With gratitude to poet Kim Stafford--I wrote these poems as part of his recent class offered earlier in August-through the wonderful Sitka Center for Art and Ecology (via Zoom). Thank you to my fellow classmates for a weekend of bravery and explorations.
(inspired by Wendell Berry, Before Dark)
From my chair outside the kitchen I watched
Two rufous hummingbirds in exalted chase
Their whirring wings a blaze
Such sizzle and spark, I think they
Pierced a hole in the tight blue sky
Drawn taut over the pines after dawn
We wait for the return—the flowers and me
Scarlet columbines alluring with their
Golden straws of nectar
What if I could follow that needle bill
Into the flower to taste wild sugar
On my hungry tongue?
As it grew lighter, one bird returned
a hovering heartbeat matching
my quickening desire
Feather radiance of emerald and fire
Spread tail a fanned flame. Time stilled
in the winged moment
EPICENTER, IN FOUR (in the style of Peg Herring’s poem Masks, in Four)
New York City. I read with shock of the epicenter of the epidemic in the Spring. Far away here in Oregon, I wondered whether –like an earthquake—the shock waves would resonate across the country. This is a city pandemic—of people packed so tight they can’t escape in Detroit, Boston, and in Chicago, where that bus driver ranted a self-video of the passenger who coughed all over him and two weeks later the driver was dead.
We started with the words quarantine, lockdown, and then the kinder shelter in place. Our home. Epicenter. Listening to NPR Top of the Hour news. How many cases? Where’s the uptick? The surge? The spread? We felt fear. We felt anger toward this impeached President mocking science, disseminating dubious remedies. The epicenter rocks our house—in the news— worldwide, except when we turn off the radio. Tune into the singing of siskins among the poppies—yet even their searing two-part call is a kind of weeping.
My best friend comes down with Coronavirus in rural Vermont. Her body is wracked in pain. Her fever is high. She’s sweating so much the water pools on her face and her pajamas and bedding are soaked. For two weeks, she is my epicenter. I send her poems as texts. Walk under pines and by the lava and below the ravens and call to tell her all I see and hear when she is listening so ill, not moving for the pain. Until at last, the virus flees her body and she rises.
So much news of the deaths in nursing homes. So much fear for my mother who lives in a retirement home in Maryland in Prince George’s County that is the epicenter—thousands of cases in one county-hundreds of deaths. And my mother is lost. Missing the anchor of friends, except for the pond with the geese and the turtles that becomes her epicenter and mine. As we journey there together by phone, my epicenter and my mother’s become one—the day I fly across the country to be with her one last night for her last breath, her last heartbeat—and the sliding door to her apartment is open to the distant sound of geese honking. Where do the shock waves go from here?
THE SWALLOWS WASH THE SKY FOR YOU ( after reading, “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry,” by Jericho Brown)
Did you notice the day the
Violet green swallows vanished
from the August sky?
I miss the twitter and swoop
Flash of malachite, quartz and amethyst
Bling. Sparkle. Jewel.
Their journey is free
No lockdown. No masks required
The swallows have washed the sky for you
Laid an invisible trail unfurling south
all the way to that steel fence of a border wall
with Mexico and right on across
Look up to the flight path of swallows
Time to follow where their slim wings lead
To the place we may not want to see
of what happens at the border,
Children locked in cages, crying parents
Asylum seekers turned back
The swallows arc above the Rio Grande
Flocks dance and dart after insects
Etching a calligraphy of hope
Did you notice the swallows are gone?
They have washed our hands in generosity
Catch the drifting feather. Save all my loves
WHEELS OF FREEDOM IN ELKTON
This girl won’t be trapped for long inside the tiny drive-through coffee hut in Elkton, right by the gas station.
Alone in her box, she might study those old license plates nailed below the ceiling— New York, Wyoming, Arkansas, California.
We pull up with our cloth face masks on—my son and me—weary from our drive from Bend on the way to Coos Bay. Ready to order,
but startled to see the wide-eyed girl with dark lively eyes above her face mask, pink fabric rippling in patterns like a salmon run.
Salmon swim up the Umpqua River, past the coffee hut in this sleepy town of 200. Young salmon fin downstream to ocean immensity.
Elkton is a place of passage, of return, of home, and
This girl has wheels of freedom on her mind.
The tip jar sign states, “please help pay for my car insurance.”
“First car?” “Yes,” she says and I imagine her smile beneath the mask— a white flash like a headlight- already forging away from Elkton. We chat while she makes our lattes.
“How long have you lived here?” “Since seventh grade and now I’ll be a senior and I only have one and a half credits to graduate, and I wish I wouldn’t be stuck taking more classes than I need online, because of Covid.”
Looking up through the window, I bet her feet are tapping on the floor, her hands that maneuver the espresso and steam are dreamily on that steering wheel heading out of here. College. Cities.
Maybe to a state on one of those license plates.
The chalkboard advertises the special, Creamy Vanilla ice cream
With A & W Rootbeer, and next to that? The sign you can’t miss,
Uncle Sam wearing a blue face mask, his stern eyes blaring and his fingers pointing, “FACE MASKS REQUIRED.”
“What do you do if someone doesn’t wear a face mask?”
“I tell them to stay way far back and so will I from you.”
Lean away from those who would scorn what keeps
Others safe. Lean into the future of that first car.
She wears her hair in corn braids loosely tied at the back. I have to wonder. How kind is this rural town to a black girl?
What I know is that she has her wheels of freedom.
The bumble bees sleep in flowers,
each bee choosing
the sweet dreaming petals
for the night.
The golden bee that is furry and soft
with faint black stripes,
curls up around the pistil and stamens
of a single mountain hollyhock bloom
the color of lavender twilight
and scented in alpenglow.
Six jointed legs still caked in pollen
embrace the sensuosity.
Coming closer, I yearn to exchange places.
Can I sleep there just for a moment?
Can my bed be the circular flower
of satin pink sheets
Scent my dreams in sweetness
Shhhh…the bees are sleeping.
There in the coyote mint
I count 30 bumble bees
bold black with yellow heads and translucent wings
each tumbled on a round pale purple ball of petals
Draping over flowers, the bee limbs go heavy
I’m the golden bee in the hollyhock
My breath now a buzzing song
A lullaby of pollinators and that
long evolutionary dance.
Did flowers or bees change the world?
The answer lies in the beauty
of symbiotic relationship.
What pollen do I carry?
What nectar do I sip?
What joy can a poem bring
When scented and hummed
with slumbering bees?
(Note–after I published this post, a friend sent the song, “A Sleepin’ Bee” by Harold Arlen and Truman Capote).