These Great Sadnesses

Our bodies have evolved
so beautifully,
those miraculous thumbs,
that swaying spine,
but how is it
that in all that
adapting,
advancing,
surviving,
I am left with
no organ to bear
the great sadness
of being human?
Grief crawls through
my veins, searching
for the place it will be
digested,
held,
converted
into some other energy,
exhaled or absorbed.
It presses at my throat,
writhes through my skull,
slides around my lungs,
leaving me voiceless
unbalanced
suffocating.
My body has failed me,
left me with no
organic capacity
for these great
sadnesses.

The Housefly

There are bits of this world
I have not yet learned to love
(Let’s not speak of war
and rape and the garbage dumps
like writhing quilts spread over
fields of oceans.)
I mean even the wild citizens
of this earth, true to their
primordial calling,
who follow the vision
imprinted deep in their cells.

The simple housefly, say,
whose only harm is the tentative
way it lands on my cheek,
my ankle, while I rest
in the afternoon sun.
The feel of its pinprick
feet, tender on my skin,
draws unwarranted curses,
a childish contempt.

Dear sister fly, forgive
my petty disdain of your wise
and nimble nature.
Small harbinger of rain,
you who tread so lightly
as you weave through your
existence, I am ashamed
of my narrow, brutish love.

A Fine Beauty

Is there a finer beauty
than the morning sun
glancing off the turquoise
shimmer of the sunbird,
the dark yellow of its belly,
the perfect lines drawn by
feathers growing in careful
patterns from the recesses of
its small body?
Where do the feathers of a
sunbird acquire those startling
colours? Do they slide through
pigment arranged in tidy
sections in translucent
skin,or form in rainbow pools
gathered deep in the crevices
between avian organs?
I remember being a child at
a desk, counting out nickels,
memorizing prepositions,
but my education strikes me
as shoddy, devoid as it was
of the magical science of
tiny bird bodies
sprouting feathery
emerald
wings.

On the Feast Day of St. Francis (October 4)

Francis preached to the
birds, assumed they
understood his pious
convictions, felt enough
camaraderie with that
kingdom of creatures that
he stopped to include
them in his reverie, his
grand ideals.
What was it Francis
felt pressing in his peasant
heart that he couldn’t help
but share it with the
pigeons pecking
in the dust of Assissi’s
grey stones?
What truth have I
ever grasped that could
improve upon the
understanding of the
rufous sparrow,
watching me sidelong
from its branch,
content in its
leafy theology?

the river

i remember
grass pressed into knees
green and compliant
the empty november air
that turned our voices into water
our movements into lines
drawn across blank skies
a drunken reticle
incapable of focus.
you wrapped that peasant quilt
around us
promised it would hide us
guide us
through a labyrinth of limbs
shivering inside the watching winter
reverberating with the remembrance
of tenuous touch.
the wind
that meddling melding
alchemist of prairie
coaxed us closer
forced space into nonspace
breath into agate stone.
this was our fusing
fumbling incarnation
reincarnation of fusions
fostered centuries ago
by the smell of slate grey rivers
slowing
into
ice.

(Memories of a long ago poetry night. This poem had never yet found its way to this site…)

This Hour

If this hour
were the
only one,
the only hour
of all existence,
would it feel
like an elaborate
waste, a pointless
exercise in cells
and blood
and biology
and thought?
Or would it be
the greatest miracle
the divine mind
could conjure,
worth an eternity
of waiting for
this one brilliant
explosion of matter?
I move carefully
across the damp grass,
watch the wasp
weave through space,
feel giddy with
my body’s presence
in this beautiful,
brief experiment.

New birds have found our birdfeeder, though we don’t know why or how. Grosbeak weavers with long necks, bold white foreheads. They scare away the smaller birds, the firefinches and mannnekins that have been at home here so long. We all gather at the sliding glass door, move slowly, observe these new dynamics, these rowdy new neighbours.

J is memorizing the locations of African countries. She stands with Phil looking over the Rift Valley and points across the vastness. Over there is Rwanda. Somalia is that way. Tanzania over there. She is finding her place on this wide continent.

We carry heavy wooden chairs to the middle of the lawn, watch the immense sky over the valley turn every colour. The sun becomes a fireball, then hides behind the clouds sending rays of heaven in every direction. We point at cloud shapes, colour shades, rain falling in the distance, dust devils swirling at the other end of the valley. The girls pause their movie, come outside, exclaim and point, still willing to be amazed by this land of their childhood.

At night P wants me to stay close, to trace letters on her back, to sing lullabies. Her bed is lined with stuffed animals, she holds a small reading light. Wants “fancy hugs” and extra kisses. Tomorrow she turns six, this child who used to fit below my ribs. Today when I walked her to school, she kissed goodbye early, insisted she’d run the rest of the way herself, is making me less vital to the workings of her day.

We run to the soccer field in the dark, just before bedtime, to watch P fly her new kite. She calls, laughs, runs to the far end of the field, disappearing into the darkness. We all take turns, following her careful instructions. M wears a Moroccan scarf that sparkles in the street lights. P and J do floppy handstands on the hard earth, legs spread wide. Our cheers echo across the silent parking lot.

M and J work secretly each evening, drawing shimmering pictures with gel pens on black paper- pictures of leaves and swirls, floating hearts and hatching eggs. They are making a boardgame for their sister, yell too harshly whenever she tries to see what they’re doing, work with urgent creativity.

The girls and their friends write clever plays to perform for us, plays about witches and fairies, vegetables, and lots of dying. They stuff pillows up jackets, tie scarves around their waists, work through their biggest fears. We laugh and applaud, wish we could save them from all that dying, all those fears.

P and I walk through the forest on he birthday morning. She carries a long stick and whacks it at every tree branch she passes, cheers when leaves fall. At every two-trunked tree she stops suddenly and stands at attention, tells me her kindergarten teacher told her to always stare at two-trunked trees for two minutes. Our progress is slow. When we find the prayer labyrinth, she picks small seeds out of seed pods, arranges them in a circle on the stone cross, rubs crumbly leaves between her palms for confetti.

Reflection

In the reflection of my laptop screen I see how the skin around my mouth is collecting in small wrinkles, realize my mouth is older than it feels. It reminds me of the wrinkles around the lips of my dearest aunt, her loud Irish laugh, her magical stories. She sits in a care home now, quiet and subdued by the way life is erasing her mind, wiping away all those memories, the farmhouse and the noisy children, the hours at the typewriter and long walks down prairie roads. The last time I saw her she looked lost and worried, not sure who she should be in that crowded diner, beneath that floppy hat. But the wrinkles around her mouth remember, hold onto all those years, give testimony to all that living. I smile at my reflection, notice the way my tears catch the morning light.

When Prayers Fall

When your prayer falls
weighted and dull
at your feet,
betraying all your
brave and fragile
hope,do you kick it
scuffed and dusty
to the tangled ditch
or do you kneel
beside it on
that sharp gravel,
breathe on it
the heartbroken
breath of a child
collecting, with
tenderness, the hollow
bones and feathers
of a dying bird?

P is eager to get to school, impatient with my conversations along the way. She needs to get to her new friend, needs to play with her as soon as possible. I get a quick goodbye kiss, then she runs to drop her backpack in her cubby, skips over to her friend who is being pushed on the swing. Soon P appears beside me, her face crumpled. She leans into me, whispers “She doesn’t want to play with me”. I hold her on my lap, watch tears slide down her smooth cheeks, am helpless in the face of so much heartbreak, such explicit rejection.

High in the burned out trunk of a eucalyptus tree above the labyrinth where I meditate each morning, there is a small brown stuffed monkey. Its lofty seat makes me laugh, puzzled. I call it the Prayer Monkey, nod hello to it when I arrive at that quiet place, hope some day I learn what it waits to teach me.

We walk to a small pond in the middle of the forest.Green lily pads like fat hearts rest on its glassy surface. Purple lilies, tall and surprising, reach straight to the sky, leave drops of colour on the water mirror. M and I sit in the shade on an old kikoi, watch the Jacanas strut in the shallows, their throats preposterously white. Just before we leave we recognize a Little Grebe with its long crimson neck diving into the water and we cheer at our good luck, our first Little Grebe, our place in this hidden society.

J and P come to the supper table covered in red dirt and sand dust. They are breathing heavily, disheveled and hungry. “We’ve just had a war.” They reach for the pot of rice and recount the afternoon’s battle with the middle school boys at the playground. “We used bows and arrows. We won.” They grin over their plates with pride.

There is a plastic food container with a lid in the fridge, filled with a purple-brown liquid that I can’t identify. Before I taste it I remember P, the day before, gathering petals from our flowers, picking small needles of rosemary, asking for a bowl. I smile at her beautiful soup, nestled comfortably among the vegetables.