Ash Wednesday, 1981

Spring in its starched bib,
            Winter’s cutlery in its hands. Cold grace. Slice and fork.
The buds on the bare limbs of the dogwood outside the nave windows
            remain dense and green,
                        clenched tight like tiny fists—
I cross myself at the standing station, nod to the big-handed priest
            who draws down a swath of oily black ash,
                                                            Remember that you are but dust
then furrows across from left to right
                                                                                    and to dust you shall return
            before touching my forehead with his own and moving away.
High school, junior year, just after lunch, a friend came late to Geometry class,
forehead smudged black in the center. My Unitarian upbringing
            featured Sunday school classes in sex ed., learning to write
            cuneiform on fragrant clay slabs, making macramé.
I asked her what that smudge meant. She looked a moment embarrassed, then
fisted her blush of discomfort into a flush of defiance, said
            I’m Catholic. It’s Ash Wednesday. Today we mark ourselves
            with the cremated remains of parishioners who died this year,

then stalked away.
Clustered in the stiff, damp grass a clutch of jonquils genuflect and tremble
in the streetlamp’s shallow light.
            The tap of rain, the whisper of damp earth
                        along the sidewalk remind one of something. But who knows?
Speak to me, dust of the dead. Even now, I feel the pull of your grave,
            the weight of oil and ash bending my neck,
                                                                                                head like a flower stem, alone,
            the echo of an empty cave rattling my tiny bones.

Ars Poetica #9

I’d stepped off the trail to Mount LeConte for the privacy,
thought to be concealed in a laurel thicket. I’d hiked this
way before, though not in years, figured I knew the way,
decided to bushwhack across the ridge and intercept
the path somewhere above. I thought as I went along,
that writing poems was just like this: an irresistible
longing to go someplace, to strike out walking, unsure
where to go but up, the way sometimes flat and wide
as a boulevard fragrant with balsam duff, sometimes
rocky and rutted, root strewn, steep and nearly trackless,
the way gyring higher, tack on tack, narrowing, one rise
looking just like the last and the one before that, the noise
of the trailside creek falling from the laughing plash
of water heavy with gravity to a murmur, then to a silence
as heavy as the bronze of a tongueless bell, not even
the scuffle of a squirrel in pine limbs high above or even
the rustling of the wind in the mantle of the hemlocks,
and I keep walking, but faster now, resisting the rising
cry that I’m utterly lost since even the semblance
of a single-track path has vanished and all that’s left
is an echo of sun slanted below the far ridge,
a chill tang arisen from the hollows all around.

Then, the way opens onto a narrow ledge. You look
down, and just as the vertigo rises to seize your tongue,
you look out, see a cradle of valley before you, the far
ridges at once close enough to caress and falling away
in endless waves of blue and indigo and violet curves
of a beauty you had only ever read about.

Looking Outside on the Winter Solstice

21 December 2012 and it doesn’t feel like doomsday,
                                                                                                        as the Mayans have told us,
Christmas just four days off.

The winged elm’s limbs sweep the face of heaven,
half moon a florid thumb print on the bleak wash of western sky.

Somewhere north and east of here, clouds hunch darkly,
the hills pull on their heavy cloaks, as I wait for words to settle on the page—
like the towhee that flits
                                                            an azalea tangle near my window, flashes now
to the still brown grass, where two then four then ten of them
flutter and quieten, like the lines of this poem,
                                                                                                            a surprise, a rebirth.