Ordinary Time

- 1948-

Days come and go:
this bird by minute, hour by leaf,
a calendar of loss.

I shift through woods, sifting
the air for August cadences
and walk beyond the boundaries I’ve kept

for months, past loose stone walls,
the fences breaking into sticks,
the poems always spilling into prose.

A low sweet meadow full of stars
beyond the margin
fills with big-boned, steaming mares.

The skies above are bruised like fruit,
their juices running,
black-veined marble of regret.

The road gusts sideways:
sassafras and rue.
A warbler warbles.

Did I wake the night through?
Walk through sleeping?
Shuffle for another way to mourn?

Dawn pinks up.
In sparking grass I find beginnings.
I was cradled here.
I gabbled and I spun.
And gradually the many men inside me
found their names,

acquired definition, points of view.
There was much to say,
not all of it untrue.

As the faithful seasons fell away,
I followed till my thoughts
inhabited a tree of thorns

that grew in muck of my own making.
Yet I was lifted and laid bare.
I hung there weakly: crossed, crossed-out.

At first I didn’t know
a voice inside me speaking low.
I stumbled in my way.

But now these hours that can’t be counted
find me fresh, this ordinary time
like kingdom come.

In clarity of dawn,
I fill my lungs, a summer-full of breaths.
The great field holds the wind, and sways.

More by Jay Parini

Lament of the Middle Man

In late October in the park
the autumn's faults begin to show:
the houses suddenly go stark
beyond a thinning poplar row;
the edges of the leaves go brown
on every chestnut tree in town.

The honking birds go south again
where I have gone in better times;
the hardy ones, perhaps, remain
to nestle in the snowy pines.
I think of one bold, raucous bird
whose wintry song I've often heard.

I live among so many things
that flash and fade, that come and go.
One never knows what season brings
relief and which will merely show
how difficult it is to span
a life, given the Fall of Man.

The old ones dawdle on a bench,
and young ones drool into their bibs;
an idle boffer, quite a mensch,
moves fast among the crowd with fibs.
A painted lady hangs upon
his word as if his sword was drawn.

Among so many falling fast
I sometimes wonder why I care;
the first, as ever, shall be last;
the last are always hard to bear.
I never know if I should stay
to see what ails the livelong day.

I never quite know how to ask
why some men wear bright, silver wings
while others, equal to the task,
must play the role of underlings.
"It's what you know, not who," they swore.
I should have known what to ignore.

I started early, did my bit
for freedom and the right to pray.
I leaned a little on my wit,
and learned the sort of thing to say,
yet here I am, unsatisfied
and certain all my elders lied.

A middle man in middle way
between the darkness and the dark,
the seasons have tremendous sway:
I change like chestnuts in the park.
Come winter, I'll be branches, bones;
come spring, a wetness over stones.

The Grammar of Affection

Without syntax there is no immortality,
says my friend,
who has counted beads along a string
and understood that time is
water in a brook
or words in passage,
caravans amid the whitest dunes,
a team of horses in the mountain trace.

There is always movement, muttering,
in flight to wisdom,
which cannot be fixed. The kingdom
comes but gradually,
breaking word by wing or day by dream.

We proceed on insufficient knowledge,
trusting in what comes, in what comes down
in winding corridors,
in clamorous big rooms,
above a gorge on windy cliffs.

In places where discovered sounds make sense,
where subjects run through verbs
to matter in the end, a natural completion
in the holy object of affections
as our sentence circles round again:

This grammar holds us, makes us shine.

Unpatriotic Gore

It’s true I never loved my country
in the abstract sense: red, white, or blue.
I have only this black waving flag,
my disposition.
Stars, bold stripes,
remind me of a million dead young men
in far-off ditches,
remind me of the innocents who fell,
collaterally damaged,
wild-eyed, blazing: each of them
a universe unmade.
I say that I have never loved my country,
but I’d surely die
for several good friends, my wife and sons.
I’d sacrifice a number of pink toes
and fingers, too (my own)
for Emerson, for Whitman and Thoreau.
I’d give an eye for one deep lake,
for several good streams,
at least one waterfall,
a lovely stand of Norway pines
just east of here, not far away.