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Things of This World

ISSUE:  Summer 1987

Reality inheres in particulars, of course,
but the problem is so many seem to buzz
around us, flash and fade, how can we know
which hold a decent quotient of the world,
enough to satisfy our wish to find
some intimations of the life to come?
That tree stump seeping by your foot, for instance,
could well be the perfect lopped-off symbol
of a life lived out; its seventy-three, rings
so nicely mirror our three score plus ten:
the old allotment that we try to stretch
with better diets, exercise, and will.
But there, against the mudbank, lies a muskrat,
dead as any deadhead tree and surely
in its way exemplary as well.
So why did it expire? What can it mean?
The questions that a four-year-old might ask
seem relevant near forty as I stand here
and assess my fate against these woods,
this river with its milky banks, this piece of sky.
I impose a thought upon each object
and expect a miracle of correlation:
worlds well met and mutually limning
Truth and Beauty, correspondent terms.
But weather more than objects may contain
the parallels we seek: the fine details
that represent a million different moods—
the way a raindrop hesitates in fog
could, for example, represent the way
most good ideas hover in a haze,
not quite released into the air until
a chill condenses them to fact—wet,
tangy and resolved. One could go on.
Snow is, observe, God’s greatest gift
to poets of New England, endlessly imperfect
in its fallen state, its crystal forms,
a silence like the pause between right words,
amenable to every worldly surface, icing
on the cake of things. But weather, of itself,
is far too fragile to compete head on
with landscapes, vistas, Nature’s present
to the active mind in search of objects
to contain its love, those hardy parallels
and fine, hard lines, those shapes amorphous
as a Rorschach blot, susceptible
to every little turn a thought could take.
One finds these sights most often in the woods,
that crackling plenitude of wholesome signs—
the black geese honking to the south again
in mid-September, taking with them song
but not its rippling echo in our voice.
We sing their going and adore the tune,
the poem of loss, articulately finding
what seems missing in the air itself,
as if our central purpose were to mourn
all separations: words and objects severed
by a moment’s glance their way, the lone bird
rising and the bird we name—just not the same.
But why shed tears about a bird and not
a wheatfield ready to be mown, that sense of harvest
not as culmination but as something lost,
like high school graduations, where the parent mourns
the vacant bed, the empty places at supper,
as the band plays on? Each word we say
becomes an elegy to what is lost,
as this raw tree stump recollects the shade
we still remember from a Sunday picnic
when the world was green and parents played
and sorrow was the last thing left to learn.
Ah, words: we say them and we sigh. . . .
Think how much sadness dictionaries hold,
a thousand pages of unending grief!
Perhaps the harvest scene as something lost
could be revised as victory, a prelude
to a cozy winter night beside the fire,
the lapdog lapping, children in their beds,
and moonlight in uplifted arms of trees.
The sparrows in the snow might well replace
the honking geese as something to admire:
tenacious little birds who just hang on,
like nettles in a wood or winter colds.
I like their blunt refusal to be budged,
the way they call up other stubborn things:
the high Norwegian pines that line this shore,
the stony outcrops that have never changed
in umpteen years, blue sky above the clouds,
the river which in every season moves
toward conclusion in some far-off sea.


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