As russet leaves sprawl down November air,
blue monkshood blooms, stubborn as a Jesuit,
cowled as of old but less modestly, for
monkshood in flower becomes lapis lazuli, as if
its roots pulled blues straight from Autumn sky.
My monkshood is no doubt in too much shade. There are no insects flying to pollinate these late glories, and no time to set seed. The plant is deadly poisonous (aconite). I enjoy this confluence of beauty and deadliness; it is quite literary.
Cedar Waxwing is a natty bird,
always spiff in coat and tails,
and O that gold on his tail tip.
His eye mask careful as a domino,
waxwing is the Zorro nonpareil. But
today’s waxwing is a juvenile,
setting off his adolescent charms
with lichens orange and gray-green.
He’s looking good, he’s styling fine
until he twists to look behind
(as if to see who’s noticing)
and suddenly his crest’s a mess,
his wingtips are uneven,
his feathers are all mussed.
I love juveniles. This one reminds me of parochial school boys in after school dress: shirttails hanging, collar open, ties pulled down, and on the lip a cigarette. Forgive me for so abusing a fine bird that is, of course, itself.
Oak leaves spin to ground,
a few drop straight down,
some play kite, play wind.
Some rasp concrete into sound
in the flow of air
that whirls a little devil
up of driveway leaves
and lets them sink. Dry leaves
that cling to twigs have become
tongues for the consonance of wind, loud
as pines in their resistance, but
some cold wind tomorrow
growing in north Canada
will tear these tongues from trees,
and we behind our panes will
watch them cartwheel on their points
across bright flats of snow.
In November strange as days grow early dark, we in the north begin to long for solstice, and await the north wind.
No blood, no carcass, just feathers,
flight and display and fine down. Wild
flapping mute now on ground
well mixed with dry leaves, stalks
of rattlesnake grass.
Down of breast almost not here,
so hidden, so light. Bold
tail feathers banded black and tan,
and at tip iridescence shifts.
A fox, or a lean coyote with milk tears
on nipples carries the bird
muzzle up, but most
catches and drags, scuffs
a wide trail, so she gorges away
from the den, carries meat
home gut-warm to kits or to pups.
The beauty of wild turkey feathers is not erased by the knowledge of violent death, but it is tempered. We eat: we become food.
From November overcast appears from nowhere
a half sky of birds black against gray,
as if transmigrated here from a fold in fog
or space. They gabble, loud.
I think grackles, but wings
are too wide, the birds higher than I saw.
A grackle flock moves like the sea,
turns and rolls as one, as if waltzing with sky.
These birds are loose, everywhere but close.
Big feet! Coots! They’re coots,
irascible as ever. But a lively loud wonder,
when of a sudden they vanish, returned to fog.
Migrating birds have magical abilities; flocks appear and leave our eyes without warning or sense. They know what they’re doing. Identification is not very important, but sometimes names are nicely congruent. Old coot to bird coots:
“Fly safe. Find warm.”
Black Elk had it right.
“Everything wants to be round.”
No clue what these edgy tan wood-strips
are, emerging from a vine, but they dried
dizzy round with want,
intersecting, overlapping, curve-
embracing tangle-twirling looping
around redbarked horizontal stems.
Say Black Elk saw these as a boy
in Black Hills underbrush,
hedging round a bird nest
that he saw was shaped on the inside
by the curve of a slowly turning
and returning breast of mother bird.
A smile curved up his face.
John G. Neihardt, Nebraska poet and writer, met and long interviewed Black Elk at Pine Ridge Reservation in the early 1930s, then published their mutual project, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux. For more words of Black Elk, go here:
The curve of a neck speaks
to us backboned types.
The curve of the neck is legion
in love’s long poetry. But
this mama fence lizard catches me
in her old eye with caution,
makes the old choice:
race away and up a tree
or hold so still she is invisible,
hard when the sun picks out
the tip of each spined scale.
She disappears. One blink
after the shutter click
she’s four feet up an oak,
so flat against bark she’s wide,
but her neck’s again curved.
Maybe she will like me.
Hope springs eternal… This fence lizard, or swift, is also known in some parts as bluebelly. She is huge for her kind, so quite old. I find her colors rich, her scales a sharp tapestry, her caution wise. Bless her and her neck curve.
All night, wind
creaks trunks, bows
sonorous twig and branch
In cold wind currents,
sheets of ripple
skate across the pond
Johnny jump up
laughs at wind,
colors gray November
Yellow willow leaves
hang on for color,
liven bare birchbark
Against sun, wild
tom turkeys trot,
wattles blood bright
The orbweaver’s wide web
becomes a dance edge-on
beneath the redwood canopy.
Light slips down leaves
and splashes silk as
a small breeze billows
the spider’s sail,
dances her now
from forever time.
Webs of the orbweaver spiders are often huge, unnoticed and first met with the face. Discovering an orb web from the side so incredibly lit renews both eyes and awe.
I met a moss confused
by warm November air,
that cued from the thermometer
instead of bright and dark.
I met a moss fooled
into gametes by wet and warm,
then try to send up spores
in this no-plant’s time between
when nights grow long
and sky is often gray
I met a moss that knew the need
for colors beyond green, so
sent up spore stalks painted
red and caps of citrus green,
to revive dry fallen leaves
and bless my wintry eyes.
√ All of the above
The last two leaves of the red osier dogwood
hold to the branch tip, bug-chewed dark green,
boundless sky blue, burgundy bark, and all
up and down this branch and every branch,
and even in the axils of these two worn leaves,
tightly incurved buds of gold.
A bud is a kind of faith. In this North, all the woody plants are showing buds. Some, like maple, present flower buds: First things first. Most present leaf buds: Food first, do fruit after a hearty sunsoak.
Thistles don’t quit,
they live by the thorn:
Pierce the intruder, wound!
But their zeal creates wonders,
if not for skin, for eye.
In an autumn prairie I find
under sun a thistle seed-globe
haloed all around by bleached-white
burned-white minute leaves
filled with spines.
Their seeds themselves
are tipped sharp enough
to catch on fur or cloth,
and so we work out our mammal destiny
according to the Book of Thistle:
We slapfoot primates & bears
and all the horned & hooved
avoid them in green fields, but agree
in unwitting generosity to later
harvest and disperse the thistle seed
from fur, from hair, from clothes.
We assume we dominate the green kingdom, but actually we are often not in charge of our transactions with plants.
Strong wind does not budge
our frozen slushy snow, our
earth abruptly white.
Edges of the pond show ice,
the rough-leg hawk has gone,
juncos nervous, pond ripples
chill the eye from north to south,
naked oak tops sway sky gray,
steady wind is loud in trees
while horses race and dare,
look askance and toss their heads,
sidle up and nudge, explode to run.
Cats chase housemates
up and down, in and out and hide
to pounce on the pretend unwary.
Snow is for to play.
What pleasure snow calls up in horses, and this day, cats. Their play warms me. They can of course afford to play; people feed both. Horses are brisked by snow at any degree of cold. It’s in their genes. My tropic genes have no idea what they’re doing this far north, and have small impulse to play in cold wind and snow today.
The huge woodpecker on the feeder,
sharp turns his head when blue jays
drop in above him and perch.
Sudden as a desert lizard
he moves, this child of theropods
whose claws are scimitars,
his beak a spear to shatter trees.
In his eye the jays fly up to a branch
and jeer about their lack of fear.
Woodpecker returns to suet sweet
as any grub winkled from the wood
with his long skull-round tongue.
Woodpeckers have no interest in aggression. Those formidable claws evolved to clamber trees. The beak is a chisel. Jays are smart; they ceased to interrupt his meal.
The black phoebe perches on lattice,
her eye, bright against black feathers,
wide for any fly, her sudden muscles always
at the edge of fire. I wonder, does she sense
before her wings release? What a bright nerve
thrums eye to wing.
Her breast is black, her belly
purest white, and from that downy white emerge
two twigs of black that end
with two black supple feet, perched,
and here’s the charm--
one set of toes at rest upon the other.
The moment of connect, the enabling instant, is a discovery that arrives after the encounter with a cousin. Small birds have a very fast metabolism which allows incredibly quick responses.
Death often is a silhouette surprise
when it insists on its perception.
A sketch of life remaindered,
but with life behind, before,
life on either side.
We find beauty in these wistful husks,
as we find the sunfire
when it falls to the Pacific
knowing it will rise.
“Snail” is no true name; Adam failed.
Does not begin to say what’s true.
Where’s the ramshorn spiral that bonds us all, where
the disappearing-slowly-reappearing tentacles?
“Tentacles”? More untrue: they don’t grab, don’t wind,
don’t squeeze. Whoever heard of tentacles with eyes?
“Eye stalk” is more near, but “stalk” just sits,
while the true stem withdraws and grows, pulls in,
explores, while it tastes as well as sees
and senses touch, assesses warm, inquires of moist.
It also knows a sudden shadow, and retracts.
A stalk? All this untruth of name, I think,
because this gastropod travels on its slime.
Otherness sometimes is too much for our delicate human sensibilities, even when it’s magical. But we do manage to eat them.
Red nightshade berries hang startled above ice.
Beneath the ice brown oak leaves,
a patch of something green.
Dun stems emerge from locked ice,
pond surface pebbled like a shower door.
As hidden memory is this onset cold that
rolls up in the mind like a methane bubble
falling toward the sky from below.
We survive the northern winter each year by forgetting what it’s like.
There is always sky.
Even in this clouded season
there is sun fall and sun rise.
Leafless trees reveal sky through
fretwork dark, each window
an entry to the wide blue
or overcast, and often enough
to kindle spirit,
white clouds flushed with fire.
Now the sun rises late and sets early, which is the doubled pleasure of winter.
The red bud wears a jaunty cap of snow
tilted at an angle once called rakish.
The leaf folded tight inside is near
as white as snow. It sleeps for now,
but in longer days will doff all thought of white
and raise a sprawl of emerald to cap its twig.
New snow has its beauties, and should not be taken too somberly. This bud will open a leaf of highbush cranberry.
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