earthweal weekly challenge: SACRED GLIMMERS

 

Just 51 years old in 1926, Ranier Maria Rilke’s major work was behind him, following the 1923 publication of his Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. He suffered weariness, abdominal pain and ulcers of the mouth, faint signs of the leukemia that would kill in in late 1926. In the Rilke myth, the diagnosis would not come until one day when he was to be visited at his (loaned) chalet in Muzot, Switzerland, by Nimet Eloui, an Egyptian beauty who was even more renowned for her probing intellect. Rilke was gathering some roses from his garden in honor of the visit in early October when a thorn pricked his hand. The wound worsened, became infected, and soon his entire arm was swollen with sepsis. He recovered somewhat, but the leukemia at last had been discovered. He died shortly after, at the end of December.

As death approached, Rilke composed his epitaph:

rose, o pure contradiction, desire
to be no one’s sleep beneath so many lids

The pure contradiction: It’s how poetry arises, the thing of heaven on earth. In the droll and ordinary and fallen — our leaden existence — the artist creates gold.

It’s a tall order, these days. Much of  the Northern Hemisphere is suffering an infernal summer, with temperature records breaking daily in China, the United States and Europe. On its hottest-ever day of 40C, 10 grass fires burned around London, igniting suburban homes. The heat has claimed 1,700 lives in Portugal and Spain. A heatstroke monitor by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Health Emergency Center showed that for the first six months of this year, the number of people who had heat stroke increased by 42.2 percent compared with the average level of the previous two years. The roof of the Forbidden City Cultural Relics Museum in the city of Chongquing recently melted in the heat.

More than 84% of Texas (in the U.S.) is in severe or worse drought conditions, the highest percentage in over a decade. It’s so dry in Fort Worth that the ground is shifting, causing a rash of water main breaks. Tulsa, Oklahoma, hasn’t recorded a daily high temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37C) in 10 days. On Tuesday, for the first time in 25 years of collecting air temperature data, all 120 stations of the Oklahoma Mesonet recorded temperatures of 103 or higher.

Combine all this with high energy prices and rising inflation due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the tenor of the time edges dangerously towards a shriek.

Recent research suggests that the asymmetric pattern of warming underway (with polar regions warming faster than middle latitudes) is altering the pattern of the summer jet stream. The growing pattern is one of high-amplitude meanders of stream, leading to persistent high and low pressure centers associated with extreme heat, drought, wildfire and extreme flooding. (Welcome to tipping points now in the rear-view mirror.)

And for anyone pining for relief, remember that we’ve yet to pass through the wall of wildfire and hurricane before our autumnals commence.

All this, we are repeatedly told (most recently by the latest IPCC report), is just a hot glimmer of things to come.

Oh well. For our friends in the Southern Hemisphere, we hope you are enjoying the respite. (How stark the contrast grows between summer and winter. Many now experience the onset of seasonal dread as summer rolls around.

Sherry’s IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS challenge last week produced as much energetic commentary as poetry, a sign that Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene landscapes evoked a raw nerve. It is so a painful to see how vast these vistas ruined by human hands have become. The changes are ramping up far more quickly than we believed and will be with us far, far longer than any of us can imagine.

Our fraught awareness of this makes the central dynamic of earthweal between grief and hope a difficult one to sustain. Like our summers and winters, grief waxes and hope ebbs.

Perhaps it is a good time to address this perilous imbalance with this poem by Rilke, written a few years before the poet’s death.

AS ONCE THE WINGED ENERGY OF DELIGHT

Muzot, mid-February 1924

As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood’s dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.

Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.

To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.

Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions…For the god
wants to know himself in you.

(transl. Stephen Mitchell)

At the time of this poem, Europe was struggling up from the vast destruction of the Great War, trying to figure out if a future remained. He was aware that his greatest work of “passing through the harshest danger” lie ahead. But how to achieve that? He was humble enough realize that it was a “bright and purely granted” thing, “being swept along” by events “is not enough.”

His solution? Become the bridge which makes possible a deified awareness. I think of him taking his grief and hope and placing them on either side of an impossibility, so that we might behold the sacred glimmers of transformation.

 

Another poem I take for this is Mary Oliver’s “Foxes in Winter,” from House of Light (1990):

Every night in the moonlight the foxes come down the hill
to gnaw on the bones of birds. I never said
nature wasn’t cruel. Once, in a city as hot as these woods
are cold, I met a boy with a broken face. To stay
alive, he was a beggar. Also, in the night, a thief.
And there are birds in his country that look like rainbows—
if he could have caught them, he would have
torn off their feathers and put their bodies into
his own. The foxes are hungry, who could blame them
for what they do? I never said
we weren’t sunk in glittering nature, until we are able
to become something else. As for the boy, it’s simple.
He had nothing, not even a bird. All night the pines
are so cold their branches crack. All night the snow falls
softly down. Then it shines like a field
of white flowers. Then it tightens.

In my reading, the sacred glimmers aren’t revealed when snow “shines like a field of like white flowers”; rather, they come later, after and because “it tightens.” We’re sunk in this shattered, glorious majesty. How are we to sing of that magnitude, its failure?

 

 

I’m retiring this Friday from a 45-year career of warehousing someone else’s goods and selling their soap. It’s provided well enough; I can retire at the age of 65, bolstered by Social Security and Medicare and supported by pensions and savings. Yet I feel it’s an accomplishment of time, not talent; my labors strengthened a company’s bottom line for some while, until the inevitable came to pass. I did some creative things, made this or that, spent an infinity hunched over a computer moving things around on a screen – numbers, text boxes, photos, layouts, Web pages, naughty nudies, mindless diversions. Now that the necessity of it passes (I will freelance, do this and that, but unless circumstances change there will be no more careering someone else’s careen, I wonder what achievement it represents, if any.

Jack Gilbert grew up in the industrial city of Pittsburgh, and the raw steel of its foundries gave him a scale to understand magnitude:

SEARCHING FOR PITTSBURGH

Jack Gilbert

The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.
Trying to escape the mildness of our violent world.
Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where we played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning the Earth.
Locomotives driving through the cold rain,
lordly and bestial in their strength. Massive water
flowing morning and night throughout a city
girded with ninety bridges. Sumptuous-shouldered,
sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable.
All grip and flood, mighty sucking and deep-rooted grace.
A city of brick and tired wood. Ox and sovereign spirit.
Primitive Pittsburgh. Winter month after month telling
of death. The beauty forcing us as much as harshness.
Our spirits forged in that wilderness, our minds forged
by the heart. Making together a consequence of America.
The fox watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again.
In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont. On Greek islands
with their fields of stone. In beds with women, sometimes,
amid their gentleness. Now the fox will live in our ruined
house. My tomatoes grow ripe among weeds and the sound
of water. In this happy place my serious heart has made.

— From The Great Fires (1994)

Likewise, a consequence I carry with me, even if it was an overwhelming failure:  the magnitude of 100-ton press bays roaring out 300,000 daily newspapers every night, the rumble which echoes in my dreams where I walk through warehouses and offices I worked in my career, all gone now and dead, like the huge bay which sits silent and empty, the presses shut down, sold, disassembled and freighted to smaller opportunities elsewhere. Whatever news there was has become a silent, silted, fleeting ghost, no longer even white noise. Yet something leads me through those rooms, a tiny gold flame pacing slowly along, bidding me to look back and behold.

I am that contradiction.

 

Lammas approaches, the prechristian old European summer festival of harvest. As Sarah Connor wrote for this forum last year, harvest is a term with many meanings and amplifications:

The actual harvest of grain, the production of food and seed for next year; but also how our wishes, dreams, plans have ripened. The things that have given us a sense of achievement, the things that turn out to be rungs on a ladder to something new. The experiences we have transformed through our own personal water, yeast and time. Of course, we are not the only creatures who gather harvest – squirrels create food stashes, bears prepare for winter. Corn, barley, wild grass – they all sacrifice themselves to plant the seeds of the next generation.

We reap what we sow, and we sow what we reap.

I like to think there are glitters along the scythe-blade of harvest, poised between fullness and the fall. Sacred gleams. For this week’s challenge, look for the sacred glimmers hidden in the contradictions of our time. 

Happy gleaming!

— Brendan

 

 

A CERTAIN KIND OF EDEN

Kay Ryan

It seems like you could, but
you can’t go back and pull
the roots and runners and replant.
It’s all too deep for that.
You’ve overprized intention,
have mistaken any bent you’re given
for control. You thought you chose
the bean and chose the soil.
You even thought you abandoned
one or two gardens. But those things
keep growing where we put them—
if we put them at all.
A certain kind of Eden holds us thrall.
Even the one vine that tendrils out alone
in time turns on its own impulse,
twisting back down its upward course
a strong and then a stronger rope,
the greenest saddest strongest
kind of hope.

— from Flamingo Watching, 1994

 

THE LIGHTKEEPER

Carolyn Forché

A night without ships. Foghorns called into walled cloud, and you
still alive, drawn to the light as if it were a fire kept by monks,
darkness once crusted with stars, but now death-dark as you sail inward.
Through wild gorse and sea wrack, through heather and torn wool
you ran, pulling me by the hand, so I might see this for once in my life:
the spin and spin of light, the whirring of it, light in search of the lost,
there since the era of fire, era of candles and hollow-wick lamps,
whale oil and solid wick, colza and lard, kerosene and carbide,
the signal fires lighted on this perilous coast in the Tower of Hook.
You say to me stay awake, be like the lensmaker who died with his
lungs full of glass, be the yew in blossom when bees swarm, be
their amber cathedral and even the ghosts of Cistercians will be kind to you.
In a certain light as after rain, in pearled clouds or the water beyond,
seen or sensed water, sea or lake, you would stop still and gaze out
for a long time. Also when fireflies opened and closed in the pines,
and a star appeared, our only heaven. You taught me to live like this.
That after death it would be as it was before we were born. Nothing
to be afraid. Nothing but happiness as unbearable as the dread
from which it comes. Go toward the light always, be without ships.

— from In The Lateness of the World, 2020

earthweal weekly challenge: IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS


by Sherry Marr

All images © Edward Burtynsky, All Rights Reserved
Used with permission

Since 1980, around the time I became aware of climate change, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky began taking photos illustrating the impact humans are having on earth. In his 40-year study, his obvious takeaway is that “Human expansion has a casualty – the natural world.” This is not news to us. But I remember, in 1980, when I began studying with futurist Bill Floyd at Okanagan College, he had to close the classroom doors to teach us, because a lot of people considered him crazy, back then, an outlier. My family scoffed at anything I said about what I was learning. “Resources are endless. We will never run out. That’s ridiculous. There are millions of trees.” Etc.

Turns out everything he taught was true. The only difference is it didn’t happen as fast as he thought it would.

Pennsylvania USA 2008

At his website, edwardburtynsky.com, Burtynsky states, “Nature transformed by industry is the theme of my work. These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success … For me, these images function as reflecting pools for our times.”

Houston Texas 2004

Oxford tire pile #8 Westley California

Oxford tire pile #9 Westley California 1999

Burning tire pile Stockton, California 1999

 

The human population, within Floyd’s and Burtynsky’s lifetime (and mine), has risen from two to eight billion.

At theconversation.com, they report:

For real populations, doubling time is not constant. Humans reached 1 billion
around 1800
, a doubling time of about 300 years; 2 billion in 1927, a doubling
time of 127 years; and 4 billion in 1974, a doubling time of 47 years.

On the other hand, world numbers are projected to reach 8 billion around 2023,
a doubling time of 49 years, and barring the unforeseen, expected to 
level off
around 10 to 12 billion by 2100.

This anticipated leveling off signals a harsh biological reality: Human population is being curtailed by the Earth’s carrying capacity, the population at which premature death by starvation and disease balances the birth rate.

Santa Ana freeway, L.A. 2017

 

Imperial Valley, California USA 2009

Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria 2016

The greatest impact has been in the last hundred years of exponential growth, sparked by the Industrial Revolution, development of combustion engines, addiction to oil and a plethora of plastic, as well as technology and the change in agricultural methods. Extraction capitalism, which has made a handful of people very rich, comes at a cost to the rest of us, including the beyond-human realm. Payment is now coming due, everywhere.

What futurists and fantasy writers envisioned as happening in some comfortably distant future is happening here and now. The pace is accelerating exponentially. (An example: the entire B.C. town of Lytton burned down last summer. There is only rubble left on the ground. In Sydney, Australia, they are experiencing flooding for the third time this year. This is why target dates of 2050 for zero emissions leaves me in despair that there will even BE a livable world by then.)

Burtynsky has produced books and films featuring his work. His newest project is In the Wake of Progress, a scathing, immersive multimedia installation by which the viewer experiences, in photography and film, images which illustrate the impact human “growth and development” has had on the planet in the name of our great god, the Economy. It had its world premiere in Toronto in June this year.

Los Angeles freeway, 2003

 


Los Angeles freeway, 2009

Oil refineries, Houston, Texas, 2004

“I became an observer of the human condition at the scale of industry – building cities and transport systems, making clothes, all that stuff,” Burtynsky says. “There is a whole other world that exists that we don’t see. I thought the camera was the perfect tool to bring that world into our consciousness.”

Open pit coal mine, Sparwood, B.C., 1985

Nickel tailings, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996

Marble quarries, Carrara, Italy, 2016

Coal train, Wyoming, 2015

Tyrone Mine #3, New Mexico, 2012

 

Phosphor tailings, Lakeland, Florida, 2012

“I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat,” Burtynsky states.

Alberta oil sands, 2007

 

Alberta oil sands, Fort McMurray, 2007

 


Bakersfield oil sands, CA, 2004

Oil spill, Gulf of Mexico, 2010

Oil spill, Mississippi delta, 2010

 

(These photos actually hurt to look at.)

When people ask Burtynsky why he takes such graphic and disturbing photos, he replies, “Art can say: ‘Look, here it is. This is what it looks like.’” And it isn’t pretty. Poetry can do that too. Our job as poets is to record the times we live in, and, sadly, we live in historic but terribly unenlightened times. Future generations, if such survive, will be appalled at how we choreographed our own demise and destruction. We are the only species that destroys its own habitat (and that of every other creature) without remorse or even the most basic awareness, blinded by lust for the false god of money.

Ivory tusk mound, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016

Dandora landfill #1, Nairobi, 2016

 Burtynsky’s work In the Wake of Progress challenges us to take a hard look at how human industry is impacting the planet, not just now, but also affecting the future of sustainable life on this planet – the world our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in, if human life is still possible then.

“The story is very much about what we’re doing to nature, how our success is pushing back the biodiversity,” Burtynsky says. “It’s changing the nature of the oceans – we’re watching coral die off; we’re watching fisheries collapse.”

Owens Lake, California, 2009

Salton Sea, eastern shore, California, 2009

 


Clearcut, Vancouver Island, 2017

 


Clearcut, palm oil plantation, Borneo, Malaysia, 2016

“We’re seeing all kinds of issues – deforestation, desertification, droughts, storms, heat domes. Thirty years ago, you could say climate change is something out there. Now, we can’t brush that off. It’s at our doorstep.”

It’s at our doorstep


Ontario, Canada, 2010

 Burtynsky attempts to present his work in a revelatory, not an accusatory, way. He says he hopes people will go away from his work thinking deeply about the impact humanity is having on the planet.

“The high price of gas, as much as it hurts, will be a great motivator for us to get off gas. These changes never come without some pain. Once we get the economics right on this, change happens fast.”

“I hope it facilitates a conversation,” he continues. “When you touch people emotionally, it gets their minds thinking a different way. It’s a universal story that starts with nature and ends with nature.”

Because, in the end, nature will always have the last word.

Avatar Grove, Vancouver Island, 2017
(As yet, still standing, to give us hope and beauty)

For your challenge: Express your thoughts and feelings about how humankind has brought Mother Earth to this critical point in time, and what you think and feel about where we go from here.

earthweal open link weekend #127

 

Hello to all, and welcome to earthweal open link weekend #127. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to comment.

The link forum is open until midnight Sunday EST, when Sherry takes up the reins againfor a challenge she titles IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS. Keep your pens warm!

Brendan

earthweal weekly challenge: AN EAR FOR WILD LANGUAGE

 

It’s taken a couple of years, but in my morning walks my ear is slowly tuning to sound of what’s there. And I swear I’m learning to hear the world think.

But I first have to dial back all that septic me-speak—you know, that incessant whine of I Me Mine. If I can shut that yammering down, I become a creature walking in the fullness of creation: My ears and eyes have wings for the crows and hawks flying overhead, I nourish in nests woven in the arms of sycamore and cypress trees, I reflect the still morning sky in lake waters crested by flies, leaping bass and cruising gators.

Slowly, the poetry of the world emerges. All it takes is a languid ear and the time it takes to notate it right.

A master of the world’s song is Seamus Heaney. Take, for example, this fifth sonnet from his Glanmore series, published in Field Work (1976).

Soft corrugations in the boortree’s trunk,
Its green young shoots, its rods like freckled solder:
It was our bower as children, a greenish, dank
And snapping memory as I get older.
And elderberry I have learned to call it.
I love its blooms like saucers brimmed with meal,
Its berries a swart caviar of shot,
A buoyant spawn, a light bruised out of purple.
Elderberry? It is shires dreaming wine.
Boortree is bower tree, where I played ‘touching tongues’
And felt another’s texture quick on mine.
So, etymologist of roots and graftings,
I fall back to my tree-house and would crouch
Where small buds shoot and flourish in the hush.

(from Field Work, 1976)

What I love most about Heaney is his delicate craft getting the music right — something visceral, ancient and ever-present. It rises from “opened ground” in a poetry writ for the ear.

As David Abram writes in The Spell of the Sensuous (1996), such worldly language is available to anyone who’s listening to the living landscape:

We regularly talk of howling winds, and of chattering brooks. Yet these are more than metaphors. Our own languages are continually nourished by these other voices — by the roar of waterfalls and the thrumming of crickets. It is not by chance that, when hiking in the mountains, the English terms we spontaneously use to describe the surging waters of the nearby river are words like “rush,” “splash,” “gush,” “wash.” For the sound that unites all these words is that which the water itself chants as it flows between the banks. If language is not a purely mental phenomenon but a sensuous, bodily activity born of carnal reciprocity and participation, then our discourse has surely been influenced by many gestures, sounds, and rhythms besides those of our single species. Indeed, if human language arises from the perceptual interplay between the body and the world, then this language “belongs” to the animate landscape as much as it “belongs” to ourselves.  (82)

Is our human language really special? We have a much larger vocabulary than other species, but most of that is for abstract thought — words thinking about words. It is the patter of a society lost behind the walls it erected. That abstracted world has lost most of its natural connotations; it is sterile, dry, and easily wanders off through a maze of meanings lost.

Our living language, on the other hand, is a constant response to its environment. It carries gut meaning and is instantly recognized. Abram, again:

… All truly meaningful speech is inherently creative, using established words in ways that have never been used before, and thus altering, ever so slightly, the whole webwork of the language. Wild, living speech takes up from within, the interconnected matrix of a language and gestures with it, subjecting the whole structure to a “coherent deformation.”

At the heart of any language, then, is the poetic productivity of expressive speech. A living language is continually being made and remade, woven out of the silence by those who speak … And this silence is that of our wordless participations, of our perceptual immersion in the depths of an animate, expressive world. (84)

If you have been writing poems for any length of time, you may have noticed that something deep within is constantly calibrating its response to the world. The well of poetry is deep: there we discover the ten thousand things, each with its own plumage and song. I listen to the outside within and open my mouth: out comes wind round the stones at Carnac, the mewing of an eagle chick in its nest high over a landscape, the slick leap of a salmon in a rising edifice of gushing river-water.

Abram:

Ultimately, then, it is not the human body alone but rather the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language. As we ourselves dwell and move withing language, so, ultimately, do the other animals and animate things of the world; if we do not notice them there, it is only because language has forgotten its expressive depths. “Language is a life, is our life and the life of things …” (writes Richard Nelson in Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, 1983). It is no more true that we speak than that the things, and the animate world itself, speak within us. (85)

What is this wild language in the deep forest back of our mouths? Let’s take a walk there and sing what we find!

— Brendan

(Note: The challenge is open until 4 PM EST Friday, July 15, when earthweal rolls out it open link weekend forum.)

 

 

BLACKBERRY EATING

Galway Kinnell

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

From Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980)

 

WATERBIRD

May Swenson

Part otter, part snake, part bird the bird Ahinga,
jalousie wings, draped open, dry. When slack-
hinged, the wind flips them shut. Her cry,
a slatted clatter, inflates her chin-
pouch; it’s like a fish’s swim-
bladder. Ahinga’s body, otter-
furry, floats, under water-
mosses, neck a snake with white-
rimmed blue round roving eyes. Those long feet stilt-
paddle the only bird of the marsh that flies
submerged. Otter-
quick over bream that hover in water-
shade, she feeds, finds fillets among the water-
weeds. Her beak, ferrule of a folded black
umbrella, with neat thrust impales her prey.
She flaps up to dry on the crooked, look-
dead-limb of the Gumbo Limbo, her tan-
tipped wing fans spread, tail a shut fan dangled.

from Nature, 1990

 

THE SOUND OF THE SUN

George Bradley

It makes one all right, though you hadn’t thought of it,
A sound like the sound of the sky on fire, like Armageddon,
Whistling and crackling, the explosions of sunlight booming
As the huge mass of gas rages into the emptiness around it.
It isn’t a sound you are often aware of, though the light speeds
To us in seconds, each dawn leaping easily across a chasm
Of space that swallows the sound of that sphere, but
If you listen closely some morning, when the sun swells
Over the horizon and the world is still and still asleep,
You might hear it, a faint noise so far inside your mind
That it must come from somewhere, from light rushing to darkness,
Energy burning towards entropy, towards a peaceful solution,
Burning brilliantly, spontaneously, in the middle of nowhere,
And you, too, must make a sound that is somewhat like it,
Though that, of course, you have no way of hearing at all.

— from Terms to Be Met, 1986

 

MEDITATION AT OYSTER RIVER

Theodore Roethke

I

Over the low, barnacled, elephant-colored rocks
Come the first tide ripples, moving, almost without sound, toward me,
Running along the narrow furrows of the shore, the rows of dead clamshells;
Then a runnel behind me, creeping closer,
Alive with tiny striped fish, and young crabs climbing in and out of the water.

No sound from the bay. No violence.
Even the gulls quiet on the far rocks,
Silent, in the deepening light,
Their cat-mewing over,
Their child-whimpering.

At last one long undulant ripple,
Blue black from where I am sitting,
Makes almost a wave over a barrier of small stones,
Slapping lightly against a sunken log.
I dabble my toes in the brackish foam sliding forward,
Then retire to a rock higher up on the cliffside.

The wind slackens, light as a moth fanning a stone —
A twilight wind, light as a child’s breath,
Turning not a leaf, not a ripple.

The dew revives on the beach grass;
The salt-soaked wood of a fire crackles;
A fish raven turns on its perch (a dead tree in the river mouth),
Its wings catching a last glint of the reflected sunlight.

II

The self persists like a dying star,
In sleep, afraid. Death’s face rises afresh,
Among the shy beasts — the deer at the salt lick,
The doe, with its sloped shoulders, loping across the highway,
The young snake, poised in green leaves, waiting for its fly,
The hummingbird, whirring from quince blossom to morning-glory —
With these I would be.

And with water: the waves coming forward without cessation,
The waves, altered by sandbars, beds of kelp, miscellaneous driftwood,
Topped by cross-winds, tugged at by sinuous undercurrents,
The tide rustling in, sliding between the ridges of stone,
The tongues of water creeping in quietly.

III

In this hour,
In this first heaven of knowing,
The flesh takes on the pure poise of the spirit,
Acquires, for a time, the sandpiper’s insouciance,
The hummingbird’s surety, the kingfisher’s cunning.

I shift on my rock, and I think:
Of the first trembling of a Michigan brook in April.
Over a lip of stone, the tiny rivulet;
And the wrist-thick cascade tumbling from a cleft rock,
Its spray holding a double rainbow in the early morning,
Small enough to be taken in, embraced, by two arms;
Or the Tittabawasee, in the time between winter and spring,
When the ice melts along the edges in early afternoon
And the mid-channel begins cracking and heaving from the pressure beneath,
The ice piling high against the ironbound spiles,
Gleaming, freezing hard again, creaking at midnight,
And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and sticks —
Welter of tin cans, pails, old birds’ nests, a child’s shoe riding a log—
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking.

IV

Now, in this waning of light,
I rock with the motion of morning;
In the cradle of all that is,
I’m lulled into half sleep
By the lapping of waves,
The cries of the sandpiper.

Water’s my will and my way,
And the spirit runs, intermittently,
In and out of the small waves,
Runs with the intrepid shore birds —
How graceful the small before danger!

In the first of the moon,
All’s a scattering,
A shining.

first published in The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 1960