her turned hem, toward the future.