The Weight of Lilies

Each year, right about this time, I tell you that fall comes to the desert in begrudging ways, that the plants in the garden continue to thrive but seem to be in a place of transition, as unsure as I am about when the break between too hot and cool might actually occur. Our winter vegetables are in, but the rest of the garden’s chemical processes seem to be waiting–just as mine are–for the world to go dormant around them.

And each year I allow that the desert fights for every hour of its beloved heat. Fight or not, fall is when the world disappears, and the desert will finally have to give in and go. Experience, however, reminds us that the world always promises to return by spring.

My upcoming collection began as a study of disappearance. It’s a word I parsed in various ways as I decided whether it should even be used in a poem. Some told me it’s too much of an abstract notion, that it can’t be touched or held, that all it can do is provide its vague allegiance to emotional sorrow, which is also abstract. I decided to go with the vaguely powerful: that disappearance is a force of mystery, at times the one small thing we’re able to hold onto in our lives. “How do I prepare,” one of the collection’s poems asks at its final line, “for disappearance?”

Many of these poems were written during a period of upheaval in my life: my mother’s passing in 2011; my father’s sudden illness and eventual passing in 2014; and my brother’s cancer and passing seven months after my father. It was a heavy time, a lot of it spent on the road between Tucson and Phoenix in some sort of vain attempt at fixing that which was impossible to fix. Unlike fall time, there were no promised springs. This was disappearance as permanency.

The collection was originally titled, appropriately enough, Unusual Sorrows, because by October 2014 sorrow was the one constant emotion in my life. It had become a way of being. A practice.

Ah, but life moves, as does poetry along with it. There is hope, after all, and redemption, and love. Sorrow is like a hot rock inside me whose heat rises and falls, a necessity (as I’ve learned) that exists to remind me just how wild and alive and thriving I really can be and mostly am. At it’s apex, sorrow has a depth of being that allows me to love that much more deeply once it has gone dormant.

Themes, in poetry, rise and fall as well. The finished collection still contains its sorrow, but with time other themes emerged: hope, redemption, family and love. Perhaps readers of the collection will be as confused as our garden is now as it waits for winter. Perhaps not. Maybe sorrow, hope, redemption and love are too wide a spectrum for a singular collection of poems. But I don’t think so.

The title of the collection is and will be The Weight of Lilies, which I extracted from a poem for my mother in my first collection (I’ll add the full poem at the end of this post):

When it’s time,
I want to fall with the weight
of lilies, streaked in grace,

wide-eyed and thriving.

Each year I tell you that fall comes to the desert in begrudging ways. And each year, right about now, I watch the 10-day forecast a bit more closely, waiting for the break between too hot and cool to occur. The vegetables in the backyard are thriving, despite the last of this year’s heat, and tomorrow I’m leaving to visit my daughter in upstate New York.

Sorrow is, first and foremost, the way we repaint our souls. Ah, but that love thing . . . that’s the conquerer.

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Autopsis

For my mother

I.

In the geography of this world, I am barefoot in sand
with a cup of tea steeped in ritual ways, mixed

with cream that swirls amid the rich herbs to form
a favorite shade, an earthy tone of lean clay.

This morning’s wind trusses beach to ocean, ocean
to globe, globe to the tattered path we spin upon.

Still, today tides rise, crabs skittle across the beach,
a white mass floats in the sky that is not a moon

or a school of flying fish, but a flock of gulls that hovers
near a fisher’s fantail, beyond the waves

as equal to this morning as my tea. The surf blends
with sun, the horizon is gray, the angels perch like

pelicans on the rotted wood of docks. This morning,
the world is as hopeless as a poem.

II.

I have been to Lake Ladoga
near the Baltic Sea, where a fisherman
led me to his bucket of silvery smelt,
their pneumatic gills gasping
like piston engines in pinkish oil.

When beggar gypsies jumped upon
a subway train, I turned to read
the city maps, to sip more tea, to watch
the hooded babushkas inspect their
darkly rolled umbrellas.

Digression: Once, as we drank whiskey on a rooftop in Baltimore, I found myself counting stars that floated like packs of burnt balloons. That night, the sky spoke from between two clouds: there are only moments, it said, before bowing to whiskey and winter.

The Atlantic is still dark,
it burdens itself and moves,
and soon will turn plum-purple.

The gulls hover at the fantail,
as a crewman pitches baitfish
into the struggling sky,
and still they cry for more.

III.

Sometimes, a poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving
in a blue vase can be
a simple poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving.

When I was four, leaves fell
mid-air between branch and earth,
as did I, from the branch,
afraid to let go, to fall.

My mother came and said:
open wide your eyes and palms.

Sometimes, a poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving
in a blue vase can be
a prescription for grace.

I see the tired beach and fear
the fall. I think I may forget
to open wide my eyes and palms,

afraid of the angels perched
on rotted logs, the silvery smelt
sucking air, even the lilies
she bought in Amsterdam
when I was a boy.

The waves that round me
become the open eyes and palms,
the coastal beacons begging ships
to clear this craggy shore,

and when it’s time, I want
to let go into the crèche of leaves
below, to open wide
my eyes and palms. I want

to remember the prescription.

Sometimes, a poem of lilies
streaked in gold and thriving
in a blue vase is as graceful
as a mother’s quiet smile,

and as a last light dances
across the Atlantic’s dark face,
the sun narrows to its
final filament, faint and full.

Open wide your eyes and palms.

When it’s time,
I want to fall with the weight
of lilies, streaked in grace,

wide-eyed and thriving.

Unusual Sorrows, as Told by the Author

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake — Wallace Stevens

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 6.56.25 PMWhat do I do? That’s not a metaphysical question, although I do require that debate from time to time. In this case, I’m wondering about the ongoing dilemma I’m having with regard to my next poetry collection, currently titled Unusual Sorrows.

Many of the poems in the collection were written during a stressful period in my life, that pair of years when my father and brother were battling the illnesses that finally took them, just 10 months apart. But another rather large number of the poems came about not within that stress, but without it, and so the collection seems to me a little lopsided and confusing. Loss and disappearance, final days and happy days, all co-mingling in strange ways. Frankly, I’m not sure what to do.

Maybe the title is what makes the collection feel lopsided. I call it Unusual Sorrows in a sort of tongue-in-cheek manner, primarily because I’m certain there’s nothing at all unusual about sorrow, other than the fact that we each process that emotion in our own unique ways. Inside our little “feeling vacuums,” it’s a powerful place. Powerful enough, says me, to start to feel a little unusual.

But of course it’s not, of course sorrow is not at all unique.

Add to that the fact that, since my father passed in July, 2014, most poems I’ve written are related to meeting and marrying a wonderful woman. How is it, then, a number of uplifting poems might wind up in a collection of poetry whose title includes the word “sorrows”? I don’t know. Maybe a title change is in order.

For now, let me simply share one of the poems from the collection. I call this “Re-Inventing the Beer Can Lamp,” a poem that first appeared in Grey Sparrow Journal in the summer of 2013. I like this poem, and I like that it gets to my point regarding the sorrow dilemma.

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Re-Inventing the Beer-Can Lamp

For Carl

There was nothing more beautiful
than the lamp you built
when we were boys, two cans
stacked and glued, wires shimmied
through them, how you sanded
the pinewood base, routed
each edge like fine furniture,
and burnt your letters, C and D,
on its underside. But best was when
we covered it with a pair of red
bandanas, and our boyhood room
became a submarine,
the rest of the world mere fishes.

 

Over the River and Through the Bosque

IMG_9180

A Duck’s Head Cloud. Maybe.

I’ve fallen in love. With a bird.

To be more precise, I’ve fallen in love with a migratory waterfowl, the Sandhill Crane, after my wife and I visited the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge this Thanksgiving. The Bosque, as it’s more widely known (the word translates as “woods”in Spanish), is a series of now-manmade marshes that butt up against the Rio Grande River as it passes through central New Mexico, and is the stomping grounds for tens of thousands of migratory waterfowl during winter.

That’s right, bird fans: tens of thousands. A cursorial check of today’s bird counts on the Bosque, as provided by the Friends of the Bosque del Apache NWR, includes: 3,899 cranes, 9,269 ducks, 13,401 light geese, 245 water and shore birds and 210 Canada Geese. And if that’s not enough to overwhelm you, today there are, apparently, 60 raptors sailing somewhere overhead in the refuge: kestrels, hawks of all sorts, and eagles. On our tour, an American Bald Eagle posted himself upon the top branch of a dead tree in the center of one of the marshes. Delightful? Certainly. Ready-made amateur photographer’s dream come true? Absolutely.

In short (from a non-birder who nevertheless adores them), there were birds out the wazoo. But it was the cranes that lifted me, and the Sandhill Cranes specifically. Gray bodies, crimson pates, long necks and beaks. They stood about as tall as a yardstick, and when they flew into a nearby marsh–in groups known as “echelons”–their skinny legs dangled behind them in some secret form of untapped symmetry. They squawked right up to touchdown, and continued squawking among themselves, hopping up and down in what was surely their mating dances.

As I watched the cranes, I had that sense of collectiveness that I only rarely feel, the idea that our world is comprised of millions of causes and effects, where cause begets effect and new effect becomes new cause, until everything begins to relate to everything else in either large or small ways. I felt a sense of gratefulness as well, especially for those who recognized the need to recreate the Rio Grande’s wetlands during the depression. Dams and diversions there had weakened the river’s ability to support the birds, and numerous of the species who count on wintering there, including the Sandhill Cranes, would have suffered without us taking the time to fix the problem.

We returned to Tucson Sunday evening, but just west of Hatch, New Mexico, where we ate at Sparky’s and purchased our obligatory numbers of world-famous chiles, Deborah and I noticed a cloud formation that looked suspiciously like a duck’s head. Maybe it doesn’t, and maybe it does. Or maybe, after we had the privilege of watching so many beautiful beasts carrying on in their ancient migratory ways, we were just a little more in tune with the earth. And thereby, with ourselves.

I’ve so far failed in every attempt I’ve made to write one poem about the Sandhill Cranes. I suppose I should leave that to poets who do well with nature, like my friend Scott Edward Anderson (whose excellent collection, Fallow Field, I reviewed here several months ago).

Knowing me, I’ll keep trying. And, knowing me, I’ll enjoy each and every failed attempt. In the meantime, it’s probably time to consider when we’ll visit to the Bosque del Apache again.

r

The Passage of Time

2015 has been an amazing year, perhaps because I had a few successes with poems getting published.

IMG_6205Or perhaps it’s because I met an extraordinary woman and set about to convince her that damn near each and every one of my 175 pounds was worth her time, and once she was convinced I merged my household into hers and we toasted to our future, and whatever it holds, and to the fact that her house was now our home, to include the two dogs, three cats, a Zojurishi rice maker, a Fender Stratocaster, three drills, a chainsaw, and a set of strangely satisfying shot glasses adorned with the faces of former-Soviet premiers, then sat back smiling with her as we watched our friends and family members scratch their heads, sometimes militantly, as they tried to reconcile the speed with which we were moving, especially once we announced that we intended to marry, which we did, on July 24, my mother’s birthday (may she rest in peace).

The above is commonly referred to as a run-on sentence, and that’s how amazing 2015 has been.

But I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m calm enough now to let someone in, fully, a strong woman who accepts the entire thing and all its foibles, a person who gladly quadruples as best friend, confidante, advisor, and co-conspiratorial merry prankster, an ultra-kind and loving human being who believes in me just as much as I believe in her, someone who will gladly follow my dumb ass up to the roof during a full lunar eclipse–most likely out of curiosity alone–and isn’t too surprised when she sees that I’ve pre-positioned a bottle of wine beside a couple of blankets. Someone who was bold enough to dare me, early on, to “be intentional,” which I certainly was.

That’s a run-on sentence as well.

Or maybe it’s because these days, in those moments when I’m alone and listening to the birds squabble from the overhead lines, instead of enjoying the solitude I used to love I find myself waking her to suggest she join me, and then gladly and happily leaving her alone when she kindly informs me she needs a little more sleep.

None of us knows, not really, what it is we’re doing here. We think in terms of purpose, and from that we shoot off into 10,000 different directions. I now know my purpose, and for the first time in my life I’m enjoying the passage of time.

With my wife.

And that’s all that matters.

r

Begin Again

Dateline mid-town Tucson, written whilst watching the finches feed.

It gets confusing when I lapse between posts, and in the past I’ve managed to blame my laziness on the myriad life challenges that have confronted me. The issue with that excuse is, of course, we’re all confronted with issues. By design, the pace of American life tends to border on busy, if not frenetic, so please excuse all attempts at blaming lapses on the simple exercise of taking in air and then exhaling it. As an excuse, it’s a tad on the weak side.

I don’t like admitting that my life’s pace has distanced me from writing. In honesty, it feels like a small form of cowardice. On the other hand, there’s a great beauty in the admitting, and perhaps greater still in the return. What I’ll do, I think, is regroup, or as Wendell Berry writes in his beautiful poem, “Be Still in Haste,” I’m going to make the intentional attempt to “begin again.”

What better way is there to begin again by simply sharing Mr. Berry’s poem here. Internal footnote: if you don’t see another post from me for months, it wasn’t because I failed in this ideal; it’ll simply be because I required old Wendell’s advising once again. The idea that I can begin again each time I catch life getting in the way is worth paying attention to. My life has been, of late, hugely exciting. It’s time to start getting that excitement into words. For now, though, I’ll take a good breath and simply share Wendell Berry’s poem.

Be Still in Haste

How quietly I
begin again

from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over

so much time has
passed, and is equaled
by whatever
split-second is present

from this
moment this moment
is the first