“Our very life depends on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves.
Beginning precedes us, creates us. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning.
More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could."
John O’Donohue

8 March 2022

Pruning in Midwinter 

The way you care for a crepe myrtle
is to sever its arms at the elbows 
in February just as the hellebores rouse
and leave it standing
naked and mute and helpless
in the vast, frigid absence
of any sign of life. 

Like you, I am weary of the savagery 
of spiritual metaphors, 
much as I am weary
of the savagery of men. 
To call it 'pruning' is a cruel joke, 
but there is a subculture in nature
that flourishes through dismemberment. 

As a child, I hardly noticed 
the barkless, armless sentinels
lining the parkway medians, 
until they transfigured in late spring
into trees so heavy-laden 
with leaf and bloom
that they wept flowers
in even a faint breeze. 

The white ones were my favorite. 
When I should have been helping 
my grandmother load groceries in the car, 
I would stand on the curb, 
stretching to the nearest compliant branch
and shake the panicles loose, 
until I was englobed 
in a balmy June snowstorm
in the Kroger parking lot, 
transported for a moment
from a world that scans the landscape of winter
and sees only death. 

25 September 2021

 Muscadine Season 

I go to the vineyard at sunset
because I haven't decided yet
if this is a lament
or a love song. 
On the drive through the Alabama back roads, 
stray cotton littering the air,
the signs read, 
"Yes, we have ammo!" 
and "The blood of Jesus still works!"
And I can't stop the sharp flashes of shame, 
remembering how earlier this week
I joked to my class of Black preteens
that I must seem like a slavedriver,
hovering over them during algebra drills. 
A brief hiatus from poetry,
and it seems I've forgotten that words mean things. 
Seeing I am mortified, 
they laugh easily, generously, 
maybe because they trust me, 
definitely because we all know that
white people are ridiculous. 

But it is late September, 
the leaves are yellowing and letting go,
and the roadside stand
with a hand-scribbled sign announcing
the arrival of muscadine wine
has gone quiet for the evening. 
I am growing older by the moment. 
It's been years since making mistakes
has driven me to drink. 

In the solitude, car wheels on gravel
sound like a promise. 
When I was young, 
I was captivated by pain, 
imagining that it made me exceptional. 
Until I began to arrive here, again and again, 
with the fallen leaves spotted black with blight, 
after years of angry, drenching storms, 
learning that death is the logic of all things. 

They say it is more common than you think, 
how the grieving hear voices. 
At first, it's just the echoes of the no longer living, 
throat clearing, shuffling papers, 
an indistinct call from the other room. 
But soon the inanimate world--
if there is such a thing--
begins to speak
and all the rules must be rewritten. 

I kick away the sweetgum balls
and sit down to write here each year
as muscadine season wanes, 
because it shows me something about grief
that I didn't already know. 
This is not Napa. 
These vines don't just tell me what I want to hear. 
Their fruit dares to ripen, englobe
as the rest of the world goes dark. 

I approach them with my library voice. 
They have not been waiting. 
They already know what I came to say, 
that the chafe and hardening of their hulls
from the fierce sun and slow growth
only makes the jam richer. 

Next season, they say, we will both be older. 
Yes, there will be a next season. 
And yes, now we wild crones 
will watch each day as our vines
grow more entangled, more unruly
until the losing delivers us again
to this late harvest. 

24 November 2020


Never am I hungry as I am at 4am, 
shoved awake by the desperation
I stave off in daylight with words and housework. 
Waking, I set out a feast of intentions. 
At night, they come back to feed on me. 

Once I had a dream that turned out to be true
that a cat was being devoured by a demon outside my window. 
In the night version, the cat had wings it couldn't use--
or didn't--and shrieked like a subway train. 
The attacking beast was a shadow and a metaphor. 
In the morning and again that afternoon, 
I stepped over the bloodstain on the sidewalk. 
In the day's course, my son swore it was the chupacabra, 
and I heard thirdhand about the likelihood of coyotes
and the very distant chance of a mountain lion. 

Then, my dreams were radial and spacious, 
night-long affairs seeded with the probable
and quickly multiplying impossibilities 
until the clock ran out. 

Middle age dreams crowd closer to the truth--
the just-missed flight, 
a tree collapsing the roof of the car, 
my children going missing--
maybe because panic comes so easily now, 
maybe because we think we can subsist
on the bemused relief of waking to some other catastrophe. 

Perhaps old age will herald the return of the fanciful, 
will celebrate the languorous meal I have become
with the accumulated fat of menopause and worry. 
In the new dreams, as the metaphors gnaw toward my bones,
I will beat my ragged wings on the ground
to push up and survey the scene below, 
not much body left to speak of, 
and wonder at how delicious the burden of years has made me, 
at how the beast licks its lips and sighs, contented, 
before drifting off to sleep. 

8 August 2020

 Side Effects

The night I held the Pleiades in my hand, 
someone told me that eating the mushrooms
would make the meadow sparkle, 
but I might feel afraid. 
What he later said was soft and wild, I don't recall at all, 
but I remember the stars between my lifted fingers,

My son worries aloud that the meds
will change him into someone he won't recognize.
So we lie in the grass on a clear night. 
In these days when both intimacy
and the longing for it
are killing us off, 
I find that I am no better equipped
to judge six feet at a glance 
than I am six parsecs. 
As usual, the stars seem to know better, 
the distance between them
enough that they can rage for centuries 
and choke on their own nuclear smoke
and explode into bottomless hunger
without noticeable carnage. 
But still they have formed quarantine pods
to tell their stories of love and vanity and war
by the campfires. 

Once in a theology class, 
I learned that trying to describe God 
is like poking pinholes in a velvet curtain
to study the light behind it. 
You do get a little bit of the truth, 
and if you want to make it in academia, 
you are well-advised not to admit just how little it is. 

I begin to wonder if, when the good-hearted poets die, 
they are welcomed to Elysium
with a scroll of all the words
they didn't have time to learn to use
and all of the syntax of all of the lost languages, 
and a notebook thick enough for eternity. 
I hope it turns out to be true. 
I hope I turn out to be good-hearted. 

Abstraction soothes him, 
so he tells me in my left ear
that the composition of the night sky 
requires the presence of all light
and the absence of all light. 
I invite his anxiety to leaf out.
God knows I was afraid of everything when I was 15, 
and without Google, I hadn't even heard of prosopagnosia. 
Three whole people I know have died, one by one, 
each of the last three days, 
and he thinks surely that means something is coming. 
So, by way of reassurance, 
I tell him the Something is already here,
and always has been. 
And I tell him that when she died, the poet, 
I felt her brush past me, 
the way your shoulder brushes a pine tree
in the open-armed woods,
and that she knew the trail well enough, 
even in the dark,
and that she, for one, was content 
to be no more and no less 
than the scattered, touchable stars, 
one pinhole of infinitesimal infinity. 

12 March 2020

Poem for that time you said you don't understand half of the poems I read to you

What you should know, on the eve of quarantine,
is that poets really should live on their own planet
and send missives back to earth.
We need landscapes noisy with genetic novelty,
merciless juries to sentence the trite,
time to mourn the slaughtered lambs 
and the stillbirths.

I told you I'm not sure understanding is the point,
and I meant that under anything is not the point.
It's all surfacing.
In a poem, you can say only the minute at great length,
the profound in one broken clause,
the confessional in riddles,
and the obvious not at all.
You may not understand,
but you will try to picture it
if you trust me even a half measure,
and that is really the whole of the thing--
carving a new channel in the neocortex
and trust, which is the next best thing to love.

I will tell you the trade secret
that obliterates the whole enterprise,
but you have to swear not to repeat it.
Our best poems are never written exactly
but dictated onto the breathing surfaces of leaves
when the sunlight passes through them
and they have promised not to fall this season.

I don't write and rewrite, read and reread,
explain and avoid explaining these words for you
so that you can understand.
It is so I can hold you hostage for a little while,
here on this other earth,
where we can walk the long trails of doorways,
drink jasmine tea with cayenne,
and kiss like thinking grown-ups, 
like Sunday mornings spent reading in the park, 
the oak-lined pathways dappled with sun, 
the not yet halcyon days we were sure
would succumb to the asteroid
before we could see them.
It is a hope that you will think to yourself--
back home when there is nothing but steel sky
and the dull hum of compromise--

That was interesting.
I should try on some new words
and send her a note.

26 February 2020

Fog, Four Ways

This morning, the fog hung
so heavy and so close
that I didn't see the 100 feet of mangled guardrail
until it was running alongside me
like a hurricane crest that jumped the dune
and regretted it.

No rogue engined beast
could have twisted it that way,
like macabre ribbon.
Only the living
can do that kind of damage.

Fog is matter's purgatory--
liquid that wants to be air,
air that wants to be liquid--
the wandering progeny
of the distant mountains,
too busy with earth-breaking
to notice it's gone missing.

There was that day we found the Golden Gate
through the upright ocean of fog
so thick that when we pulled off to the overlook
that was not,
I couldn't see all of those things I wanted
that you were not.
We had to stand chest to chest
to see each other at all,
and that only ever goes one way.
You noticed my earrings
picking up impossible light from somewhere,
and for then that was close enough
to noticing me.

I had a dream last night that we were flying,
and I didn't know you,
and we got married.
Which all sounds very meaningful,
but it was Brooklyn,
and I was just there in real life,
so that likely doesn't mean much.
And while we were flying,
we were talking about how you
have to imagine that you're actually
just right above the ground,
because otherwise you'll be too afraid
to keep going.
And we were getting married
in a kind of storefront,
in a ceremony that cost $36,
which will probably just be
what I happen to have in my wallet
when I find it,
and there was a wait,
which isn't a metaphor for anything
I care to think about.
We weren't anxious,
and we wandered separate directions,
taking turns holding our place in line.
My dress was pretty,
but I didn't want to wear it forever,
and I didn't feel beautiful
the way I did that summer day in Chicago
wearing my first wedding dress,
cut off at the knees,
with turquoise studded cowgirl boots,
blissfully alone in pure sun.
But I knew soon we would be flying
to that spot in the woods
where the dress would come off,
where the pinestraw beds and ladyslippers
were waiting, ribboned in fog.
And surely we were happy,
and I was not troubled to not know you,
because I would come to. 

19 January 2020: Chattahoochee River

Growth Rings 

This morning, I sat on the edge of the Chattahoochee,
where I waded and prayed for turtles as a child. 

The damp sand on my feet reminded me
I can still count the 1,464 days,
a season of my life I have marked off
sometimes in sharp seconds,
now more often in epochs:
the dark age of torpor and tears,
the ice age of vodka and headrush chaos,
the gradual warming, an approximation of patience.

I saw myself on the east bank of the Jordan,
alone in company,
turning over prisms of metaphors
about silty baptisms, plastic bottles with portable blessings,
the tortoise-like armor of Israeli guards
across the tranquil flow of river. 

The next moment could so easily not have happened at all.
I was already home,
no more threatened than any other new soul
unschooled in the body's share of salt.
But I glanced back--
which is maybe to say
my eyes wandered from my work. 
And I saw myself being seen
by eyes dark as the soil
that will eventually welcome me as a feast.

I still cannot fault myself.
I still cannot imagine what sacrilege it would be to resist
being seen from crown to lips to heart to hunger to toes
in the space of a breath.

Sometimes love grows like bamboo--
fast and reckless,
taking burnished height as its due,
rigid and hollow.
The ancient sound it makes
when the wind passes through,
the startling crack when it is broken
echoing off unsympathetic stone.

Some say these reeds--
ground to pulp,
pressed into the invitation of paper--
could save us from slowly suffocating ourselves.
They may let us give these now tender oaks
the nobility of old age,
built in proud circles from inside out,
long after we have surrendered
by force or grace.