Clouds and Trees

"Nothing ever goes away enough or arrives enough,/ and I want to cry when I think of my heart,/ muscle pounding in muscle, greedy always for joy." – 'A Warning', Eric Anderson

Category: Birds

Favorite Poem of the Day – “The Play of Light and Shadow” by D. Nurkse

This poem is by my first teacher and adviser during my undergrad studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Technically he’s my ‘Don’; I’ll leave it to all of you to discern what that means. I’ve always felt incredibly lucky to have a personal relationship with this guy because besides being a brilliant, universally wonderful (or to use a word I’ve only ever heard him use, numinous) person, he’s also become one of my favorite poets in the world.

The Play of Light and Shadow

We want to give ourselves away utterly
but afterwards we resent it, it is the same
with the sparrows, their eyes burn so coldly
under the dusty pines, their small chests swell
as they dispute a crumb, or the empty place
where a seed was once: this is our law too,
to peck and peck at the Self, to take turns
being I, to die in a fierce sidelong glance,
then to hold the entire forest in one tilt
of a tufted head, to take flight suddenly
and fuck in midair, tumbling upward.

Hole in Blue

Dad is driving me home from the train.
“That hawk dive-bombed the window
and died on the table. I got rid of it.”

I think of garbage, our bones. I walk down
To the edge of the woods. No power;
I can’t use the toilet. Our ground is hollow:

Years of Dad seeding grass, grubs
Eating roots, Dad poisoning them.
Nothing dies, just hollows out.

We never begin that tree-house, broken
Glass grown into the ground, bits of sky
Reflected as in lakes seen from your plane

Crashing over Minnesota.
I am at my friend’s house, doing laundry,
I tell him how I sat in the yard playing

And how that hawk cawed with me.
I wanted to see its eggs then, to know
it found a mate around my house.

I come back a year later. A few days
Feeling hopeless until I see a hawk
Against white, winter sky. A baby,

Alive. How old could it have been?
I want to speak to it, to tell it I’m sorry
for living here and leaving it empty.

Scavengers

Two vultures in the morning
Arrive together with the crows;
This – insanity I wake up from.

Dull…Dull…Dull…

Vultures are noiseless except for wings
Thumping the air. From far away:
Heavy things falling to the ground.

Dull…Dull…Dull…

Vultures who love each other
sit together on the pool-house roof
opposite my parents on the porch.

Dull…Dull…Dull…

I visit home again, watch them
shade each other from the sun,
black bones thick, outstretched.

Dull…Dull…Dull…

Flying over my brother, he looks up:
grotesque feet, grey genitals, fingers,
Shadows on us, through the porch.

Dull…Dull…Dull…

Heavy things fallen to the ground.
Mom never looks up, I hear:
I have no idea what that was.

Vertical Migration

I have been following robins
North. They used to migrate
Towards memories, travel
Tree by tree, long distances.

I am tracking one up a hill
To a field covered by Robins,
I recognize my house and them:
Two figures exiting the porch

Like my parents but painted
Of robins. They reach out
Dripping birds: droplets,
floating as if everything

Is falling together until they burst
Into feathers. Near now, incredibly
close. I am reaching into them
with my younger hands, searching

For my parents within myself,
And these fragile, terrifying birds
Which in an instant will all float up
Then disappear, as if sheared away.

Guide to Natural Life

When you live in a rural area of England for enough time you eventually find the best places from which to watch sunsets. You wonder about them as you walk home to your apartment, peering through the new darkness. It is like there is something on your mind; the corners of your eyes are sensitive to places from which you can sit and look to the West.

It is easy to see the horizon; England can only hide very little things. Watch the sun be enveloped by a lake. Stand on the eastern edge of a field sloping to the West.

English birds don’t notice when days’ end has come. You hear songs which until now you did not realize you thought of as holy prayers for the sun. You walk home in the dark and notice wings shuffling in the tree-branches.

If some islands are the loci of certain seasons, (you can think of a few — Antarctica: Winter, Hawaii: Summer) then England is the Spring. It is made up of small animals and lovemaking done underground or behind grass and trees.

You know the patches of daffodils that bloom earliest and where the sun sits the longest. You wonder if it is as easy to see it set back in America where glacial valleys are so deep you forget a real horizon exists.

You floated from time. You have to come back in and it will lurch painfully. You saw an endpoint and just beyond it — a land burned deep, red and blue where the day ends. When you are there, the sun is everywhere.

Windows

The ceiling was perfectly flat. The corners exact, no paint misplaced. Nothing wrong. He rolled his head to the left. Underneath the fridge there were silhouettes of dirt, balls of dust, lost food. Maybe the floor. What had it been? When he was standing there a moment before something had been off. He had gotten to his knees and rubbed his thumb against the floor tile. That hadn’t helped. He had remembered the technique his mother had taught him for finding small things; he pressed his cheek against the cold white tile and still, nothing seemed wrong. He was glad he had laid down.

“Where are you?” Her voice came out of the bedroom. There was some kind of shuffling, she must be getting dressed. “Someone called you.”

He leaned his head back. He could see the sky even though the window shade was mostly down. It looked warm and blue but he knew it would be freezing. She walked through the door zipping up the side of her dress. “Where are you?”

“Who called?”

“Jesus Christ,” Her face seemed to burst then almost instantly close; lines formed in between her eyebrows. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Did you pick it up or did it go to voicemail?”

She shook her head, “I don’t know, I didn’t see.”

He nodded. “There’s something weird about the kitchen. Are you going out?”

“I’m going to Midtown. Are you just going to stay there? I need to get something.”

He shuffled to the side and she stepped over him. As she reached up and began rifling through the cabinet her heels lifted off the floor, the veins in her ankles visible and thick through the skin. He almost reached out and grabbed them.

“Here we go.” She stepped down and walked into the bathroom, not bothering to turn the light on. He could hear the water running. He took a deep breath and sighed loudly.

She came out of the bathroom and stood over him. “I’m going down to Midtown, is there anything you need? There’s your phone again.” It was buzzing in the bedroom. She handed it to him.

“Okay, I’m going, you don’t need anything?” He shook his head, holding the buzzing phone. “I’ll probably be back in a couple of hours, give me a call if you think of anything.”

The door closed.

He laid there for a minute. The phone was still buzzing. He had been clasping it over his chest. After awhile it stopped. He put it down on the tile next to the fridge.

He brought up his knees and groaned. Most of his backside had fallen asleep. He used the counter to pull himself up. He stood there for a second, getting his bearings. The room was worse now than it had been earlier. It was tilted, as if he had just been dizzy. He went over to the window. The streets outside looked as if they slanted strangely away. A familiar flock of pigeons flew by. They dipped by the window in the exact same way at least once every day. He always caught it out of the corner of his eye. They never changed. The same flock, the same swoop. He rapped his fingertips on the glass, bitten fingernails making an unsatisfying thumping sound. There were millions of windows in New York City. More windows than there were people. Most windows must not be seen at all. Might as well just be walls.

Guide to Natural Life

When you live in a rural area of England for enough time you eventually find the best places from which to watch sunsets. You wonder about them as you walk home to your apartment, peering through the new darkness. It is like there is something on your mind; the corners of your eyes are sensitive to places where you can sit and look to the West.

It is easy to see the horizon; England only hides very little things. Sit by a river or a lake where you can watch the sun be enveloped by water. Stand on the eastern edge of a field sloping to the West.

English birds don’t notice when the end of day has come. You hear songs which until just now you did not realize you thought of as holy prayers for the sun. You walk home in the dark and see wings shuffling in the tree-branches.

If some islands are the loci of certain seasons, (you can think of a few — Antarctica: Winter, Hawaii: Summer) then England is the Spring. It is made up of small animals and lovemaking done underground or behind grass and trees.

You know the patches of daffodils that bloom earliest and where the sun sits the longest. You wonder if it is as easy to see it set back in America where glacial valleys are so deep you forget a real horizon exists.

You floated from time. You have to come back in and it will lurch painfully. You saw an endpoint and just beyond it, a land burned flat, red and blue where the day ends. The sun is everywhere.

Poetry

As he stepped out of the car, he realized that he was coming home for the last time. Soon he would be going back to school, then moving into the apartment in the city, and from then on when he arrived at this house, walked through its doors, slept in its beds, he would always be ‘just visiting.’ He stepped through the door into the warm light of the kitchen, pulling off his bag. As he had expected, his mom was standing in front of the sink, looking out through the window into the night. She smiled and hugged him.

“I made soup if you want it, I didn’t know you’d be getting home quite this late.”

“Sorry, I’ll have some later.” He walked through the kitchen. “Let me just take my stuff upstairs.”

He paused in the living room.

“What’s this?” He recognized the picture of his aunt in the corner of the frame, but the poem was unfamiliar. “Did you write this?” He read through it again.

She came into the room and took the picture frame from him. “Yes, I wrote it.” Her face was angled downward and tilted as she read it as if she was looking at a child.

“I had no idea you wrote at all.”

She looked at him, her forehead tightened. “We all did, that was what we did. No television. We played instruments or we wrote or we learned languages. Your grandmother wrote plays.”

His bag was heavy. He dropped it to the living room floor. He knew his grandmother wrote plays. She put the poem back onto the table.

“Bring your bag up to your room, I may still have some things.”

He went upstairs. Everything was cluttered with piles of stuff they had been cleaning out from the spare room, his childhood bedroom. He edged by the boxes and opened the door. Every time he came home the walls in here looked whiter, the ceiling lower. He put his bag down and began taking out his clothes.

His mom walked in. “I saved these from your grandmother’s house.” She sat next to him on the bed and handed him the thin pile of yellowed papers. On top was a torn out page from a yearbook with the same picture of his aunt. Below was quoted “. . . and we will all the pleasures prove . . .”

“In our house, when you were sick, or alone, you crawled into my parents’ bed and my mother, my parents came and they read. They read poetry to us, stories, and that’s how I was raised. There’s no right or wrong, that’s just the way it was. We would memorize poems and recite them to each other. What was it?” She paused, smiling in the same way she had downstairs, with tears in her eyes. “Ah,” she looked over his head as she began to recite,

“‘Son,’ said my mother,
When I was knee-high,
‘You’ve need of clothes to cover you,
And not a rag have I.’

‘There’s nothing in the house
To make a boy breeches,
Nor shears to cut a cloth with
Nor thread to take stitches.’

‘There’s nothing in the house
But a loaf-end of rye,
And a harp with a woman’s head
Nobody will buy,
And she began to cry.”

She paused. “I’m not sure I remember most of it.” She shut her eyes, covering her mouth. He was holding his knees with his hands. They had never talked about poetry. She opened her eyes. Her voice was choked.

“Men say the winter
Was bad that year;
Fuel was scarce,
And food was dear.

A wind with a wolf’s head
Howled about our door,
And we burned up the chairs
And sat upon the floor

All that was left us
Was a chair we couldn’t break,
And the harp with a woman’s head
Nobody would take,
For song or pity’s sake.”

“I can’t remember the rest.” She was breathing heavily, her eyes watered. “But that’s what we used to do.”

“What poem was that?”

She tilted her head. “Clothing for a Prince? Something like that. I have to go downstairs, do you have any laundry?”

“No, that’s okay Mom. Thanks for all this stuff, this is really amazing.”

She nodded, a distracted expression on her face as she closed the door behind her. He looked back down at the paper on his lap. Beneath the yearbook photo was a stapled together group of typewritten pages. He gently pulled it out. His aunt’s name was at the top. Some of the poems were in French, some in English. He saw the name “Jacques Prevert”.

To Paint The Portrait of a Bird
First paint a cage
with an open door
paint next
something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
next place the canvas against a tree
in a garden
in a park
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
without saying anything
without moving . . .
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but he can as well take a long time
to make up his mind
Do not be discouraged
wait
wait if necessary for years
the speed or slowness of the bird’s coming
not having any relation
to the success of the painting
When the bird comes
if he comes
observe the most profound silence
wait until the bird enters the cage
and when he has entered
close the door softly with the brush
then
erase one by one all of the bars
being careful not to touch the bird’s feathers
Make next the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches
for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the coolness
of the wind
the dust of the sun
and the sound of the creatures in the grass in
the summer heat
and then wait until the bird decides to sing
If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad
but if he sings it’s a good sign
a sign that you can sign it
Then you pull out very gently
one of the bird’s plumes
and you write your name in a corner of the painting.

Free Sector

I put my army cap in the cage
and I went out with the bird on my head
So
we aren’t saluting anymore
demanded the commander
No
we aren’t saluting anymore
replied the bird
Oh well
excuse me I thought we saluted
said the commander
You’re quite excused anybody can make a mistake
said the bird.

He looked up. He felt profoundly light headed. He blinked and looked out the window. In the morning he wanted to go outside.

Relative

I walked back from the lake,
it wasn’t sunset but after.

There was a perfect mist in the grass.

I saw people standing in it,
other people picturing them,
everyone standing in the mist.

I wished the mist were at my feet,
perfect layer of cloud, cold and heat,
water and air, meeting in the grass.

I realized they probably couldn’t see it,

the people standing in the mist.
Then I knew it surrounded me too,
all of us standing in the mist.

I thought about birdsong.
I heard it earlier in the trees,
too high up to see them.

Nothing, just music and leaves.

I opened my ears for it,
and there it was–

No Autumn

Sometimes I think,
“These trees must be made of birds,”
phoenix-burns in crisp, bird-shapes,
crushed into ashes under boot-feet.

Come spring, I hope to God
I hear birds chirping, birds
bursting from the trees,
like shades of green.