Unless there is a loon cry in a book, the poetry has gone out of it.
- Carl Sandburg
Three loons appear in this poem, two
on one side of the canoe, one
on the other, but
not stable. One drops down
to nothing, emerges two minutes later
twenty feet away, quavering
his black beak’s cold cries
across us to the others like a natural
bridge: oo-AH-hoo. Three loon cries
arise in this poem
from a hollow carved out
of itself, the slosh of what it says
to itself, not to us.
We four in the canoe sit
in the open AH, riding low as loons.
No one knows who feels
what, or how much. The grieving
syllables lie over us, untouchable
oo-AH-hoo. Oh Lord, if we knew
what we can take from each other, and what
we have to leave alone,
if we knew which maniacal dives
the universe was thinking of all along.
The lake is a droop of space
and we are paddling in it,
remote and yearning.
An old man and woman start out
in their pontoon boat that sputters
weeds. We find them again,
farther on, fishing. The woman
has balanced her hips on a twig
of a chair. The man spits
at the water as if he has arrived
at exactly the right place.
A root floats up,
a gladiator’s arm,
Cut, it feels like cork,
or something you could
eat if you had to,
one thing standing for
another, and nothing
as horrible as it looks,
Two great blue heron jut
beaked, carrying the sky
to a cold distance. The high
sun sinks its teeth
in the waves. We arch
our necks after the bird.
The last thing we want,
we tell ourselves, is
intelligence, or comfort.
Dick says they subpoenaed
the farmer who penned hogs
across a feeder-stream,
their raw fecal matter
launching out, greening.
We stop and wade to where
the cold appears invisible.
We actually drink from our
hands, praying for innocence.
We follow the mink along
the bank until it climbs
into the tangle of roots
where water has risen
and fallen. We see through
to clearings, stammers
of light, a few sharp red
cardinal flowers, a whole
network of traces, not ours.
A row of old docks slope
and dislodge like disproved
theories. We observe
of them, heavy and frail.
Lily pads collect
at their feet to soften
the failure. The day
is full of sunshine. We have
our canoe, our traveling.
Late evening, we pass
through the needle’s eye
of the bridge. Our big
voices briefly catch
between the concrete roof
and black water, before
we open into our own
wide lake, our faces
extinguishing, no one to tell
if the paddle is feathered,
no crucial place.
I would ride high
above my own white
weight. I would ride
through the lightening
of the earth
and the darkening,
stillness and turbulence
coming on in the core
of me, and spreading
to the hard rain,
to the dazzle. Leaves
would turn, but I
would keep my eyes
in my head, watching
for grasses. This
is what I would know
deeply: the feathering
of my bones
against the bank.
For the rest,
I would be the easiest
wave, loving just enough
for nature’s sake.
The world would move
under me and I would always be exactly
where I am, dragonflies
angling around my head.
Under the black mask
of my face, I would think
which would be nothing
but a riding, a hunger,
a ruffle more pointed
than wind and waves,
and a hot-orange
beak like an arrow.
It is not the way it used to be.
Aunt Cleone is losing her memory,
my father refuses to paint the cottage porch,
the rowboat rots in the yard. I am
willing to let go of what I remember,
not completely, but let it open out
into the past and fill it and funnel
forward to this place where I actually
lie on the end of the dock swirling my finger
in the water, watching the minnows
move without seeming to move, invisible
twitches, one, two, three minnows the color
of sand. I must be in the middle
of my life, the way I feel balanced
between one thing and another. As if I have
no hands or arms, parting the world
as it reaches my face. Like a minnow, gone
on little wings, a blush of sand from the bottom.
Sometimes I open my eyes in the dark
and it feels as if I’m moving. I lose
my loneliness, surrounded with dark, like water.
We are without our men, hers dead
ten years, mine far away, the water
glassy warm. My old aunt already stands
half in. All I see is the white half,
her small old breasts like bells,
almost nice as a girl’s. Then we hardly
feel the water, a drag on the nipples,
a brush on the crotch, like making love
blind, only the knives of light
from the opposite shore, the shudders
of our swimming breaking it up.
We let the water get next to us
and into the quick of losses we don’t
have to talk about. We swim out
to where the dock goes blank,
and we are stranded, abandoned good flesh
in a black of glimmering. We each fit
our skin exactly. After a while
we come out of the water slick as eels,
still swimming, straight-backed,
breasts out, up to the porch,
illuminate, sexy as hell, inspired.
I worry about the chicory, that tinge of pink
in the blue, its sunset delicacy, even with its tough
stalk. Those ragged, blunt petal-tips.
Like my high school Pep Club skirt, pleats
sharp as knives, but someone could easily get
under it. The road here is crooked, cars fly by
at 45 or 50. I worry about how few walkers
there are, how alone nature is, out there
sprouting and budding and dying. Can the utterly
unnoticed survive? What about the farthest
reaches of the universe, the other solar systems?
There’s a lot that doesn’t seem to need us,
but the negative space around the flower
is what shapes the flower, so the neglect
of such a powerful mind as ours must collapse
its bloom at least a little. So much reciprocity
necessary to exist: we actually exchange DNA
with those we catch diseases from. The germs
travel to our lymph nodes, carrying a bit
of our infector: we become our enemies!
The quality of our existence is that delicate,
which is why I ran from room to room, comforting
my mother, stacking up my father’s mess,
wiping my poor brother’s drool. No, that’s not
right. I was only holding them all in my mind
to keep them from flying apart. How tired I was,
my little body a strung bow. How small
I’d keep things, little flowers by the roadside,
if I could. I would think of them day and night.
Say dock, dock: it’s just a hollow
of itself, the way the foot
echoes between wood and water,
the plank, plank of it
like piano keys, growing hollower
farther out under the stars.
Listen to the way dock’s closed in
by the tongue on one side, pushed out
at the far end toward the lake
with a duck-sound, quack-
sound, where they congregate
for crumbs. It’s even a tongue,
itself, saying nothing but
what you bump against it.
Or an arm, reaching out. Here
you’re willing to make yourself sociable,
declare yourself separate
from the trees. “Dock here,”
you offer. Here is a place
to stop. And it’s true. Indeed,
I have to stop at the end,
and think. The reason
for walking out here is
how the end goes blunt.
You feel your blood turn back
toward the heart, but
for an instant, you imagine,
it longs to keep moving out,
like Roadrunner at the edge of a cliff,
keeping on with nothing built
to hold him up. Turning back,
I carve a cul-de-sac in the air,
which is a comfort, and a sadness.
The slightest drip of a paddle
is too much. Let the canoe slide
by itself into the rushes and lily pads.
Lean far over the bow, your arm
a dead stick, drifting its shadow
through the water.
a turtle from behind, snatch it
from the log, a hard bulge
Snappers, you grab between
your careful fingers, arched
across the shell, back from
their craning dinosaur necks,
their mute bird beaks.
When you miss, you hear
the soft blip. Bubbles trail off
in deep, iridescent angles.
You don’t catch them
for any reason. They scratch around
the canoe’s wet bottom, leaving
stinking pools, and you bring them
two miles home. For days they wallow
and scrape their brown helmets
in the aluminum tub by the dock.
You add mussel shells and a petosky stone
for company. You feed them worms,
grubs, and a granddaddy long-legs.
You get used to hearing them.
When you go to swim, or sit
at the end of the dock feeding
the clamoring swans at sunset,
you start believing that skidding
and shucking against the tub
is their real voice.
But when you let them go,
they ease down the rocks and slide
unruffled and heavy as fishing lead
under the alien weeds
in righteous silence.
They have waited for us in the country,
keeping the catfish fed,
brush-hogging the pond banks clear.
We must pull up a chair on the long porch
while they hold down Sunday afternoon,
circling their voices on episodes.
Then we can take the cane poles
from against the chimney
to find what is left of luck.
Small bream toy with the ball of blood
on the hook, so when the big cat
strikes, it is more than I am
ready for, driving my line down.
The great ache of the pole quivers
toward heaven, before the line snaps.
For hours we watch the cork bob
and dive, raising clues.
We wade to our necks for it.
We cast a flounder rig, its hooks
vicious in the pond. It claws the cork,
thrashes fourteen pounds of catfish
against the bank. The line snaps again.
We take the gift of our fish tale
in the pink evening up to the porch.
They draw it to them like a prodigal son,
full of flaws, but redeemable.
They go to work on it.