Boletus

- 1953-

Crickets are stitching the afternoon
together. What the squalling catbird rends,
crickets relentlessly repair. The maple shivers,
sends yellowed messages sailing down.
Too much has ripped: half the main branch cracked off
and hangs, teetering, across lower boughs
leaving, on the trunk, a blond wound.
We cross the brook on stepping stones and climb
west up the mountain flank through laurel thickets,
along the scooped-out valley of beeches, up
the stream bed to sit on a fallen tree. But there’s
no rest. We carry with us what we left
below—a country clawing its very idea
to shreds. The scarlet boletus mushroom
prongs from decaying wood. In its bishop’s
amaranth skull cap, it stands its ground. One kind
will nourish; the other sickens. But not,
like the white amanita, bringing on
liver failure, seizures, death.

Man in Stream

You stand in the brook, mud smearing
your forearms, a bloodied mosquito on your brow,
your yellow T-shirt dampened to your chest
as the current flees between your legs,
amber, verdigris, unraveling
today’s story, last night's travail . . .

You stare at the father beaver, eye to eye,
but he outstares you—you who trespass in his world,
who have, however unwilling, yanked out his fort,
stick by tooth-gnarled, mud-clabbered stick,
though you whistle vespers to the wood thrush
and trace flame-flicker in the grain of yellow birch.

Death outpaces us. Upended roots
of fallen trees still cling to moss-furred granite.
Lichen smolders on wood-rot, fungus trails in wisps.
I wanted a day with cracks, to let the godlight in.
The forest is always a nocturne, but it gleams,
the birch tree tosses its change from palm to palm,

and we who unmake are ourselves unmade
if we know, if only we know
how to give ourselves in this untendered light.

Muse Not Muse

(Gwen John, Painter, Rodin’s Model)

Cinnabar, Phoenician red, wild
         geranium—to be played against
         olive and smoky lime, a
mercury luster: quicksilver
         the soul, most visible
         in the empty room. Who saw

the wicker armchair open like Danae
         to the cataract of citrus
         light? Whose coat lies flung
across the frame? The Parisian garret
         window gapes ajar, the bare
         floor crackles, book

lies torqued along its spine,
        splayed. “I don’t pretend
        to know anybody well: people
are like shadows to me and I
        am a shadow.” Her job: years
        in an empty room, to wait.

The woman waits, the Master breaks his cloud-
        cover unaccountably,
        then she stands torqued
along her spine, splayed, in plaster
        rises, an immortal
        armless Muse turning

from him who turns from her. “Oh what
        inquietude: eternal
        adieu?” Raw sienna,
Payne’s gray, Naples yellow: she spins
        her color wheel, grips
        her brush. No adieu

but to twist in the Master’s ever-vanishing
        embrace, to strike his poses,
        plead, then lead
the long, fevered, scumbled hours alone.
        “Make your harmonies, make
        your harmonies.” Her brush

        her own. And when the god, exhausted, dies,
        she reigns already
        in her vacancy:
has rendered from sunset, salmon, ashen-blue,
        “Method: snowdrop in earth—
the road—the pink flower—“

“We must go on with our mysterious work.”

Fugue, Harpsichord

For Sylvia Marlowe

Out of her left hand fled
the stream, from her right the rain
puckered the surface, drop by drop, the current

splayed in a downward daze until it hit
the waterfall, churned twigs
and leaves, smashed foam over stone:

from her fingers slid
eddies, bubbles rose, the fugue
heaved up against itself, against its own

falling: digressed in curlicues
under shadowed banks, around root tangles and
beaver-gnawed sticks. She had the face

of a pike, the thrusting lower jaw and silvered
eye, pure drive. The form
fulfilled itself

through widowhood, her skin
mottled with shingles, hands crooked, a pain
I fled. Now

that tempered tumult moves
my time into her timing. Far
beyond her dying, my

tinnitus, I am still
through the thrum of voices
trying to hear.

Related Poems

Help Me to Salt, Help Me to Sorrow

In the moon-fade and the sun’s puppy breath,
  in the crow’s plummeting cry,
in my broken foot and arthritic joints,
                                       memory calls me
to the earth’s opening, the graves dug, again, and again 
I, always I am left
                   to turn away
into a bat’s wing-brush of air.

That never changes . . .
  not this morning, not here

where I’ve just found
in the back of my truck, under the rubber mat, 
in a teacup’s worth of dirt, 
where it seems no seed could possibly be 
a corn kernel split to pale leaves and string-roots.

It’s a strange leap but I make it
and bend to these small harvests

because somewhere in North Carolina there was a house
  and in it, my room and my bed,
bare boards and the blood stains of a man
that in each slant rain’s worried whispers puddles to the cries of a slave, 
murdered in 1863 trying to escape.

Somewhere there was a child who slept
on the living room’s red-vinyl couch

who still matters

especially now that I can’t remember when the creek
  that bounded our family farm led to an ocean
or when a boxcar’s weather-wasted letters spelling Illinois
  meant somewhere there was an Illinois.

It’s still 1976--
the day after I’ve been seen playing tennis
  with a black boy, and it seems I will always
be held at gunpoint and beaten
as if the right punch would chunk out his name.

             --------

No, it’s 1969--
The year my mother becomes a wax paste, 
or so she looks to the child I was,

and she drips into the pink satin 
and I learned the funereal smell of carnations.
That year the moon was still made of green cheese. 
That year men first bagged and labeled that moon.

There are no years, only the past
and I still don’t know why Odell Horne 
  pulled a shotgun on my brother 
  or how the body contains so much blood.
I still don’t know why Donna Hill went to Myrtle Beach 
and three days later came back dead.

For ten years I lived with Louise Stegall,
the lover of my father, one of her four men, all buried--
  suicide, murder, drink, again murder.
It was after the second one that she sat stock still 
and silent, four years in the asylum.
Now she walks the road all day, 
picking up Cracker Jack trinkets 
  to give to children
                     brave enough to approach her.

When I was nine, the starling pecked outside her window  a whole week. 
Somebody’s gonna die, she said
and made me hug Uncle Robert’s neck 
as if I couldn’t know he’d be gone in two hours, 
as if I hadn’t learned anything about people
                                        and their vanishing.
The last time I saw her she wouldn’t look at me, 
  jerked her sweatshirt’s hood across 
her face and stepped into the ditch, 
as though there are some things even she won’t tell, 
as though I’ve never known it’s dirt and dust after all--
the earth’s sink and the worms’ castings.

                 --------

With the wet leaves thick on my steps,
the evening sky bruised dull gray to black,

when I’ve spilt salt and as the saying goes the sorrow and tears, 
and the stove is cold so salt won’t burn, 
tell me my pocket of charms can counter any spell.

Tell me again the reason for my grandfather’s fingers 
afloat in the Mason jar on the fireplace mantel 
between the snuff tin and the bowl of circus peanuts. 
What about the teeth in the dresser bureau,
the sliver of back bone I wear around my neck?

Again the washed-out photo in the family album, 
Pacific wind lifting the small waves onto Coral Beach,
clicking the palm trees’ fronds.
Again my father’s rakish grin,
  his bayonet catching a scratch of sun,
his left foot propped on the stripped and bloodied body.

                            Behind him, a stack of Japanese.

                  --------

Let me believe in anything.
Doesn’t the grizzled chicken dig up hoodoo hands?
Won’t the blue door frame, the basket of acorns protect me;
what about the knife in a pail of water?

When giving me the dead’s slippered feet
                                        room to room,
why not also synchronicity’s proof, 
  a wish and the tilted ears of angels?

I want to believe in the power of rosemary 
knuckled along the fence
even as the stars order themselves 
  to an unalterable and essential law.
I want the wind-whipped leaves to settle 
  and the flattened scrub to right itself,
want the loose tin in the neighbor’s shed
                                         to finish its message.

When this season in its scoured exactitude shifts closer, 
give me Devil’s Blue Boletus through the piled leaves, 
the slender green of Earth Tongue, 
phosphorescent Honey Tuft dispatched by the dead.

Their voices coming nearer, almost deciphered.

Whatever lies you have
there in that nail-clipping of time,
                                    give them to me.

Brown Girl Has Walked Into the Wild, Palms Open

		See how she lists. The body is bent as light, as wind will it.
And so you must tread light. Mind the rocks under foot. You must tread slow.
There has been drought; see where water has long ago troughed, has carved her.
		See how she branches, twisting, her many hands reaching.
Her roots also reach, sweetened from reaching. When fire arrives, she toughens.
She will slough away the thick. She will be slick, and dark beneath the rough.
She will mimic the fire her bones remember. Know her bones glisten.
		See how she rests. The body will fall, as time wills it.
See how it hollows, how her pieces return to earth.
	And from her thick trunk, mushrooms cluster—
			Her belly a nest of moss and poison.
When broken open, see what of her mother she has kept,
			what of her father, what of the stars.

Exquisite Politics

The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice's mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor's mansion.
Someday I won't politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I'll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci's first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.