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Poems from Country of Memory

  In the Woods, 1951  

I remember how the light pawed down
through densely tangled branches
and how the narrow creek jangled
over its scatter of burnished stones  
worn to a smoothness in the cold churn
of water.  The day began when school ended

and our feet sank into fern banks
and leaf-mulch or squelched in bog-holes
of aromatic muck.  We leapt over moss-
crushed oaks   white-barked paper birches  
climbed wind-sheared hickories and beeches

and, in the green drench of summer,
swam naked in our garden.  In that clear water
that granted every pardon, we gashed our hearts
and came up gasping, the afternoon sun

encircling our foreheads with tendrils of molten gold. 
We heard drums in the leaf-tops that spoke of endings,
yet we lived as if time was not our master, as if

we were kings of the forest   and not its slowly drowning sons.  




  Learning to Dance, 1956
  It was the 50s, and all of us
were kids, but you were older ó
almost a woman ó and you would

teach me to dance.  You were
the dark-haired child in a family
of blondes, slightly exotic, wilder,

my best friendís sister.
In your fatherís basement,
you took my hand and showed me

how to hold you ó how to hold
a woman.  I was fourteen and knew
already how to be awkward.  You knew

I was falling into shadows.  When I breathed
your hair, I was no longer in the forest
but had broken through

to a clearing where tall grasses whispered
and swayed, where white-petalled daisies
and violet clover blossomed. 

You moved me deeper into the music
and made a meadow spring up around me. 
Your body showed me that I had strength

to change the moment, if only the quiet
power of a summer breeze . . .
When you said I would be a good dancer,

that I had rhythm    that I could swing,
I held you close: some day,
I would find the one

who would pull me near to her in love,
not mercy; I would dance with her  
and learn her secret names.




  A Summer Night  

Dark country night,
how clearly I remember you:
grass on fire with darkness
the summer sky streaming
with meteors  
and slow-burning flares
at the tips of cigarettes
gripped in my parentsí hands
the cold flames of ice
in their drinks   glinting
as if from the signal fires
of distant stars

Such a warm summer night,
I wanted to breathe the darkness
to listen to the sizzling sparks
of words   that lifted
from those adult and familiar mouths  
to dream as ice made a soft clinking
in each glass     I wanted to crawl
through the black flames
of the grass   to feel the earth
slowly warm beneath me  
I wanted to be bathed
in that radiance

But Father said it was high time
I was sleeping   neatly tucked
into that nest of cotton blankets
It was time for me to sleep, said Mother
ó wasnít it long past the hour when a child
falls silent?  And so I was sent to bed
in the embered darkness   for flames
of the summer night
had entered the cottage with me
the dark beauty of the country night
had wound like a bright mist
around my life

And I called out in anger
through the dark window
to my parents who nursed
their drinks   who drew blue wisps
of smoke from their floating fingers
and spoke with the husky intonations
of oracles to their summer friends
I called out   I called out to them,
for these were the beings
who had showered me with perception
and I did not dream I was no longer

But then the cottage door
banged open
and I heard the fall of her foot on the stair
and I knew a darkness I did not know
had come in with her   and I hid
under the silent blankets where I
forgot to breathe     And she swung her arm
as she scolded me
for filling the night with my voice
so that the buckle on my fatherís belt
in the too-still darkness   flashed

as its brassy edge caught
the bridge of my nose   flashed again
as it sent cold fire
down my motherís flesh
and again   as Father lifted me
from the bed   where my first screams
lingered     And then they saved me
with vinegar poured on the flaring wound
they saved me   with a torn flag
of ordinary brown paper
they saved me   with the cold torch
of their love




  What the End Was Like
  All I could see was my motherís broken face.
It had the dry pallor of a desiccated leaf.
I forced myself to look closer, to stare 

at the pale lashes that barely clung
to the lids, at the thin lips that had lost
all color.  Her brow was mottled snow, her nose

a slender drift of whiteness.  The breath still lived
in my motherís mouth, and a few last words
tried to form there.  I leaned nearer

to the bed where her soul was unhooking itself
from each bone   where the white spark of her life
was preparing for departure.  I saw her shiver then

and knew that the darkness of space had entered her.
The black ice of the universe had entered her.
The tips of my fingers burned.