First published in North American Review, 296.1, Winter 2011. Appears in News from the North.
Seeing the ice, congealing like white fat
on the dark stock of the pond, I think
of the four-hundred-and-five-year-old clam
just dredged from the Arctic Ocean
north of Iceland. Quahog Arctica Islandica,
the oldest living creature ever found,
born the year the English encountered Cape Cod
and William Shakespeare wrote Othello,
three when Don Quixote hit the press,
seven when Galileo peered through
his first-ever telescope. In those cole
and pristine seas it drifted, larval, landed
upon velvet silt and burrowed in,
growing a film of shell a year. Daily
it sipped a slow rain of plankton.
Global warming researchers from Wales
sawed unsuspecting through its small,
drab and unremarkable shell to tell
its age, counting its rings like a tree's.
An unfortunate aspect of our work
was that the clam died.
I once worked eight years in the deep
Midwest at a job I hated in a town known only
for the invention of barbed wire and GM corn.
The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad ran
right through it. Freight trains
would wake me at ungodly hours, wailing
like banshees, long into the seamy night,
shaking the floorboards and the raddled
window sashes in the clapboard houses.
The last glacier of the last
Ice Age passed through the city
where I live now, scouring all beneath.
Just west of here, it stopped.
The country beyond has hilltops,
views, variety, a sense of perspective.
To us the glacier left the shriven plain,
the sand and clay I wrestle with
each summer, planting annuals.
Ten thousand years have passed
and still, this far north, winter
is a spiritual exercise, weight-
training for the soul.
The Roto-Rooter Man tries doggedly
but fails to fix the trammeled drain.
He blames it on the trees,
their greedy roots. Sober
for twelve years, he says
he's gone back to the drink.
Was it the blizzard? I think,
the freezing rain?
Too many drains?
After that visit he vanishes,
answers no more calls.
My son, five, wants to know
why God, who could choose to make us
live forever, lets us die.
It's not kind of him, he reasons, puzzled,
beginning to be aggrieved.
I know Tylenol and temperatures and loose teeth.
I know mounds of corn snow and blebbed ice.
I know whitegraybrown.
I know Christmas lights
in the dark. I know
A ten-year-old in Mexico
glues his hand to the bedstead
after Christmas, not wanting
the humdrum life of school.
That clam and I have things in common:
the drabness of our lives,
the cold, the hidden muscle.
I am reminded of him when the snows
keep falling and I weep over onions,
endlessly load the dishwasher,
endlessly wipe the counters with a dirty cloth,
do endless laundry and find underpants
and fix holes in knees. As I clean
cat vomit and hairballs.
Contemplate my small living room
endlessly choked by toys.
I know thickened.
I know a slowed heart.
I know hunger expanding.
I want marigolds and mangoes.
I want lambs keeping me awake
with their bawling and celandines
on the airfields and the valleys opening.
I want woods full of bluebells.
I want the mountains of North Wales:
Moel Siabod, Cadair Idris, Tryfan.
I want Reit dda (Fine, thanks).
I want figs and custard apples.
I want thyme on the hillsides
and lemons on the trees.
I want to go back to that place in Spain
called "Birth of the River World."
I want a Welsh men's choir
with a thunderous golden organ
to tell me, belting out "Cwm Rhondda"
like the crowds at rugby matches:
Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more (want no more)
Feed me till I want no more.
I open and inhale saffron, desiring
everything to be yellow, orange, red.
All winter, I cook foods from abroad.
Fry olive oil, turmeric and sweet paprika,
sweat shallots. I cook basmati,
brown rice, purple, white. Roast squash
in oil of French hazelnuts
till caramelized. Grate ginger root.
Split green cardamom, pour
coconut milk. Chop feta cheese
and dill. Simmer broth
of miso, shiitake, kelp.
11. I listen to the shipping forecast
for the British Isles:
Dogger, Fisher, Viking, German Bite,
Rockall, Shannon, Fastnet, Lundy,
Irish Sea. South wind veering west later,
gale force eight, occasional showers, rain.
Growing up in Wales, I never listened
to Welsh men's choirs. I only noticed
how barren and poor the life was:
the rain on slate roofs, slag heaps,
the mountains bleak and shrouded.
I never noticed with what joy
they could sing of hardship,
I never expected
in this barren land.
This barren, rich life.
Our unremarkable existences
with their secret, iridescent insides.