Paradise Over The Ridge

The Promised Land’s bounties must deeply move tea drinkers.
Surely my parents’ after-dinner mugs were in communion with that spirit:
They decided long ago to filter life through themselves.

Children babble all phonemes before dying into their language. Do whales
Wail for their own lost words? Or for their homeland, like the Jews in Babylon?
Do they roam the seas just to kneel before Neptune and beg for the return of Zion?

Jung said we should assume that others know us better than we know ourselves:
The immediacy of the psyche muddies perception. Raskolnikov crosses the street
Less to spare his friend the trouble than to avoid seeing himself reflected there.

Two thousand onlookers watch shadows wobble between curtain and stage.
Sparrows swarm phone lines and gawk at passers-by, twittering in jest.
Yet each morning I wish for better ears when my breath mingles with their songs.

We’re out here laying westward tracks till the sun goes down.
Some say that paradise is just over the next ridge. What does the swallow say?
Even baptized in vermilion, the summer’s growing awfully cold.

A rufous wren chirrs Boethius from the crook of a crabapple tree.
Audiences jostle in line to hear Rostropovich play Dvořák; but my cat
Sprawls on the kitchen floor and hums of The New World in his cello chest.


Watch for where the Arrows Fall

When the Ojibwa named this lake Gichigami, the great water, had their histories forgotten
The name of the greater water they had left behind? Did French trappers relish
In Supérieur’s double meaning? Or do these frosty depths devour all intention?

How many times did the glaciers scrape over the basalt plain to carve the deepest basin?
I imagine an eternal waltz between ice and earth, each centimeter a century of Shostakovich
Spurring them on. When the French horns swell, the dancers sweep across the floor more boldly.

Some black holes spend decades sipping on stars, delighting in each atomic draught. At night
The lake’s sleek surface gulps down the embers of countless suns and shines them back at me.
I want a guzzle, but if I drank for a thousand years could I ever taste its vast and ancient loneliness?

Look at how the blue heron smelts the Keweenaw shoal waters, still as any sculpted stone.
When he lunges with his dagger-beak, it emerges glinting with silver. The osmeridae
Gawks with martian eyes at the bird’s ruffled plumage, trying to make sense of his life.

From our screened-in cabin porch we study the far-off freighters that barge over the choppy waters
To Sault Ste. Marie. The greenhorns spook when shellbacks say the lake never gives up her dead.
But when driven underground, generations of the faithful frescoed their histories on catacomb walls.

Some days the wind shifts and sweeps the sky with plump cumulonimbi, and I’m like David
Crouched in the millet fields while the king asks for me at his table. I await the tattle of rain
Upon the great water; though where Jonathan’s arrows will fall, no one can say.


The candlelit coffee table
under refilled decanters
and the fireplace licks the family room
with shadows.
The woodpile is low.
Ma flicks the light
above the back door
while I, boots unlaced and flannel flapping,
through knee-deep snow
to the woodshed,
always aiming
for the half-filled
made before dinner.
The sycamores loom
at the edge of the light,
their trunks
pallid and peeling.
The branches,
bony and ghostly,
overhead as I return with an armload
of dead wood
and, rosy-faced, my belly
sloshing with scotch,
hear their sighs
as the light switches
before I close the door.

Two Journeys

  1. The Climb

    The peak stops just shy of two thousand meters and is bare
    Of any growth besides the sweeping snows and blooming stones. We mount
    The final crest, heaving with the labor of our lungs and our bones
    And steaming in our woolen wrappings just to be laid
    Bare to the westerly gusts that rake our uncovered faces. The top layer
    Of snow is a fine grainy dust that swirls upward on each wind-swell
    And glitters in the unobscured sun like a million shattered gemstones
    Floating on forever. We tuck ourselves behind the utmost
    Crag and revel for a time in the beaming light and watch
    The powders flurry by. Someone breaks open
    A pack to reveal a peppered salami and pocket knife, someone else
    A block of Bergkäse, and we feast on slices of meat and cheese;
    And time, for once, seems ever to replenish itself
    So that we could stay there forever
    And never die.

  2. The Run Home

    I come to a stop at the top of a rise before it plunges
    Into another silent hollow and try to listen
    To the hum of the lift engines before they go still and leave
    The mountainside rasping with wind. But I hear only my speed
    On the last slope over the mounds of soft snow, the scoring
    Of ice, the dodging of spruces and larches, the whistling
    Closeness of a spill and injury, my brain all the time pushing
    The speed and trying new obstacles, all the time nearly
    Overwhelmed with exertion and yet intent on every groove and tuft
    And gulley, all the time both cold with screeching wind and frozen nostrils
    And hot with sun and effort as the boughs bounce up and down, up
    And down on the wind like my knees absorbing the shock of the pistes,
    The wind tickling every undulation, tickling every needle that clings to its branch—
    Then in another breath my head is quiet. The wind tiptoes
    Over the powdery ghylls. The crags of the far mountains
    Suddenly overtake the sun. Down in the valley
    I can see the light that blazes above the door of a pine-paneled Hütte,
    Smoke spouting gently from the chimney. I wonder
    What comforts are being enjoyed within, what fresh spirits
    Are warming what tired limbs, what soups are stewing
    In cauldrons over the fire. I set off down the last slope home,
    Looking up every now and then to make sure
    The light is still lit.

Lines of the Heartland

Outside the window the yellow-green stalks are alive and running the last ten miles
to Iowa. When we hit the Platte, they stop suddenly as if crouching in slow motion
before springing over and accompanying us again as we make a bullet for Chicago.

Behind us stretch Nebraska’s measureless seas of wavy corn and beans and wheat,
broken only by the red cedars of the shelterbelts that dance their little two-step
while piping woodpeckers drum away at the roosts they bore into the timber-flesh.

We left a dead man back there, and I think I hear him knocking on his grave like a door
that might open and show him the way home. But I don’t know if it’s because he’s afraid to go
where he’s never been, or because he remembered some things he’d never said but meant to.

Funny how when we finally settle down we feel trapped and want instead to cavort
above the fields like crows. But when a fierce wind picks up and rakes the land
like a vagrant seeking fruit, shakes the trees till their roots might rip, and pelts

with gray rafters of rain the panes of our houses, of our hearts; then we’re swift
to accept whatever shelter there is: the tin roof of the awning in the park that sings
like one who’s earned enough alms for bread, or the soggy bank of a drainage

ditch. The road before us is so straight and flat that the sun comes up and dazzles us
as if we’re ascending the stairs to Heaven. We flip down the shades so we don’t have to see
what waits behind the glare. But every time I see the sun flood over the breakers

of the east, I want to live like it’s the Dawn of Man and I’m the one to shape what is
to come of it. We charge blindly onward; but somewhere behind us grandpa’s gone back
to the land that reared him, and another storm springs up to whoop and howl and sing.

Up North

The aluminum is hot under our bare feet, mostly smooth
between the joints but sometimes dimpled where it got banged up
by the stony beach, grimy in places with the pulp
of fallen flora, beading around the rim with a delicate spray
that runs together and slips silently to the floor, caked
with streaks of dried mucus near where the stringer is bound, buzzing
with biting flies that nibble below our knees and seek
whatever it is that reeks with such foul delicacy. Our exchanges
are laconic but visceral: a gesture toward the next point and a grunt
of assent, a nod when the bow is blown toward an inlet laced
with water lillies, a curse and an open palm aimed
at a fly. Communicative is flesh, breath, heat. We hug
the shoreline’s steep rock faces; lichen seeps from the cracks; a scraggly
bush overhangs. We work our way past a half-sunken log,
make another pass. We cast and cast and cast. The sky
is barren, almost frozen; but sometimes a puff stirs the water,
stirs the deep and cool water, and something moves
within us too. We cast forth our little lines and spinnerbait hoping
to pull something in, and feel the floor hot beneath our feet.


What language did Adam speak when he named the world? The same one as God
when he spoke light into dark? Would I recognize any of the words of either tongue?

There is a music in the clatter of mugs and spoons and saucers and trays
and glasses that rings over the purl of words spoken in languages I don’t understand, a music

as natural as the sibilance of spruces ruffled by a tender southerly, or the hill-borne bleats
of suckling sheep. The patter of shoes, the scrape of stools ungracefully pushed back

from tables, the dings of bracelets confused with the chimes of oven bells all as ancient
as the yowls of a universe being born, stretching out its body, bursting at the seams

and raging with the tumult of planets and stars hatching everywhere. The story of being, of lives
lived, is told more subtly than any idealist might admit, listeners who prefer more sophisticated

revelations. But the meager space around you and me runs over with a song that longs not to be
wasted as much as the would-be roars of supernovae are on unsounded space, or Mendelssohn’s
symphonies on a deaf man who only half-understands the reverberations that echo in his chest.


Of the fishermen on the piers or in their fishing vessels,
Of the sailing vessels tacking a net-towing course, of their spars and stanchions straining,
Of the taut stays and halyards hoisting, of the many pennants waving,
Of the planks shifting, of the nails which connect them, of the hinges of hatches blooming with briny rust;
Of the tawny and russet timberlines, of their nuclear congestions, of the sable zones they crash through,
Of the axemen and their axes, of the riverways and river punters, of the splitters and planers and sawyers in their sawmills,
Of the architects and the papers and protractors of architects,
Of the shipwrights and line handlers in the drydocks with their planks and hammers and lines, seeking the ways to connect them;
Of the mackerel shoals and mounds of mackerel husks on the decks,
Of the cod-fish and tuna in their pods swimming, of oysters and clams and lobsters down deep crawling, floating on a current, coming to rest elsewhere,
Of the buzzards hawking the cerulean seas and the decks and harbors, seeking the husks and bones and eyes of the mackerel, of the cod-fish, of the tuna,
Of the ravening September clouds blown on the billows of a cold front,
Of the feeble flexion of the freshly hauled fish and the fixation of the buzzard eyes, of the seagull eyes as they cease with their beaks to pick through their sea-cabbages,
Of the pungent perfumes of the mackerels drifting over,
Of the many ships going and coming, and the sailors and pilots and captains in their cabins and compartments,
Of the channels and buoys, of the glow of the lookout’s tower, of the doleful dinging of the buoy bells rocking and ringing on the receding tide,
Of the surf pulling away to sea all ships, all fish, all sea-cabbages, all nettles, all hawking birds, all people returning to their ships in the nautical night,
Their salted ships to the sea returning;
Of these I sing.