3 Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Hypostases: there must be three
Since dyads, lacking we, must always come undone.
There must be three, for each enactment of the joy
Must be in turn rejoiced (or what’s it for?)
And joy itself must be itself adored
As languid as omnipotence allows,
In gestures of high court,
While still competing for the helpmeet role.

There must be one, each living in and at the seamless ground
For there is nothing each would claim to own
And yet, when all is done, there’s nothing lost
Since there was not a time when ought.

Yet these are simply structures of our thought.
Which is to say, the three and one are closer than myself.

So now, about that three-in-one: I simply
See no reason to replace a thought with thought
When both seem dear. I’ll have my cake
And eating too, or what’s it for?

Good morning: sit, and bring your friend.
Or what’s this table for?

Behold

The way of a moss on a stone.
The way of a ship in a wave.
The way of a boy with a girl.      

Now I’ve considered all these ways
and made contention in my thoughts
that all who sing beneath our sun
and all who snore beneath our moon
are just to be beheld, beheld in silence,
silence of the mind, but if the mind
descend into the heart and swell and cry
and cannot stay, then let it exegete
how love is most at home in puzzlement.

 

 

 

 

Christmas Vigil, 2020

Yes, cows do kneel at midnight in the creche,
one minute panting hymns upon the Child,
the next they amble back to pastures lit by stars
who peer, a-giggle, over crests of hills
to spy into the shadowed stable for their presents.

I am among the cows, I have believed.
I have adjured the devil and his seasons ordinary
to embrace the real and consubstantial Kneel.

Again I’m gifted with a suprasensual sight
to backlight all my rods and cones all year.
My mind is upside down delightedly
yet keeps straight faces for adults
so forward questions to your own damn stars. 

 

Holy Saturday, Morning

I can’t recount my movements.
My memory’s milk-blurred,
My corneas are blinked with milk
and slurried milk and honey
furs my tongue on waking
as I lick a bruise inside my thumb.

My palm still feels a hilt.
Along my brow I find
a fingered cross in honey
and I find I’m born amnesiac,
indicted, that I must have done
that thing that hurt that lamb.

The Girl Who Summons Owls

When I was a young man I read a love story in which the boy exclaims “…a girl who loves owls!”.  They’d go out on the lake in the canoe and she’d be all wistful at the sound of owls and his soul would leave his body at the thought that he’d finally found Her, after assuming there was no-one else like that.    He knew he had found THE one.   I was years away from finding you, and had thought alot about how to know the One Girl, but the owl test seemed better than anything I had heard so far.   I held it for awhile.  I, too, was weird, liking not just owls but many odd things, and assuming I’d never meet someone just as weird.  But maybe.  But then, such romantic dreams seem to die too often under the weight of real life.

I don’t know what test of yours I was lucky enough to pass, but years later we met and married, you and I, and I had somehow forgotten to apply the owl test.   I forgot it completely.  When I did remember that book, I just thought of it as somebody else’s romance, not for me.

We had a son and got engrossed in raising him.  A decade on and I discovered the municipal naturalists and their nature walks.   I took Isaac on the February owl walk, at night.   Zero degrees, dark, a small huddle of nerdy citizens clumped around the naturalist in the woods, and a recording of the Barred Owl to draw the birds in to the invisible trees above our heads.   We got one!   An answering call came drifting over the suburban noises from a mile away, then closer, then silent as a midnight cloud, he settled on a branch and glared down at us,  clearly miffed that the call was not actually a girl owl but just a tape and a speaker.   With red cellophane covering the flashlight beam, we could just see his bulk and his eyes up in the beech branches.   I wondered how often could you fake a Barred Owl’s friend before they got wise and disappeared forever from naturalists’ itineraries.

When I took you back, later, another night, to share the spot and the story with you, and you wanted to try, I was afraid we’d get caught by the authorities daring to call the owls without a license.   But, we’re wild like that, so I thought, what the heck, it won’t work anyway.

“Who cooks for you?  Who? Who?”  You learned the Barred Owl’s call quickly and hooted it out into the woods and the night.  (We’re going to jail, I thought, for nothing.)  Listen.  Dogs bark a mile away.  Faint hum of traffic somewhere.   Then,  far away but unmistakably, the echo back: “Who cooks for you?”  I catch my breath.  It can’t be.  You hoot again.  He answers again, closer.

Then the shadow in the moon overhead and movement through the branches but without sound, the Owl settles directly over our heads.  We don’t move, we don’t talk.  Before I can quite muster my marvel, though, another shadow crosses the moon and another dark silhouette settles a few feet away from the first.

I had never imagined that we’d get both Mr. and Mrs. Owl together!  You did, in one try, what the practiced professionals hadn’t done.

We stood like stones and watched them watch us from their imperial perch, maybe peeved to find neither mice nor wizards but a suburban middle-aged couple.  Maybe  embarrassed to be tricked by a suburban house wife who hoots like their own kin.

For me, it was the night I knew I had the Girl Who Summons Owls –  two at once.  Better than the girl in the book.

Rockhouse Holler

You should know by now that hollers (hollows) are the little valleys, here in Appalachia,.where creeks run.  When the roads first came into these hills they followed the creeks up and up, from the large creek in the deep valley up to the feeder creeks coming down from the hilltops.

We crossed some sort of boundary in the years from my parents to me, because I never said “holler”, except as a part of a place name.   Or maybe it was snobbery;  only twenty miles away from this spot, in the town of 3,000 where I grew up as the city cousin, “holler” was a hillbilly word, mocked by teenagers and other cruel people. But those who live on this road still say “holler”.   Everybody “in the holler” either lives up the creek or down the creek, up the holler or down the holler.

Now that we’ve driven up the creek to the top of the first ridge, the next holler winds down there below.  Look down through the car window at the tops of trees.  And a half-mile off the road, back under those farther trees, is the Rockhouse,  a smooth cave, scooped back into the hillside rock.   I do want to take you to see the cave, but the walk there and the walk back are just as important,  beside and beyond the cemetery where my mom and dad are buried.  It’s all coming into view out your side of the road.  We are starting down now.

The gravestones dot that little hill,  popping up out of those tree-tops.   We have to drive slow here, because if we meet another car on the one-lane, somebody has to pull off the gravel into the ditch to let pass.

I don’t really know the people who live on this road now, though the last names on the mailboxes are familiar. Their houses are still spaced far enough apart that each one is around a bend from his neighbor, and usually separated by cow-pastures.    We’ll turn in – nobody can quite see you from their nosy window – and slip down this even smaller road, just a grass path with tire tracks, that ends at the graves.

The neighbors really do care who drives along the road. They peer out their windows at the sound of gravel under tires.  You’d care too, if you lived somewhere where all cars had better have a reason to be there.

Though the cemetery road is just car-ruts through the field, the drive gear will move us fast enough with no gas pedal.   I always imagine the car has remembered where we’re going, like it is an insensate machine in the city but out here it gradually awakens – or maybe it’s just that at this spot there is literally no-where else we can possibly drive.  At any rate, I can let go of the wheel and take my foot off the gas.

Dip down for a hundred yards then back up, through golden rod and high alfalfa.  Then out into the mowed grass.   We can park anywhere.   The grass is mowed a couple times in the warm months, out far enough around the hill’s foot to make enough parking space for all the out-of-town cousins at once.   Cousins of anyone buried here.

My mom and dad and my sister are sleeping on this hill, but let’s skip that for now, I want you to see the woods.  We’ll walk around the bottom of the hill and down into the trees toward the creek.   Further down and further back.

Down here into the forest rooms, the green ceiling of maples blocks even the mean August sun, but occasional lights dapple our feet and freckle the may-apple leaves (which always made me think of fairy parachutes).   Leaves underfoot are spongy, decades deep.  Moss climbs the grey rocks and the grey beech trunks.  Each time I return, the green of the moss is always a surprise. There are colors in the woods that exist only on the retina but the memory can’t store them. Jack-in-the-pulpit nods in the slight wind, sleepy from his own sermon.

The holler is actually the ancient flood-bed of the creek, 50 yards across.   But the creekwater normally is just as wide as my dad’s stride, and it runs an inch thin on slimy rock.   Broken cliffs, veined with roots as thick as an old man’s thigh,  rise on both sides of the little holler.  From the road we drove in on, you can never see that there’s a rock canyon back in here, and as we look back where we came from here, on foot, we can’t see the road or any houses.

We used to follow the path beside the stream on summer nights.   And sometimes step the flat stones. Down from the graveyard, into the woods, back into the holler, back again beneath the rock face where the creek had long since cut under the upper forest at a bend.  This sensation of down and back and more down and back, deeper into the womb of the countryside, is what I’d feel when I was small and my mother would take us back to her home on weekends.

One cut in the rock in particular is deep enough to call a Rockhouse.   It will shelter a couple dozen cattle in a storm.   The rock overhead is higher than a small maple  and is rippled like water, and blackened by the smoke of a thousand fires like the ones we were sure the Indians built, and the ones we built, for roasting marshmallows.   I’d lean back on the log where I’d sit, away from the fire on my face,  and strain my neck to watch the sparks shoot up into the black night.  They’d streak red and yellow as they tracked the rock face out and up to where the crickets sing in the root balls of trees above our faces.

It may have been there one night I first felt that, simply by not knowing, I was a carrier of injustice.   I’ll say I was 10.  It was a feeling that I’d be able to name only years later….something like embarrassed at being in a place without knowing those who had been there before.   If I came to their place, didn’t their feelings and memories also remain there?  And who would carry those on if it wasn’t me?

We were always told the Indians had lived there a century before, but it wasn’t the romance of war whoops and war paint that drew me to picture them in the back of the cave beyond the light.  I’d think of a 10 year old Indian boy, and of his mother, and of the day he died, and of how his mother felt, and how could I pull her sorrow out of the sandstone where it had soaked in and…do what with it?

Sentimental.   All my life I’ve been secretly worried about all the laughs and deaths hidden under the bushes and in the weeds at the side of the roads.  Even in the deep hollers far off the road, in the woods beyond the graveyards.   Sentimental is as good a word as any, I won’t argue with you, but then again I don’t seem to use it for this feeling when I look inside at the feeling.   It doesn’t seem quite accurate.

I would look across the fire and see my mother, young and pretty,  laughing with her brothers.   We were the city cousins, come back here to the country many weekends in the summer and this cave was as deep in this country as she could burrow.   30 years before that night, before she ever thought of me, she would have been right there as a young girl, sitting at a fire.

So there, there is one connection:  she watched the sparks go to heaven when she was 10, and she led me there when I was 10 and I leaned my face back into the dark at the same spot, at the same age.   Before her?  After me?

More than one broken chain.  Many.

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Have you walked in the woods at night with no flashlight?  I mean the deep woods, not a thicket beside the road where you can still hear the rumble and swoosh of traffic or trains.  The woods, where you can stand without motion, close your eyes in order to point every neuron toward your ears, but still get no sound that is not a forest sound.

You have to be this deep in the woods to be free of the compass.  Our ears are powerful:  the slightest sound of civilization always comes from one direction more than others and so it orders the circle around you into one safe direction and then the others.  But in the quiet of Appalachian woods there is no order.  There is no safe direction unless you learned it from your folks.

Near to midnight we would put out the fire (usually by peeing on it; this was more practicality than mischief) and walk out of the holler without lights.  Out of the Rockhouse onto the old footpath, which could only be felt but not seen.  Overhead, no stars or moon, only thick summer canopy.   No sound, no light.  Even the breeze couldn’t find its way into the holler.   Along the path and across the trickling stream which made silvery sounds dropping off the little sandstone steps.  A chipmunk skitters, unseen.   Frogs burp, unseen.

Now, on the right, the rise of the cemetery knoll, though it was still too dark to see the jagged teeth of the headstones against the sky, like you saw in the daylight when you walked in.

The old ones were perfectly comfortable walking in the woods at night past the cemetery which they all believed exhaled will’o’wisp and apparitions.  No light, no sound, and the haunted graves.  As comfortable as sitting at the kitchen table playing cards.

I’ve written about their ghost-ology.   Yes, they told stories of late night appearances of dead ladies in flowing white dress, standing beside the road needing a ride, let’s say, or walking down a stairwell formal-like (ghosts never hurry).  They told stories of the sounds of weeping babies among the graves, or flaming crosses a head high above the far field which does not illuminate, by its blue light, anything around.  Like all cultures do, they told these stories: around the card table, or while walking at night.

But an anthropologist who grew up in the city could easily project his disdain for other elements of the culture and falsify the entire matter for a Ph.D.   Supernatural activity in this culture is not explaining the unknown, is not scaffolding a religious worldview — the ghosts who drift across these fields in fact do not fit into the religious worldview, but contradict it.

It is affection.   People do not see the landscape inhabited by the spirits of their elders unless they love it, love the old ones, love the places, love the night as much as the day, love the earth which gives potatoes and takes back mother and father.

It is not fear or need for order which writes those stories, but affection, and that’s why the old ones were never even slightly chilled those midnights as we found our way back to the cars, where they’d turn a moment, hand on the car door, and glance back at the graves for movement, not wishing to be elsewhere.