A box turtle’s broken shell, jig-sawed and sun-blanched. Feathers, fossils, shells, stones. A squadron of plastic army men in various poses, some amputated at the knee or elbow. A jar of cicada husks like a cache of tiny amber jackets rustling behind glass. The svelte, sloping skull of a deer. Oxidized coins and arcade tokens. A crazed apothecary bottle dug up from a flowerbed, its faint, lingering odor of medicine and dirt.
A natural history of my curiosity begins, naturally, with a catalog of curiosities, a selection of objects that I’ve collected over the last ten to fifteen years. Things that I’ve picked up from the pavement or trail or lawn, or plucked out of a tree or stream, or discovered in the back corner of some musty junk store. Things that have been abandoned, lost, ignored, shed, cast off, discounted, spent, left for dead. Artifacts void of human touch for years or forever. A varia of the ruined and transformed that now reside as a gallery of oddities sprinkled throughout my house, displayed on the mantel and windowsills and along the back edge of my large writing desk.
On the one hand, my curiosity acts as a kind of headlamp of the seeking mind, demanding that I stand present in this world, in the now, seeing beyond the myriad distractions of the commercial and quotidian to these talismans of what’s been scattered. On the other hand, the objects themselves, having been marred by time, now seem to stand outside of it or to transcend it. Divorced from any rigid history or an original purpose, they become tokens of the imagination, spurring me to question, remember, and dream. “Weep for what little things could make them glad,” Robert Frost writes in his poem “Directive,” and, indeed, many of my curiosities bear this sense of irrevocable loss. But in the mind’s eye they are also luminous, imbued with a beauty born of complexity, for in them I can’t help but see an exaltation of experience and the infinite possibilities of wonder.
A miniature Tin Man. Bits of burnished beach glass. Three rusty keys. A billiard ball, the number seven, maroon, pocked, cold and silent. Daguerreotypes of ghostly strangers. A blue jay’s talon, in death gripping a branch of air.
• • •
My mother as her younger self, as some version of Ophelia. Her hair rose from her head in waves of frizz, in a cloud of static, migrating towards the dark corners of the ceiling. She was in a kitchen, frumpled, frazzled, bustling through a cloud of flour dust. Pots simmered on the stove, boiled over. Mountains of chopped vegetables rose from the countertops where an army of skinny, mewling cats stalked and zig-zagged. I called out to her. She was crying as she worked, wiping the sweat and tears from her face with the back of her hand. I called out to her, but she was a ghost who could not hear me, who could not be consoled.
• • •
In my first book, The Animal Gospels, the notion that a poem might be a type of gospel was, first, a very personal one, and by extension one that should be universally understood. Modern Evangelicals use the term to describe the doctrine of salvation solely through the trust in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. I eventually questioned this doctrine not because I was unable to accept the mystery of that sacrifice, but because of the exclusionary idea of truth propagated by those who preached it. What about the teachings of Buddha? Of Mohammed? What about the tribal myths of the Inuit or Chippewa? What about the Egyptian poetry composed during the New Kingdom period 3,300 years ago? What about the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, every day to order our lives, to guide our actions, to make meaning of our conditions and experience? Poetry, like all art, is an anecdote of the spirit. “A poet’s word,” Bachelard writes, “because it strikes true, moves the very depth of our being.” In its fidelity to the truth of human experience, then, poetry is gospel too.
• • •
Winter returned, blue as a pigeon’s breath. The snow amplified the silence.
• • •
The prose poet as magician—creating a form so transparent it seems to vanish. Or the prose poem as a trapdoor—the surprise plummet into another world.
• • •
For a long time, I sit and watch a butterfly glued to the dining room window. The glass is hot with sun, and the butterfly, small, the size of a quarter, pumps its wings like it’s pushing back against its reflection, or trying to draw something out of the glass, water or sand, or a trapped voice. Its wings are shades of orange and amber. Knobby antennae and a belly like a white pill, a shaved down bullet of chalk.
• • •
A stranger at the bus stop, fidgeting, talking to himself, to everyone, to nobody: “So many beautiful women walking around downtown. So much beauty.”
• • •
Sometimes I feel like an exile from the imagination, the concerns of the everyday amassing and carrying me far away like a rogue wave. And then I wait, for some thought or idea or image to come, like a brightly lit ship in the night, and ferry me back.
• • •
N and I were in a foreign city, sharing a hotel room with M. I woke up and turned on the faucet of a little sink tucked into the corner of the room. A plume of gray feathers geysered up out of the drain and floated down into the white porcelain bowl. Then, a wet bird stuck its head up out of the dark throat of the drain, squawking, trying to wriggle free.
• • •
When the Bower brothers returned from hunting, their old barge of a car creaked down the road, rust-pocked and listing dangerously over the center line, then swerving into the steep, rutted gravel drive where it bounced on worn-out shocks, grinding to an abrupt halt. The boys, six or seven of them—all lanky and over six-feet tall, with self-inflicted bowl haircuts—unfolded themselves from the backseat like a troupe of contortionists. Then somebody unlatched the trunk and a pack of bird dogs bounded out, gasping for air, tongues lolling, shaking their heads and sneezing in the sunlight. How many dogs were there? Six? Seven? One for each brother? Gorgeous, perfect creatures, they seemed to keep coming, as if the trunk had a false bottom. Sleek and spotted, all ears and legs, they bayed and nipped and crashed into one another, loping around the rusted-out detritus that dotted the yard.
This collision of the beautiful and the brutal embodies the Appalachia where I was born and raised. This contradiction is deeply engrained in the landscape and the people—one of abundance and poverty, kindness and violence, piousness and sin. It’s a complicated place that cannot be easily summed up, no matter how hard outsiders try. I write from the crux of this contradiction, jimmying open the trunk of some jalopy and bracing myself for whatever beautiful thing might come bounding from the dark, knocking me down into a cloud of dust, then standing over me, hot and slobbering, its soft jowls speckled with blood.
• • •
I remember as a young boy sneaking into the utility room off our carport. I loved the smell of gasoline and cut grass. The long snout of the oil can, all the tools sleeping on their hooks. On the shelf, an old margarine tub chocked full of nails. I plunged my hand in up to the wrist just to feel the nip of their cold, sharp teeth. Something primal in that sensation, and then later, lying in the dark in bed, sniffing my hand for the lingering musk of metal and machine grease. The smell of a bear’s pelt, I imagined, my face buried in its chest, as it hugged and rocked me, as it devoured me in my sleep.
• • •
Some workers bustled around a house where we lived on a busy road. They left the front door open, and Sam, our yellow Labrador retriever, got out and dashed into traffic. Cars swerved and careened, and one of them, an impossibly small Volkswagen Beetle, jumped the curb, skidded across the swath of grass that passed for a lawn, and plowed into our house. A tiny Asian man climbed out to survey the damage. Soon, two of his cronies appeared, muscular German twins in sleek business suits. Their faces were screwed tight with worry, as they too circled the car, pointing and whispering. The small man flipped the car over without any help to show us that it was a prototype. When I leaned in and looked more closely, I could see, yes, the car was made entirely of moss.
• • •
Gaston Bachelard once declared that “the imagination is a tree.” In this simple botanical metaphor, Bachelard compresses his vast and complex ideas about the imagination. First, we understand that this tree relies on soil for nourishment; it must be rooted in the material world, in reality, to survive. Yet, the tree is also an axis of sublimation, an inhabited verticality that aspires upward and points toward a zenith. “A tree ascended there,” Rainer Maria Rilke writes in The Sonnets to Orpheus, “Oh pure transcendence! / Oh Orpheus sings! / Oh tall tree in the ear!” Root, trunk, branch, leaf. The imagination as tree synthesizes earth and sky, reality and myth, the visible and the invisible. In the wind of inspiration, it sways and bows into the horizontal world of things, man, history, time, and then lifts skyward suddenly, sweeping the threshold of gods and angels.
This tension between the horizontal and the vertical, between the bound and the boundless, is described elsewhere by Bachelard as the dynamic imagination. The dynamic imagination acts in a perpetually open and mobile state and attempts to extend beyond perception and the static image. It accounts for “the immanence of the imaginary in the real, the continuous passage from the real to the imaginary,” operating on the premise that conscious and unconscious impulses ceaselessly overflow into the life of the other. This particular notion of the imagination—one that embodies its potential as an unconscious force (reverie, trance, associative drift) that animates consciousness (reason, rationale, intellect)—spans centuries and has been addressed by philosophers, artists, and religious mystics alike. In his essay “The Poet,” for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson points out that “the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not freeze,” and speaks of an unbridled intellect flooded by “ethereal tides.” He writes:
The ancients were wont to express themselves, not with
intellect alone, but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.
As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on the
horse’s neck, and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find
his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries
us through this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate
this instinct, new passages are opened for us into nature, the
mind flows into and through things hardest and highest,
and the metamorphosis is possible.
Drunk on the powers of the unconscious, Emerson’s intellect becomes a protean force that unbolts the doors to the material world and penetrates beneath its surface to the depth of being. It rhymes with Bachelard’s concept of the dynamic imagination and his belief in poetry’s responsibility to awaken us to the world’s true essence by forming “images which go beyond reality, which sing reality.” In “The Ninth Elegy,” Rilke strikes at the heart of this philosophy as well, when he declares:
Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—
at most: column, tower…. But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.
Thus, the imagination in concert with the conscious mind travels beyond what is given. It gathers the fleeting visible world up into its reverie and sings it back to us, and the world is amplified and deepened into something we have never experienced or known.
• • •
Today, on our hike, a tree fell in the forest and we were there to hear it.
• • •
“He painted with emotion!” an old woman said to her son, a little too loudly in the crowded gallery, pointing to a portrait of another old lady, quietly gazing back.
• • •
I was charged with the important and dignified office of Christmas Tree Butler. You called me and told me your needs (height, type, etc.), and I picked and hand cut a tree for you on the date of your choosing. The Pridemores hired me, distant family, old friends. I trudged for hours through deep snow surveying trees, shaking their limbs, pressing my ear to their trunks to listen to the flow of sap. At last, I found the perfect one—sturdy and straight, full and flushed with the deepest green. But when I delivered it to their house it was a paltry thing, skinny, the branches sheered from one side. However, I pointed out that it was still an exceptionally soft tree. And it was. We all stood on their front porch and petted it, gently, like a rabbit.
• • •
This morning I saw a white bathrobe crumpled on a bench outside of the bookstore. As if an escaped mental patient, thin and pale as a moth’s wing, fell asleep there after midnight only to be vaporized by the morning sun. Or the gown of a rogue angel, white as the fur of an arctic fox, but splotched with stains, shed as she dashed into the alley, vanishing beyond the fuming dumpster, where a flock of sparrows rose, chirping joyously.
• • •
In his essay “The Gazer Within,” Larry Levis rethinks the role of animals in poetry by considering their indifference, their otherness to the human world. He posits:
Animals are objects of contemplation, but they are also,
unlike us, without speech, without language, except in
their own instinctual systems. When animals occur in poems,
then, I believe they are often emblems for the muteness
of the poet, for what he or she cannot express, for what
is deepest and sometimes antisocial in the poet’s nature. . .
The poet, evading the pressure of reality by a contemplation
of the animal…desires to express a mute condition.
The poet wants to speak of, or to, or through, what is
essentially so other that it cannot speak.
As Levis aptly puts it, when the poet invokes the spirit of an animal, he or she performs an “ancient and liberating act” by extending “beyond whatever shallowness inheres in the daily ego, to concentrate upon something wholly other, and to contemplate it—the Muse taking the shape, momentarily, of deer, mole, spider, whale, or fish.” Through such acts, the poem gains a sense of instinct and becomes, as Ted Hughes once described it, its own animal. I love the possibilities of this metaphor. Primitive, instinctual, other. The poem as animal tells no lies. Its bright, steely eyes stare back at us across the dark; they do not flinch or glance away. Nor does it know death, for its nature exists in a state of continual reincarnation.
• • •
Poetry has two relationships with silence. On the one hand, it tries to obliterate silence before silence obliterates poetry. It rises up and bullies silence back into the void. On the other hand, it uses silence like a secret or invisible word. It invites silence to the threshold of the poem, and even into it. When no one is looking, poetry kisses silence on the cheek.
• • •
Memory like a shard of glass: My grandmother’s bible, fat and well-thumbed, stuffed with clipped obituaries.
• • •
She remembered the baker at dawn, daubs of flour on his cheeks. He was singing inside a cloud! She thought of moths fluttering in a cathedral, or white handkerchiefs dropped from a train. Fresh loaves were stacked in baskets, but the bread kept its secrets. The ovens roared like the breath of God. The whole day floated on the smell. When the soldiers arrived, they were boys drowning in their uniforms. They carted the bread off in barrows, stumbling like drunks beneath its weight.
• • •
Every moment is an apocalypse.
• • •
Remembering an evening in Houston, T’s apartment brimming with friends and laughter. The bright spines of books rubbing against one another, the smell of baking bread bubbling up and spreading. Outside the window, a lone live oak tree ladled the fading gasoline glow of dusk. Strong tea, warm bread, laughter. The muggy night doffed its black hat, the hours slipping away like silk through the loose folds of our talk.
• • •
W and I went diving into a shipwreck. We wore surgical masks and breathed the oxygen they pumped. It was easy, this diving, and cold and lonely like, I imagined, walking on the moon would be. I parted a forest of seaweed and lifted old wooden planks and found there an effluvium of light—not the sparkle of a gold treasure, but a console version of the Pac-Man video game, working perfectly underwater. I laughed and W laughed, and our laughter rose in bubbles through the dark sea.
• • •
We wandered aimlessly through the supermarket with our soup samples in those little paper cups nurses use in mental hospitals to dole out pills to patients.
• • •
For years now I have been fascinated by Marina Tsvetaeva’s essay, “Poets With History and Poets Without History,” in which she posits that all poets can be divided into two categories. In the first category, she situates those poets of a theme who “are conscious participants in the world” for whom each new poem “is the occasion for a new self.” The river represents these “poets with history”: always developing, always changing, always moving forward. In the second group, she places those poets of song, dreams, and feelings—pure lyricists for whom “evidence” and “experience are nothing,” emerging from the womb fully developed and simply waiting for inspiration to sing. These “poets without history” are aligned with the ocean; just as “each wave always returns, and always returns as a different wave,” such is the ebb and flow of lyric poetry.
As much as I admire this essay, I often find myself quarreling with Tsvetaeva’s categorization of poets, which seems too neat, too absolute to hold up under scrutiny. For many of the poets we might label as “poets without history,” we could certainly find moments in their poetry where history lurks just off stage or as a veiled backdrop, a force that has been internalized by the poet and resides tacitly in the work, not explicitly. To read Emily Dickinson’s nature poems, for instance, is to be reminded of how the rise of science during the 19th century challenged the religious imagination and shook the very foundation of man’s long held beliefs of a benevolent God. Even in The Duino Elegies, at the height of Rilke’s metaphysical quest for transcendence, we can feel the presence of history bobbing beneath the surface of the poems in the form of science or the city. In “The Fifth Elegy” the latter breaks through, and we glimpse how Rilke understood the urban spectacle to be intertwined with death: “Squares, oh square in Paris, infinite showplace,” he writes, “where the milliner Madame LaMort / twists and winds.”
There are, of course, more radical examples, moments of sea change when the pressure of the historical moment is so intense the pure lyric poet can no longer ignore it and steps out of the Self into the world of experience, into the world of the Other. One such case would be Anna Akhmatova. As Tsvetaeva tells us in her essay, the lyric poet’s sense of estrangement from the world was present in Akhmatova’s first poem in her debut book. In the lines “I drew my left-hand glove / onto my right hand,” Tsvetaeva locates “all feminine and all lyric confusion” in an “ancient nervous gesture” that conveys not only a precise detail, but a cosmic loss of certainty. Propelled by historic circumstance, however, this “lyric confusion” of Ahkmatova’s would be transformed into the Russian people’s song of despair and suffering. In such poems as “When in the Throes of Suicide,” “Everything is Plundered,” and “I Am Not One of Those Who Left the Land,” Akhmatova heeds the call of history and fervently takes up her new mantle to endure and bear witness. “And I pray not for myself alone…,” she writes in “Requiem,” but “for all who stood outside the jail, / in bitter cold or summer’s blaze, / with me under that blind red wall,” and thus confirms her position as the voice of the voiceless, the poet of all those victimized by the Stalinist regime.
In thinking of the arc of Akhmatova’s journey from “poet without history” to “poet with history,” I can’t help but think of T.S. Eliot’s movement in reverse. The Eliot of The Waste Land dwells in the dominion of history, but by The Four Quartets he has cloistered himself off from the world, abandoned himself to his personal metaphysical quest. As for other poets, we might classify as having an absolute relation with history, we could certainly find moments in their poetry when they step back from the historical into the splendor and solitude of the personal lyric. Tsvetaeva’s description of the “poet with history” reminds us of Walt Whitman: “Too large in size and scope, their own ‘I’ is too small for them. . . they spread it out until nothing is left and it merges with the rim of the horizon. The human ‘I’ becomes the ‘I’ of a country—a people. . . .” Even so, we see Whitman withdraw from the world back into his own “I.” In doing so, he humbles, even saves, himself from the weight of history with poems of quiet song, meditation, or prayer, such as “A Clear Midnight”:
This is thy hour O soul, they free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Tsvetaeva’s categorization, in the end, is too cut and dried to adequately account for the complicated relationship between the poet and history, a relationship that is in continual flux. Yet, I find her essay invaluable and irresistible, because ultimately her rubrics of “with history” and “without history” summarize and illuminate a complex network of binaries between Other and Self, between the historical and the metaphysical, between the public and the private, between Platonic love and erotic love, between solidarity and solitude, between story and song. Although some poets may at first feel the currents of history, while others may initially feel the undertow of the pure lyric more strongly, the nature of the poet, it seems to me, is not pre-determined, as Tsvetaeva leads us to believe. The poet stands in the middle of this web of contradictions, and she is malleable enough, protean enough to follow the threads in a myriad of different directions. That is to say, the poet makes choices that propel her toward history or away from it. And these choices certainly have aesthetic consequences, but depending on the circumstances and the nature of the choice, they may possibly have moral consequences as well.
• • •
All artists seek eternity, but not in the way other people, or even the artists themselves, might imagine. The eternity the artist seeks is not one based on his or her work living on forever, but the eternity that unfolds in the act of making. When fully submerged in creation, time dissipates, becomes inconsequential. Our daily responsibilities and all the chatter of the world are snuffed out. The artist is pure being rising above the shackles of time. Is there any better feeling in the world?
• • •
Tom Waits announced that after all these years he hadn’t made enough money to make a living off his music and had been working as a short-order cook in a diner to make ends meet. He thought it was time for a new start and quit. He hoped to get a job in a firehouse. He didn’t want to be a fireman, but had been hanging around firehouses his whole life and thought he had something to offer. I put in a good word for him at the firehouse down the street; I knew the chief. On the first day, Tom showed up in rare form. There was an old piano in the corner and a couple of little elderly church ladies in bonnets and threadbare flowered dresses were playing and smiling and singing, and Tom joined right in. This is where he could be found whenever I dropped by, noodling or growling out ballads as the fireman leaned back in their chairs and whittled, an old coonhound asleep at their feet. One day the chief was there, and I asked him how Tom was working out. Fine, he said, just fine. He only had to write him up once because his pants were falling down. He refused to wear the regulation suspenders.
• • •
We were cleaning out the house of my grandmother’s dead neighbor. She was a fastidious hoarder. Stacks of unopened dish sets. Magazines bowing a bookcase, arranged by the color of their spines. Pickle jars full of change—one for pennies, one for nickels, one for dimes. A drawer full of plastic sporks. A drawer full of sugar packets. Another full of dead batteries. And on a high shelf in a walk-in closet, a hatbox labeled “STRINGS TOO SHORT TO TIE.” Filled to the brim with just that.
• • •
The poet as switchboard operator. All those tangled wires, all those unfamiliar voices traveling from distant places. One concentrates hard to make the right connections. But truthfully, surprise and mystery come from the mistakes, the wrong connections. How startled we are to hear a stranger’s voice bleeding through the static, calling out for a dead relative or describing the dusk sifting down over the jungles of Palau.
• • •
It seems that all through my childhood I had some croupy cough, some bronchial disturbance flaring up in my chest. I have such fond memories of being propped up in bed with a stack of library books, Gilligan’s Island reruns on the little TV wheeled in from my parents’ room. The dark green cough syrup making me drowsy, the soft hum of the humidifier. As an adult, that’s what I long for some days—a long convalescence from a not-too-serious illness.
• • •
In the Galleria Borghese in Rome, I was taken by surprise—dumbstruck, really—by a Caravaggio entitled Sick Bacchus. In the painting Bacchus sits in profile, his gaze turned towards us over his right shoulder. He clutches rapaciously a cluster of grapes, his body coiled slightly with a greedy, Dionysian delight. Or is it pain? His skin—in stark contrast to the gleaming lemons, the plum-hued grapes, the viridescent laurel wreath crowning his head—is ashen, ochered, jaundiced. Washed in an unforgiving light, his lips seem to be smudged with chalk, his forearms dusted with quicklime. The painting is an unflinching portrait of human suffering—a suffering inflicted, arguably, by unchecked bodily lust and desire. The painting throbs with it.
Two facts make this work even more remarkable. First, Caravaggio—a young and poor artist who couldn’t afford models—painted it as a self-portrait while looking into a mirror. This probably accounts for why the painting appears to be framed by an open window, an unseen threshold (opening onto what?). Second, Caravaggio was no older than twenty-five when he painted it. How can this be so? How can someone so young gaze so deeply into (not at) the abyss of suffering?
• • •
The unfolding environmental catastrophe of our age—global warming, the sixth extinction—demands a new kind of nature poet, one that is speculative, ironic, replete with a scathing, truth-telling humor.
• • •
Nothing sadder or more deplorable than the break room in some nondescript office building. Sometimes I think the trajectory of my whole life has been to avoid such places at all costs.
• • •
My mother was in the hospital with a hiatal hernia. She was in tremendous pain. She lay flat on her back with no pillow and moaned. Her eyes were closed, her cheeks were cold and ashen. The nurse showed us how we would need to feed her until she recovered. She placed a paper funnel in her open mouth. The small end of the funnel had a quarter-sized hole, and with a toothpick, the nurse dropped in several cubes of yellow party cheese. We watched the cheese lodged in the funnel, waiting. Suddenly—we let out a little gasp!—a mouse poked it’s pink nose through the paper cone, seized a cube of cheese, and then turned, scampering away, disappearing back into the dark corridors of her body.
• • •
If each line is a station of the cross, as Charles Wright has said, then the lineated poem is a kind of church. Then what is the prose poem? Some forgotten room in the basement, where the teenagers escape to in the middle of the homily to swig the Eucharist wine and play spin the bottle.
• • •
I never understood the declaration of being “one with nature.” Even now, as I love to hike and be in the wilderness, what I feel most acutely is my own otherness. When I see five or six elk bucks standing in stomach-deep snow, peeling bark from the aspen trees, I feel wonder and awe and even fear. I most definitely do not feel one with them.
• • •
If the imagination is a wilderness, then I would much rather wander aimlessly and explore it than clear a tract of land and build a cabin.
• • •
In a capitalist country, about the most non-capitalist thing you can do is become a poet.
• • •
Is there no more pure or absolute feeling than dread? In our contemporary moment, marred by terrorist attacks and school shootings, dread feels ever-present, for it never truly dies. It’s always there, lurking, and the only true way for it to be ameliorated is for the thing that is dreaded to come to fruition, or to be fortuitously wiped out. In this way dread exists in the present and unfurls into the future, like a black ribbon.
Joy is fleeting and once it goes, we’re never certain if it will return, though we hope. We may continue to feign joy, or to hold onto it once it subsides, and in this way, we may feel a self-consciousness that calls into question the very authenticity of the joy we just felt. Not so for dread. We never doubt its authenticity, we never feel self-conscious of it. And we are certain of its return, for it has never gone away, just temporarily retreated into a dark corner.
Who is our greatest poet of dread? Dickinson, without a doubt.
• • •
My god-daughter shouting, red-faced, pointing at me, lost in the trance of play, “Go away, Pirate! Go home to your family!”
• • •
The other day I saw a crow on a power line with a tuft of silvery white feathers from another bird clamped in its beak. It bent down and placed them beneath its foot so it could call out to another crow with three round, burled caws of affirmation. Then, it took the feathers back into its beak and flew away.
• • •
Mornings, I read, jot down images, or roll a word around in my head like a blue marble. I look out my window, though there’s no view. The top of a wooden fence. Just past it, my neighbor’s house, a brick wall painted a purplish gray. I think of plums piled high in a pewter bowl, or the thin blade of the moon on certain frigid nights in winter when those hurrying through the streets can’t discern if the light is dying or being born. One day, a hieroglyph of pollen plastered on the glass of my window, the next, pocked leaves plunging down like canoes that coasted too close to the pond’s edge. One day a flurry of sparrows building nests, the next, icicles growing from the eaves like thoughts in the mind of a demagogue. No sign of those inexplicably slaughtered. No sign of my dead, who I imagine returning, smiling sheepishly, rumpled, a bit sleepy. Time, the great counterfeiter, shuffles his yellowed papers, and my window blurs, a blank frame on a calendar, a day without a name I stare through. On the sill, autumn’s last fly flipped on its back, its barbed legs drawn up in death like a horse hurdling a barricade. This morning, beyond it, I heard a wedge of geese splitting the dry wood of oblivion. I’m reading, waiting, looking through my window. Outside, the empty flowerpots are filling with snow.
Akhmatova, Anna. Poems of Akhmatova. Trans. Stanley Kunitz & Max Hayward.
Boston: Mariner Books, 1967.
Bachelard, Gaston. On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from the Works
of Gaston Bachelard. Trans. Colette Gaudin. New York: The Bobbs-Merrill
——. Poetics of Space. Trans. Etienne Gilson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1964.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1. 5th
ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton Company, 1998.
Frost, Robert. Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays. New York: The Library of America,
Levis, Larry. The Gazer Within. Ed. James Marshall et. al. Ann Arbor: The University of
Michigan Press, 2001.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Trans. Stephen Mitchell.
New York: Vintage International, 1980.
Tsvetaeva, Marina. Art in the Light of Conscience. Trans. Angela Livingstone.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. 136-148.
Whitman, Walt. The Complete Poems. Ed. Francis Murphy. New York: Penguin Books,
The section beginning “A natural history of my curiosity…” was originally published on the blog The Owls in 2009 for a project curated by the poet Sean Hill.
The section beginning “When the Bower brothers returned from hunting. . .” was originally published as an artist’s statement in the anthology Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature (Sarabande Books, 2013), edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas.
Brian Barker is the author of two books of poetry, The Animal Gospels (Tupelo Press, 2006) and The Black Ocean (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition. His poems have appeared in such journals as Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, The Washington Post, Indiana Review, The Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, and Pleiades. He teaches at the University of Colorado Denver, where he is a poetry editor of Copper Nickel. Learn more at www.brianbarker.net