Because each night when I was pregnant
my husband rubbed my aching feet
and still does, when I’m grieving or in such pain
the feet are the one place I can tolerate touch,
because my dad is slipping, lost, afraid,
connected to a catheter, IV, heart monitor,
blood pressure cuff, and leg pump
that inflates and deflates automatically,
because he believes we’re in Siberia,
because he keeps on yelling for my mum,
because he cannot sleep,
because I don’t know how to comfort him,
because we’ve never comforted each other,
because my mother and his Irish mother
are the only ones who’ve ever rubbed
his skin, his limbs, to soothe and settle,
because I think maybe this most distant
part of the body might be the least alarming,
not so defended, clenched in fear,
all I can think to do is rub his feet.
I should be less awkward, more at ease,
more skilled. He says he’s never had
his feet massaged before, in eighty years.
They’re cold, dry, bony, gaunt as old war horses,
the toenails thickened, yellowed, ridged,
the toes bent out of shape, the heels
like hide, hard and insensible, ivory-colored,
as I suddenly imagine he’ll be in his coffin.
I rub lotion on them, knead the instep,
thumb the ball of the foot where all the muscles
crunch, circle the vulnerable hollows
round the ankle bone, squeeze and release
each foot from heel to toe, rotate and flex them.
He lies there stiffly, silent.
I ask him how it feels, and he says, carefully,
“It feels nice.” He doesn’t sound too certain.
I can’t get his feet to soften, though, neither
the muscles nor the skin. They remain
inflexible, obstinately unyielding.
Only a little warmer, is all.
July 23: six weeks of high summer still to go. A heat dome has simmered us in 110 degrees. When it breaks like a fever, we throw the windows open for the first time in a month. But I sleep inexplicably poorly, restless all night, and finally give up trying at five. Something is wrong, but I can’t say what. Sitting by the open kitchen window with my tea, it comes to me. I can hear a squirrel quaaing, a white-breasted nuthatch yammering—and that’s all. What’s shifted is what’s missing: no wrensong. The house wren who arrived in April, whose descending liquid trills have flashed through my days like a bright needle from dawn to dark, is silent. His insistent fountain of song has woken me every day these last three months, the sound track of summer, its fulcrum. A tiny bird with a big voice, quick, sparky movements and imperious habits, he’s a tyrannical sentinel. His territorial call bubbles out of the air as he bossily patrols the fence, the compost bin, the sumac that’s taken over the back yard, the miniature plum tree, the overgrown mock orange, the arbor vitae, the neighbors’ redbud, the black walnut, the nodding plumes of the ostrich ferns. He’s a natty dresser, with his herringbone waistcoat and neatly barred tail cocked at a pert angle. He and his scolding mate are always busy with the important work of staking their claim and raising their brood. They were here for the Virginia bluebells, the lily-of-the-valley, the trillium, the magnolias, the dame’s rocket, the bleeding heart, the Korean Spice viburnum, the crab apples, the lilac, the irises, the peonies, the locusts, and the beebalm. But now that the leggy daylilies with their blaze orange stars and their avid yellow throats are tumbling everywhere in loose profusion, like late fireworks, now that the black-eyed Susans are starting to flower, our two wrens have gone south. They must have left after dusk last night. Gone, like the two big green ash trees that vanished from the other side of the street somewhere between 9 and 5 yesterday. Like a pulled molar, the tongue returns to the mental gap, exploring the space again and again, memorizing the exact shape of loss. The flatness of without, diminished and drearily quiet. The sunflowers and the sweetcorn and the musk melons are almost here. But I’m grieving the disappearance of our diminutive neighbors, surprised, again, at how much it affects me, even though I knew it was coming, as the wheel of the year spins inexorably on. I want to say my goodbyes, thank them, wish them well on their journey, now that it’s too late. It may seem like the height of summer, but our wrens are gone. The first of all the losses.
IN THE DARK
After you turn out the light, we lie
silent, not touching, face up
on our side-by-side pillows like effigies
of gentry on their tombs, as if
waiting for the Second Coming,
as if our devotion and our faith
could save us. The weight
of what’s awry between us lies
on my chest like a cold, flat stone.
Facing our bed is a framed print by Klimt
which I bought because I craved
what Klimt depicts: the couple
standing clasped, enfolded, glinting
gold. The lavishness of that embrace,
its public privacy. His back is turned,
her upturned face half-hidden
by his arm. Her eyes are closed.
His coat of many colors covers her,
as if that’s all they’ll ever need.
I can’t see the painting, in the dark.
Tonight, in any case, it would mock
my good intentions. Marriage tonight
is anything but bliss. It’s wedlock’s
deadbolt clanging on my discontent.
Shackled to one another, to this ache,
maybe for life. In Spain, the word
for “handcuff” is the same as “wife.”
There’s another painting in our room,
a wedding-present from my parents:
Crib Goch, a knife-shaped mountain ridge
in Wales, one people die on.
A spine of rock so slim and treacherous
that many make the traverse
on their hands and feet.
My father loved it, and tried to take
my mother over once, in fog, rain, and gale.
It’s not for the faint of heart
or the vertiginous. My mother’s both.
She tells the story still: how halfway along
she was “cragfast,” too terrified to move.
IN THE DARK, continued
No stanza break
How furious she was with him–
oblivious and fearless, nimble-footed;
how the gap between the two of them
seemed unsurmountable, and how,
to inch back down to safety,
they had to take each other’s hand.
“Triptych” in Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis, issue 48, Spring 2020, http://canarylitmag.org/
Into our bedroom’s dark funk, before dawn,
For the first time in months, drift fragments of song.
A robin—just back—on the garage roof
Threads this northern silence with notes.
Freezing drizzle, gray pall, the lawn piebald with snow–
But he’s giving thanks. His three limpid phrases
Of praise rise & fall, piercing my caul of sleep.
He’s the bridegroom of half-light, of dream.
Wished-for as clean water, the bright drops of his song
Stitch winter to spring. We’re no longer alone–
His voice marries us, and this is his psalm:
To live is to give voice. All days are one.
This is the time of shape shifters. The skyline morphs
From peach to indigo. Raccoons materialize from drains.
Commuters climb into their carcoons, corpuscles in the city’s veins.
Houses exhale & stretch. Porch lights snap on.
The great blue heron flaps back to her roost. The barred owl
In the white pine blinks his yellow eyes, feels hunger stir.
A siren shrieks & from the shades, unseen coyotes keen:
A high, wild chorus to misfortune.
This is the time when, from the greenworld, deer appear,
As if formed out of smoke, in twos & threes,
To crop the grass with delicate precision. Shades of the ancestors
Drift closer, haunting the perimeters of home.
There is so much to fear in the country of darkness.
You’ll think you’re sinking, you could founder in its waters,
That you’ll vanish like a bright coin tossed in a well,
That you’ll never swim back up or be recovered.
Know this: that one day you’ll be found
Up on the moors at midsummer, with curlews bubbling,
Cupped in rainwater in the hollow of an ancient stone.
A boy will find & burnish you & keep you in his pocket.
The moon’s bone ball swivels slowly in the socket of sky.
Night’s a corrective, a necessary physic.
Only at night can you glimpse the history of distant stars.
Only at night can you see how small, & how accompanied, you are.
I filched a stone from my father’s newly-filled grave,
while the clay was still red clods,
before the turf was laid.
A grave man, he was often stony. I
stonewalled him. I bear the weight
of this, heavy as gravity.
I roll and knead the dark stone in my palm, grip
this nub of grief, this kernel of truth.
It sits snugly on my lifeline.
It’s small and ordinary, this milestone;
somewhat battered, nicked, uneven.
Bits of red dirt cling still to the crevices.
One time I touched my tongue to it, wanting
to taste the clay he lies in, partake
some remnant of it, make it part of me.
It tastes faintly of salt, a mineral communion.
I rub and finger it, the way the tongue
traces the new topography
of the mouth when a tooth falls out.
It’s triangular but has soft, rounded edges.
It feels familiar, well-worn, solid, warm.
But you could break your teeth on it.
after William Stafford
Honey-bees point their co-workers toward food,
dancing to show which way to fly, and for how long.
Sometimes you can forget how to speak,
if you pass your days in silence.
An old man from Mexico with Alzheimer’s
was shot dead by a cop in California
who assumed that he was armed. In fact,
the object in his pocket was a wooden crucifix.
A sunflower’s face is made of hundreds
of tiny flowerets inside the disk.
When Tranströmer’s right hand was paralyzed by a stroke,
he taught himself to play piano with the left.
The people who built Stonehenge and other Neolithic
monuments and tombs were most likely teenagers.
Less than 60 years after the first manned aircraft flew
for just three seconds, astronauts were orbiting the earth.
The human eye relaxes when gazing at distant objects
in the landscape, and finds the color green most restful.
After being temporarily blinded in a factory accident,
John Muir went on a thousand-mile walk.
When my heart stops, I do not want to be
resuscitated. I want to close the door quietly, and go.
Finback whale-speech travels further than that of any
other mammal: a hundred miles underwater, maybe more.
Ice has an entire sonic repertoire—it can sound
like explosions or gunshots, or music from another world.
Once, at nineteen, I stopped a man
on the street to ask if he had the time.
No,” he replied. “But I have
the record of its passing.”
It was a gray day, on a grimy street
in a small provincial town.
I was on my way to the dentist,
fretting I might be late.
He was an older man,
in a suit of some kind,
a little formal, but not memorable–
tweed, or perhaps a trench coat.
I never did learn the time.
I have never forgotten.
I mention this in the same way
certain things loom out at you
when you’re on a bike
and pedaling hard, focused,
and afterwards all you remember
are instants, imprinted:
a killdeer on the shoulder, feigning a broken wing,
or a hillside covered in clover,
or the small, round hole in the road
that could have thrown you.