Rousseau's Last Painting
This could be Eden, a realm of exotic,
lush vegetation, but the tree of knowledge
is missing, the snake that tempted Eve
slithers from the canvas, and a black man,
his loins brightly masked, replaces Adam.
This could be Paradise, its fruit forever
unspoiled on the orange tree, wild beasts
peacefully commingling, hypertrophic
lotuses perfuming the air, the enchantment
of birdsong and a flute’s silvery sighs.
This could be a dream, the imagination’s
longing for the impossible: a classical nude
on a red divan transported to a primeval
jungle. A lion’s wide-eyed gaze invites you in.
You are the viewer. You are the dreamer.
The Death of the Poet Li Po
Some say it was the wine. Some say it was love,
the moon smiling up at him from the river.
He was drunk. The boat was tipsy. He stood,
aching to embrace such loveliness forever.
The stars looked on. The lapping waves
were dancing. Leaning out over the gunwale,
he toasted his image, which lay now beside
the moon’s face, and drank again. The sails
billowed and the little craft rocked him forward.
He could not deny himself. He reached and reached
until the river opened its mouth and drank him.
The boat was lost in the blackness. The beach
was miles away. This was Li Po’s last line.
Some say it was love. Some say it was the wine.
Japanese Cherry Blossom
Such abundance of a nothing weight!--
each blossom fully opened yet holding on.
Now a squirrel dances, thin limb to limb
and the whole tree shivers. And now
a cardinal alights in his swashbuckler’s habit
to breakfast on a delicacy. Tomorrow
the wind will begin its scattering work
and it will rain pink petals for a week.
As reverie follows bliss, green will follow pink.
And green can live for months on memory.
Above a ruin of trees, crows stream.
There is music in their wings,
a peculiar lilt to their fragmentation
of grief. The moon balances
on a blackened branch where, of late,
an owl sat. Deer have scattered.
Where did the squirrels and voles hide?
Their prints mark the ashen ground
like hieroglyphs. Now the wind comes
to soothe. From nowhere, a cardinal
blazes—a red gash on a black canvas,
so beautiful the stars cry.
is clearly confused,
so were his parents.
Being both heavy and light,
he can neither
fly nor root,
which makes his life
a kind of hovering
between two things
that cross each other out.
All play is work,
all drudgery is sport,
and so he spends his days
busily doing nothing,
fields of thought
like a practical idealist.
At night he holds forth
in a neighborhood bar
in his undertaker’s suit
and Indian headdress.
He drinks to sober up
and tell again
the sad joke
of how we die at birth
And then he laughs
till he cries and cries
till he laughs,
sorrow and joy
mixing it up in his blood.
Vows for the New Year
I will ride the day to new places,
reclaiming my child’s wonder:
a buttercup’s reflected face,
the fallen star of a lightning bug,
the baton of a happy dog’s tail.
I will smile easily and often, hug
the shoulders of each passing second
knowing it will not come again.
I will cultivate deserts, bend
sunlight to glister off sad highways.
I will make food my friend, not my lover.
I will walk three miles every day
and greet my neighbors. At seventy
I will honor the body’s complaints,
forgive mirrors their honesty.
I will wear gratitude like a red coat,
forbearing the shifting
seasons of hope and doubt.
If God is energy,
I sit in God's hand.
I ride a thread of desire--
my own--and not my own.
Longing spins me out.
There's genius in moving.
In dips and arcs I thrill
to the latitudes of air.
I love an unmapped country--
my spirit spooling away
from its body, dancing
at the end of a string.
Habit winds me home.
It is good to rest
in the ring of myself.
There's genius in stillness.
A river would never insist
that the life of its banks
bow to its great body
or that the earth yield
to its hunger.
It would never presume
to swallow rocks, trees,
towns, humble the stars
or proselytize to fish.
Time has show it the way
all things follow on their own.
Not noun, as we suppose,
but verb. “It’s all flux!”
by stepping into a river twice.
It has no motor of its own;
it goes by letting go
and never stops to question
what greater power pulls it,
or what moods its marriage
to the elements will expose.
It gushes, streams, walks
in its sleep, gallops, leaps,
trusting in the alchemy
of moon, tide, weather.
Like an ornament
at the apex of a clay roof
a single bird will perch,
lord of the highest view.
This morning it’s a dove
dissolving against the soft
grey of an overcast sky.
Better than high branches
or high wires, here he is
a soloist, rooster of the skies,
loosening his six-note aria
on the empty street below.
From my open window
in an adjacent building,
I sit watching, listening
to his abandoned heart,
thinking, this is the way
a poem writes itself,
note by solitary note
on the prevailing air.
When the egret returned to the cove in March
she took it as a sign. How it kept walking
out of itself and emerging whole from its hunger.
It was a clear morning, the cherry tree shaking
into bloom over the tannin-stained river.
All winter she had been stuck as if at the bottom
of an abyss waiting for spring rain to pool
and float her up. Now this: the sun pouring in
and the waking wind; the egret pulling
the legs of the tide into her back yard
where the cherry tree bends to admire itself.
These were ladder rungs. So she climbed.
And the egret tucked the S of its neck
to its breast, unfolded its white wings
like an offering of good news, and lifted
into a gold-spattered, infinite blue.
He stands above
his inverted brother
like loosely seamed
halves of a heart.
The beak that breaks
water, flipping silver,
might be a kiss. To kiss
one’s own mouth
in green mirrors,
stabbing at love
to swallow death!
How we die
to love ourselves
through each other,
a desperate applause
of clapping flesh
that leaves us
like, now, the egret
who rises, who drowns.
Almost everyday now it happens--
that splat against glass.
Seen from outside, these large
windows of my stucco house
float a mirage of trees and sky’
like rooms mirrored to repeat themselves.
How they repeat themselves!
Since sunup, a party line of old news
ricochets, tree to tree. Now one
sounds his single song from the elm;
distant pines are a choir of mimicry.
Like lovers constantly needing
to reassure each other, themselves,
they give to get back.
Only the pitch, the emphasis alters,
as in: “I love you”; “I love you.”
Any phrase, repeated enough,
is a small death. Undressed
and jeweled in white, I find them
silent in bushes, in beds,
or sometimes, on the cement steps,
only dazed and leaking
burgundy under the belly.
Daft by the berries’ wine, June days
they sail blind. Lured by the bird
that blooms on a pane of glass,
like the body’s echo soaring back
into itself, they break whole on impact.
Loving you is like that.
How to Start a Day
Begin by letting go of the hem
of your dream. Let it slip
backwards into a black lake
as you greet the dawn. Be thankful
for small aches. You have survived
night’s heavy arms to wash yesterday
from your face. Begin to create
the opus of a new day. Look out
from a kitchen window as you savor
a first cup of coffee. House wrens
flap at the feeder. A squirrel
dances osiers so that the willow
shakes with laughter. Be thankful
for the small favors of sunlight
walking across the lawn, a cabbage
butterfly teasing the azaleas,
the pink rain of cherry blossoms.
Even the neighbor’s dog barking
ducks from his yard is sacred.
Open to morning’s hymns:
the big mouth of the garbage truck,
the mockingbird’s purloined songs,
chatter on the corner waiting
for the yellow school bus. The engine
of the day purrs in your throat
as you dress. Sweep your calendar
clean of doctor appointments,
chores. The vacuum and the duster
can wait. Let the day surprise you.
Be thankful to be who you are.
The Long Life
There is no other that you are waiting for.
Everything you need is within your reach.
When the towhee sings his name in the maple tree
outside your window, sing back your name.
The wind will carry it downriver
to distant estuaries. Think of how hard
you have had to work to get to this moment,
how many soles you have discarded
along the way, how many moons have waned
like shuttered lanterns. Now you are light inside.
Now you have cast off parents, children,
a house, expectations, demands, politics.
You have earned the right to be self-ish.
Be like the heron who stands on the glistening
shoreline tucked into her wings.
Roam the countries in the two continents
inside your head. Speak to the natives,
all those people you have been and are.
All you have to do is listen.
How We Happened
You arrived like a letter forwarded to a wrong address,
like a dog’s nose to the ground seeking its way home,
like the last peach on a tree, or a stone skipped across
water to land safely in the palm of a leaf. You came
out of a seeming nowhere like a slow-developing sheet
of film; like a fledgling, fanning the air from the lip
of its nest; like the sun, at day’s end, content to bleed
into a purpled horizon. Like a bet decided on the flip
of a coin, Heads, you called. And I answered, the way
mourning doves volley songs through a stand of pines,
a bounced ball returns to a child’s hand, or a stray
shadows a boy’s heart to a door. Like a trumpet vine
to a hummingbird, I invited you in. Stay! I said,
Stay like a rock washed smooth by a river. And you did.