Ricky Ray

And Then, Very Gently


Falling out of love,
with the quiet and with myself,
holed up in hurt,
lulled by loss,
I hadn't written a poem in a year,
wondered if I still could,
and then I stayed up all night
and the next
and the next
until I heard that old familiar
whisper in my blood,
where it's always been.
I closed my eyes
and asked the Earth to sing to me.
One note was all it took.
I dreamt of my childhood dog
and pine trees and sex.
The next day
language arrived
like a puppy in my pen.


A storm brewed a dark,
early-autumn tea
and the wind played
the cymbals of the leaves,
but the clouds lied about the rain:
it isn't coming.
Or, we misinterpreted the signs.
The day is dark for other reasons,
like: heavy is the thunderhead
that chooses work or death.
Or: all the aerosols have the upper hand,
were clever, got us to bottle them,
that they might join forces in the atmos
and turn the light against us,
and their ploy is working,
even in the hand that knows
it should put the bottle
back on the shelf
and write letters to the manufacturer
about the ethics of responsible theft:
steal enough to live on,
but not enough to strangle life's own throat.


And when the letter goes unanswered,
write another, petition, protest,
knowing it's insane.
Or is it?
We want good hair and good air.
Who could blame us?
We want croissants
that make our toes curl,
a chocolate quiver
like the little fright that comes
when the windows rattle in the frames.
I like Mr. Thunder's here-I-am-ness,
his crackle and boom—
I answer him with a sweater
and a cup of chai.
He croaks once more
and I open the door:
hey, old friend, stop scaring the dogs.
Let them enjoy the winds.

He ignores me and hammers again,
can't help it,
has his own work to do.
I curse him and he grumbles,
seven seconds long.
Is this what friendship amounts to,
the right to curse and complain,
to grumble, without offense,
or with offense, but just a little?


He reminds me of an old woman
I worked with in Oregon.
Thirty years on the job,
she read people like books.
Said I'm the kind who winds
in and out of people's lives,
a smoke river
you can’t quite remember,
can’t quite forget.
She didn't say I'm a dark cloud
but I know I'm not a bright one.
And she was right:
I want the friends I had
but can't seem to keep in touch.
I’m all: I love you, so long.
She had the gift in small doses.
Gave hugs you couldn't forget.
I remember her now—
what was her name?—
three moves
and as many states later,
hoping she finally got a decent raise.


Unlikely? Who knows?
She was good but not great
and businesses want
great but not good.
Bad practice in the long run,
but longevity isn't anyone's forte.
Ask someone to think beyond the day,
the year, the species.
They'll laugh
or wrinkle up their faces
and get back to work.
Or back to pretending:
to work, to understand.
The eco-vision—
my favorite frequency—
it's something that happens to you,
and through you,
so low and slow and hard to notice,
over and over in sly-handed ways,
you look up and extinction's
already guzzling half the bestiary.
You think,
God, what have I done?
And the God in you answers:
harm, now what will you do?
I don't know.
I’ll shake my head
and try to make it better,
if I can figure out what better is.


The wind blows facefuls
of dust into the flowers
and my life bleeds
hour after indecisive hour
into browning weeds.
Something flashes
in the corner of my eye.
Could be glaucoma
but I don't think I'm there yet.
Then it strikes, front and center:
lightning throws its line,
fishing for a tree.
I hope it goes home hungry.
The storms have taken
too many of my friends this year.
I leave them where they fall,
newly bustling ecologies,
pretzling the ground.
Also b/c: I'm lazy.
And weary. And sore.
My bones ache the ache
of all the aches before them
and I'm just trying
to make survival sound like
something worth a moment’s pause.


Something worth the name of poetry,
a troubling of consciousness that,
someone wants to publish,
and secretly, someone needs.
Slim chances.
I like well-worn language
but live in an era
that wants the newest new.
So it goes.
It's a day of dissatisfactions all around.
I'm cranky, out-of-character,
my 1-in-80,
the little allowances we make
for spite to bite the head
of those who tell us not to fret.
Fuck off and choke on your own tongue.
Come back with a beer
and we'll trade stories later on.
See who's deeper in debt to hurt.
Who has a little luck to lend.


I stepped out onto the grass
and caught
a sand-burr in my foot,
fifty miles from the beach,
what the heck:
a microcosm:
the life I was living
and the life that was living me
tried to recognize themselves
in a single animal,
a shadow-wolf with fourteen paws,
but rather than pounding
wild syncopatter through the forest,
nothing I thought felt coordinated,
and nothing I saw
made any sense beyond sensation,
and nothing at all
in all the bruised boughs and bodies
could find a common reason
to lay down my petty troubles
and thread my little twigs of sorrow
into a wreath of,
if not agreement,
at least a headnod's worth of peace.


Peace! That lark:
call its name and it never comes.
But wait around and,
sooner or later,
it's snoring at your feet.
I walked a little down the path
and a hawk
snatched a cry for dinner.
I thought of the hawk's children
and smiled.
Thought of the mole's children
and frowned.
Tried to imagine the mole’s escape:
could it bite the hawk,
survive the fall,
tunnel fast,
hide until she flew away,
limp triumphant home?
I tried to pray and gave up.
Watched the ducks
fight over tossed bread,
bet against myself on the winners.
I lost and lost and cried.


And then, violently,
I coughed,
and then, very gently,
I spat out a little blood,
the mole’s and my own.
Something dislodged
where despair had been,
that ancient kestrel gnaw,
or maybe it was merely
wiping its beak,
readying itself to feed again,
but it felt like the relief that comes
when an ache resolves
you've had so long
you didn't realize
it was dragging you
half-dead through an early grave.
That's how it always is:
you don't realize you’re dying
until something stabs you
in the foot.
I bent down, excised the burr.
It had stabbed me well.
I admired its barbs and smiled.


And did the burr,
just a little, smile back?
Glaucoma don’t lie to me now.
Its teeth glistened
with blood
it took me decades to ferment.
It was the stuff of fairy dust
that lost its magic,
the moment
when someone sucks
a sugar cane and spits
the fiber from their tongue,
i.e., it was good but not great,
and the thunder had grown
quiet but not safe,
and the dogs were out—
Addie, and Rascal’s ghost beside her—
pointing their faces into the wind,
testing the storm,
sniffing the scent trails
for bunnies, shit and kill.


They were live wires
and I wanted to join them
but my nerves were decades tired
and all the throats
in all the plants
were thirsty, thirsty, thirsty,
so I poured out,
as best I could at playing fair,
a quarter cup of tea,
and the clouds chuckled,
as if amused
at this little pissant human
and his drips.
I wasn’t in the mood,
felt testy again,
said speak up, and they did:
unfurled a hand
and lightning-slapped a tree
five paces from my faces:
I felt surprised,
glad I could still feel
but a little afraid
of what I’d started.


So I thought,
out loud
in case they were misreading my mind
and rearing to slap again,
I’m sorry,
you aren’t liars,
my sense of the rain
you promised
was just a spark of faulty wiring—
I misread your signs
as I have misread my life.

The clouds hummed along
and I wanted to hear
what they had to say,
but their words
were letterless dancers
frolicking in my veins,
and I liked the way
they moved so much,
I didn’t need to understand.


So I called the dogs
and thanked the clouds,
one by one,
which didn’t take all that long.
Addie went inside
and Rascal’s ghost went inside of me.
I said goodnight to Mr. Thunder
and then,
I turned to head indoors,
and then, very gently,
I heard the field begin to sing:
the air was drumming,
the leaves were wet,
the soil swelled,
the flowers bowed
their heads
in heavy gratitude,
so I bowed, too:
the clouds had whispered us
into their prayers—
it had begun, at last,
to rain.



Ricky Ray lives with his wife and his old brown dog in the old green hills of the Hudson Valley. He is the author of Fealty (Diode Editions, 2019); Quiet, Grit, Glory (Broken Sleep Books, 2020); and The Sound of the Earth Singing to Herself (Fly on the Wall Press), a finalist for The Laurel Prize. He sings and things at rickyray.earth