Is the scent of apple boughs smoking
in the woodstove what I will remember
of the Red Delicious I brought down, ashamed
that I could not convince its limbs to render fruit?
Too much neglect will do that, skew the sap’s
passage, blacken leaves, dry the bark and heart.
I should have lopped the dead limbs early
and watched each branch with a goshawk’s eye,
patching with medicinal pitch, offering water,
compost and mulch, but I was too enchanted
by pear saplings, flowers and the pasture,
too callow to believe that death’s inevitable
for any living being unloved, untended.
What remains is this armload of applewood
now feeding the stove’s smolder. Splendor
ripens a final time in the firebox, a scarlet
harvest headed, by dawn, to embers.
Two decades of shade and blossoms – tarts
and cider, bees dazzled by the pollen,
spare elegance in ice – but what goes is gone.
Smoke is all, through this lesson in winter
regret, I’ve been given to remember.
Smoke, and Red Delicious apples redder
than a passing cardinal’s crest or cinders.
I skim sadness like fat off the surface
of cooling soup. Don’t care about
metaphor but wish it would arrive
me. There’s a cool current of air
this hot day I want to ride.
I have no lover, not even my love.
I have no other, not even I.
Those years, after dogwoods
and purple phlox
the color of dyed Easter eggs,
the screen door rattling like a nerve …
On the porch, a cardboard box
for the stray cats
who stayed just long enough
to swell and litter.
my mother, home
from the stenographer’s pool,
starlings dangling like keys
over the rooftops,
the late hour pulling us in
like a magnet,
the moon baying,
the solitaire train of cards.
Nothing could budge us
from our own little island,
our own little cushions,
where we stayed,
eating tuna sandwiches,
just her and me,
floating on TV laughter,
her hand clasped over mine
like a first date’s.
Tell me again that my kisses are magic,
that my mouth unfolds longing like a landslide.
Loneliness spills over my lips each time you beg:
sing for me. Your unquenchable thirst devours
each syllable. Tell me again how you wanted to paint
the way you see me because I know all the words
to the first song you made love to in the back seat
of a red car, windows down overlooking the desert at sunset.
Tell me you didn’t forget to pay those parking tickets,
and to take your paintbrush out of the water, or
the way we fit together like puzzle pieces and
that once we slow danced, cheek-to-cheek
in the middle of the street, then hop-scotched
on the dotted lines all the way back to our childhoods
playing hide-and-seek. You told me once you didn’t
want to be left behind. Now you’re always leaving
the door open. I want to nail shut all possibilities because
the sun is already setting. The sky is red, and we’re driving the car
on a road to nowhere through the desert. The sand is so hot it burns.
Tell me you’ll quit hiding—and seek. See, the car is already melting;
you left your paintbrush in the water, and we’re dissolving
into red, the oils of our skin, our memories blur—
how do you see me? You painted a desert, red, and the car
falling apart. Tell me we dreamt it all and
when I open my eyes to see—I won’t remember. You
tell me the next time I open my mouth to sing
the magic of it all will make me disappear.
On the ultrasound screen my child curled
in his own fluid orbit, less real
than any high-school-textbook tadpole
used to symbolize birth, till the nurse
placed a white arrow on his heart flicker:
a quick needle of light. Tonight his face
blooms in my window before trees
stripped bare, a moon hung full and red.
That soft mask, not yet hardened into autumn wind,
would hold a thumbprint if I touched him. I hesitate
to touch him. He’s not yet felt the burden
of hand, nor tasted air, nor toddled
toward some bladelike gaze. He is all sweetness,
mouth smudged against the clear silk
that envelops him, webbed hands that reach
and retreat as a cat tests water.
Or like Narcissus, or the great wondering
madonnas, or any beast lost in another, the demon
who kneels to feed at some lily throat.
His pulse first matching then at odds with mine,
that small arrow seeming to tremble
as if striking something true.
I visited them late on a summer day,
racing down from Oregon in a rented car
in twilight that lingered long enough
to make a man think he could levitate.
The forest is narrow, east to west,
and it’s hard to know where
to cut in from the highway without
a lover in the passenger seat
looking at maps and literature.
But I found that famous trunk
you can drive through, which I did,
and out the other side, the darkness
still held aloft like a blanket unfurled
but yet to land on a sleeping child.
I pulled off the forest road again
where a felled giant lay, twenty feet
wide I guessed, a width I climbed,
the thick ridges of bark my footholds,
and walked that Sequoia’s flank out to the top,
a hundred yards or so, and back,
and that was my harvest—not height,
but length. Maybe I can suggest to you
that when you travel alone for so long
you learn to live sideways, or you just
take what you get, then go, as I scrambled
down from that dead tree and, coveting
nothing, left for San Francisco, where
there were things to do in the dark.
Outside in the creek that feeds the lake
and never freezes, an otter slaps the water
with his paw to feel the current’s pulse—
Slip in, lie back. Slip in, lie back. He shuts
his eyes and obeys, knowing the layers
of hair and underfur will warm him while
he floats on a faith we wish could carry us.
The sound of his splashing fades, but not
his joy in being pushed, light as driftwood,
back to the mouth of the den I have seen
carved out beneath the roots of a fallen fir
now packed with snow and lined with leaves
that promise his sleep will be deep.
Because no dreams wait softly for me,
I open the woodstove and strike a match,
hold the bloom of the flame to kindling
that catches quick as my wish: To be that
slick body sliding into the lake that holds
the moon, bright portal to glide through
without so much as a shiver, no doubt
about where I’m going, how to get there.