Nine Early Poems

They’re putting down the gravel now
to fill the holes that winter made,
the workers pour the shining tar
that binds the stones with healing shade.
The grackles fill the trees again
replacing leaves that winter stole,
the branch grows live with blackened wings,
the charred return of migrant hope.
The snakes are stirring in the woods,
their blood responding to the sun,
the dead leaves on the ground astir
with life they feel but cannot own.
And arguing with the evergreens,
gray chickadees hang upside down,
so, fat and swinging by their toes,
they animate the wooden cones.
The sun is on the grackle’s wing—
the black is shining blue and green;
the ice gives way, the seed husks crack
in beaks that fill with sudden grain.
There’s something here that binds and breaks,
that mends, and at the same time, wakes—
they’re putting down the gravel now
to fill the holes that winter made.
Along the road, the first green shows;
the deer are grazing, unafraid.

The farmer dipped his fingers in the drought,
turned up his eyes, a watery, almost washed-out blue
from looking at the sky and wanting rain.
His back was bent exactly to the curve
of that coarse sack he carried home, the hump
of all the harvests he had willed
from pickings in the rows, dusty with doubt,
all but washed out by debt.
His toes were dyed earth brown, from the grudging
plot he’d worked and dug the swollen roots
to sell for seed. In the faded embrace
of a worn wing chair, its hair spilled out in tufts,
dust covered, its color gone to weather,
sat an old, old woman in a cotton wrap
whose lost design long since slid down a drain;
so thin she was, her bones
argued with the skin to set them free;
but she was swollen in the belly,
big, as aged women are, with death.
She reigned among slat boxes in the roadside stand
and the ladies rode out from town,
there was a war somewhere, they said,
and were the watermelons ready yet?
An old horse nosed the swelling watermelons
locked hard in green against his inquiry;
now, uncertain of the fruit,
he left the dust to find the trough.
Next day the sun began to burst its searing vault
filling all the shadows in with white;
in the growing dust of that unbroken summer light
a watermelon broke
in rivers of red juice,
swarming with an army of dark flies,
its own black seeds.

Suddenly, at more or less the last minute,
I feel compelled to write. There are birds
that crow at dawn, as if the sunrise had something
important to do with them, as I suppose it does,
and others, shyer perhaps, and more exposed
to enemies, who sing as night comes on.
It pleases me, with that vanity we don’t outgrow,
a disreputable old woman to the world,
to fancy myself some sort of superannuated
nightingale. And why not? The birds can hardly be
offended at the metaphor. I’ve always been,
at least in part, a poet of senility;
there is some comfort now that a state of mind
becomes a fact of life. Now that I’m too old
to excite the envy or the interest
of a single human mind, my obsessions untroubled
by the need to accommodate them to those
of others, the mirror telling a story
that only my failing vision saves me
from having to read too closely, my distractions
only those I can invent—nothing would seem
to stop me any more from going around a last time
or two with an old dream of rescue, my rock in time,
a faded Andromeda whom monsters no longer bother
to visit. As the sea rises, it comes back
to haunt my age with an indecent youth, for old women
are lewd when our minds are right
and we don’t make a chore of convention.

* * *

It was that, of course, that was our bond:
the refusal to admit surprise,
while suffering from it always,
so we were taken by surprise, that word
out of the store of those who think
they know what to expect. What happened
after the days we succumbed
is too well known to tell again. And those
who chose exile did no better, I suspect,
than we, who were left to grow old here
with whatever lies we could muster. It is the unreal
loves that last; there is no erosion
in imaginary lands, where I chose to plant.
I speak only for myself, from this piece of the Maine
coast I chose as my retreat, where—but for a few
brief months—it is almost always winter,
and the grey sea slowly climbs my rock.
I was warned against buying this house;
those who are native to this coast say
it will not last another storm. So, when I hear
the wind rise, I smile at the agitation of the birds,
and for some reason my mind turns to cathedrals,
the hollow keeps that commanded the hills,
when men kept their dreamers locked in cloisters
for a thousand years, until that dawn
they call the Renaissance…I have to smile again
at such a thought, and then, because
the word is French, and the light rising 
on the Maine coast this morning that presages storm
is a flat, dead white. 

My skin rough bark
dark shelter for blind insects
rooted are my feet in
changeless soils
twisted my shape
a fit path only
for squirrel’s feet
my branches
broken in full flowering
spring by heavy hands
and in deep drowning
summer by the heavier
weight of fruit
I took this shape
when all felt lost
as numbness took me
for the last time I felt
cool mud caress bare feet
as they took root
and soft air brush my arms
as they lifted, finally
locked in
I’m too far down
to scream

The beast has gone
to sleep; walk quiet, let him wake
in his own time. He sleeps just over there
near the roots of the rough oak,
his great horned head snoring on stony paws.
Learn from the insects
crawling toward him through the grass, like ships
hauling through the green swells
toward the looming shoulders of a continent.
There, beneath the brush, fleas and ticks live
in the tangles of his undergrowth, making trails
through the forest of his fur, stopping to drink
from the great streams of his blood.
To approach him, make yourself as many,
and as small, as they; live
as gratefully off his life, abundance
he can spare; make yourself little enough,
a multitude, and he will suffer you.
Learn from the sun how to help him doze
in the dazzle of noon. Learn to match
your movements with his own, but opposite—
by day be watchful and awake, wary
while he slumbers through sunlit afternoons, by night
sleep, and let him be your waking.
For then, in his own slow time, like the earth
moving along some ancient fault, he will arise
with a grunt of thunder, shake
the dust, like storm clouds, from his coat,
the sweet flowers of the field tangled in his horns,
his breast booming like a kettle drum—then, go with him,
let him chart your passage through the night,
whose hoofs know every stone
whose muzzle nudges at the outer gate
and, hips swaying, we pass through.

He was a capsized turtle
turned over in the high salt grass
whose waves rehearse the sea.
He knew himself near ocean,
for its last things
were cast about him by the tide,
and the wind made him promises of foam.
Thrown about him were the scattered rugs
of sand, all fringed in weed,
to cloak the wide unreachable
breach—the entrance into sea,
where sideways beings scuttle in,
and shells wash up.
He knew the earth with his back alone
but he was open to the sky,
turned up—
his beak burned blue from tasting purple nights;
by day, even when he shut his heavy lids,
the sun stared back.
Sometimes rain brought crusted strangers in
dragging manacles of weed,
to leave wet prints around his shipwrecked chance.
And feathers floated from the sky to coat
his undershell with down.
He flails at the sky to reach the earth.
One day a man, passing on the beach,
gave him one tremendous kick—
it might have busted his shell
or broken his back; instead,
it set him back
on his feet.
His tail left one long exultant scrawl
down to where the beach drowns in the sea.

I was thinking just now of Pooky Dee
that summer day whose color
you don’t remember, the high
trestle bridge, the wide green water
when Pooky Dee took the high dive
the 2 ½ gainer and hit
the block with his head, the hard rock
of his skull struck the hidden
grief and split—
how your waters roll
with those skulls, all
those grinning
chieftains, empty sockets like
the shattered headlights of a wreck
drowned and staring up
blind at the everlasting
cold of the moon…
high daring poised
on the ledge
arching, he made of himself
an arrow—saying this way, follow me
counting on deep waters
and finding instead
the bright blood spreading
its red stain over the shallows of America

      –for Julia Randall
It’s a wonder how she does it,
so blithe a music as the century runs down.
Sparrow on the sill, its lilting hop,
her words, light lift of what is meant
for flight, must make the best
of harrowed earth. Trail-blazer,
tinder in the ink-well, fire
in the grass, hell-raiser
in the Eden-schist of Maryland,
archaeologist of flint, arrowhead
directed at the heart. Dry
as the magpie’s wit, magnanimous
as the great-eared elephant
lifting the little pink-clad acrobat
toward the light, the mimic tent of sky
as round and Ptolemaic
as the eye
awake and dreaming that the worlds move
well, their circles intersecting
with the bells’, gold lines elliptical—
she wakes us to the spume of stars
breaking on the high celestial C.

The pot is on to boil, the stream
is grumbling in its bed,
plotting the overthrow
of gardens, the pipes knocking
at their walls, wishing for the placid
pools again, regretting the silver exodus
of faucets. Outside the windows
the rhyming woods: locust, chestnut, cypress,
laurel; the birds she’s sure
are doing Mozart, all art unconscious
of its masters, the dogs
are drumming with their tails on the door.

In a time so stagnant that the planets
settle down like sediment in cisterns
among the glittering flotsam
of the stars,
it’s a wonder how she stirs
the deep well of the mind again
and as the water clears
steps out of Adam
to the sudden music of the spheres.

What do myths have to do with the price of fish?

–asked by a fellow poet

I thought about your question, you
who are so entirely American, and
as Wallace Stevens always said,
there never was a time
when we had myths in Connecticut;
though I admire Richard Hugo
and his “triggering town,” his fly-specked
bars in underpopulated Montana, his
hand-tied flies and leaping trout, I can’t
agree with what he said to me:
“You write about things you don’t give a damn about.”
He meant, of course, things he
didn’t give a fig for
and he was not alone in that,
though insofar as he is true Northwestern,
he feels alone as any tracker
searching for his image in a wilderness of grass.
It’s true that myths, especially Classical,
are out of fashion, and maybe after all,
that is the point. Those figures
whom no one any more believes in,
especially in Montana, are safe
from relevance, commercial interruption;
they live in fields long since grown
over, where lizards and wildflowers
have reclaimed the ruins, where America
is not what is the matter, but something older,
deeper, that has everything to do with us.
In some imagined Attic light so lambent
you can see the breeze move through
the groves of olive, some ancient
inmost part begins to stir, and silent
women in outdated robes walk slowly, 
as figures move through centuries,
like the memory of patience, through
the twisted trunks of olive trees, till
the sun breaks through the clouds
of history—and for a moment, long as
centuries or like the time that only stones
remember—none of all this had to happen:
the missiles slide back on their tracks
and vanish, the atom heals like water
when a ship has passed, the conquering hordes
decide to stay at home in their green
pastures, Hitler goes on painting houses,
no one ever kills for Christ, who goes
to Alexandria, becomes a teacher,
today becomes a time being read about
ten thousand years into the future,
watched over by the stars as they are now,
for only then will their light reach us—a time
when no one anymore believes that teams
of surgeons followed in the wake
of armies to patch together bodies
sent there to be blown apart
by their own fathers, and
Bonaparte’s a man remembered
for his skill with horses, and
Nagasaki is a place admired for its gardens…
So I go back the way we came, or we imagined
(old stories live in us, and can be changed)—
to urge Penelope to leave her loom,
her repetition; her high position
as the Lord’s forsaken mistress
only tempts the greed of suitors
and nothing, anyway, stops time, so
tell it over, try to make it serve us
better: warn the fierce, naïve Medea
not to go with the ambitious Jason,
tell Ariadne to save her string
and go instead to the deep chamber
in the center of the maze
and take her brother, that sweet,
imprisoned monster
by the horns and lead him with her
to the huge sun-drenched abundance
that will pasture them awhile, the place
we have despoiled, running from the death god
Pluto, instead of turning to embrace him,
being deathless only in desire, not blaming
others for the fact that we are real,
sport for the gods whose only pleasure
is the time when they take on a mortal
body, consort with others, dance a
measure, giving themselves at last
to dust that spirals where the air
meets sunlight, as all those do who know
that myths no one believes in, free of dogma,
are like slaves unshackled from a master,
serving no one but the errant truth, free
to go the way their minotaurs will lead them—
half-animal, half-human, and this time
nothing monstrous, but a creature
with a double vision, chewing grass
and gazing at the heavens, untouched
by jealousy or fear, content to let
the dragons pass, unmolested,
setting out to conquer nothing,
knowing there is nothing now to win,
for while they slept (ten thousand years)
victory turned to ashes, and the artists
of the empire fashioned them an urn.
So now we turn again
to sun where dust is dancing,
pagans chastened by the centuries
of separation, and turn to springs
of real water, bereft of muses,
but shining from their passage, or from light,
returning to the garden
we won’t call Eden, but simply earth;
and having eaten of the Tree
of Knowledge, this time we’ll pick
the other tree and eat the fruit of life.

Eleanor Wilner’s Notes
“A Green Blues for Etheridge” is, of course, for Etheridge Knight (1931-1991), a dear friend; it refers to his “Poem of Attrition,” most recently reprinted in The Essential Etheridge Knight (Pitt Poetry Series, 1986). To American poetry, he is indeed essential.
“Recycled Song” is for Julia Randall (1924-2005), another lost friend, arguably the best lyric poet of her generation. In 1979/80, she won the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, and in 1988, The Poets Prize for her book, Moving in Memory. A fine selection of her work can be found in her last book,
The Path to Fairview: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1992).
What do myths have to do with the price of fish?”: The last lines of the poem form the only direct overlap with later work—a different and more developed version of this notion of a return to origins in which everything is changed. In the two concluding stanzas, only the last two lines are the same. The later version is the last stanza of “Having Eaten of the Tree of Knowledge,” the poem that ends Sarah’s Choice (University of Chicago Press, 1989):

So we come down from stony haunts—
the hypothetical eternal—to find another
way into the garden, not by the gate
guarded by the iron angel. Nor shall we
call it by the ancient name. After so long
an exile, what have we to do with Edens?
Bred on the bitter fruit of choice, having
soaked the earth with the dragon’s blood
pouring from our mortal wounds—
this time we’ll pick the other Tree
and eat the fruit of life.

{Editor’s note: “What do myths have to do with the price of fish?” gives readers a fascinating glimpse into Wilner’s poetic process: the personal experience that catalyzed this earliest version has been refined in the fire of revision, the personal details giving way to philosophical inquiry in the mythic mode of the published poem.} 

One Comment on “Nine Early Poems

  1. “an old, old woman in a cotton wrap
    whose lost design long since slid down a drain;”
    WOW! I love this imagery. and also the creek plotting an overthrow of gardens.

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