PRAISE

start wherever you are:
bathing a baby—that gleaming
that drunken joy
of brand-new skin and soap

a mountain-side in Wyoming
cloud-shadows racing
across its flanks like a troop
of dolphins

even the glint of a bit of tinfoil
a gleam in the gutter
even the haunting song of a distant
freight-train

these moments when praise
comes home to me
as once in Chiapas
the worn stone floor of the church

three zinnias offered up
in a Coke bottle
one melting candle and
just enough light to pray by

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MIRROR, MIRROR

My mother sits at her
dressing-table arranging

her black hair into two
smooth columns

to frame the symmetry
of her perfect face–

(people say she looks just like
the Duchess of Winsor–

that gaze, that bearing
of the forever loveliest

girl in the room.) Frowning
into the triple mirror

she fusses with a rogue strand
that won’t stay perfectly aligned.

I must have been
about seventeen.

Over her slip she wears
a pale-blue silk cape

to protect her dress
from any loose hairs.

And to hide from me–
all those long years

the shame of her scarred
chest, her missing breast.

Leaping, not Falling

At the rim of the cliff
what does it take now
to take
the plunge?

The canopy is made
–they say–
of the best nylon
the harness tested
for stress

That last time–remember
–how fists of air
handed you safe
through all those rungs
of light

spun you down
easy as any aspen leaf
onto the sandy bed
of an arroyo

to smell the sage
and piňon
to hear the rock-doves
calling.

PROSPERO, DEPARTING

“…the isle is full of noises” –The Tempest

His spells dissolved, the air
at last allowed to be
merely air

His staff changed to tree-fern,
cape a carpet of black iguanas
sunning

This island becomes us now:
each cave rehearses its own
rumble

the small volcanoes croon
to one another all night like
owls

Lizard and dove and tortoise,
we were ancient before these
strangers

Caliban was root and mud then,
Ariel a taste of sea-mist,
mere salt

Before she grew tall, Miranda
could track us where we hid,
found

footprint in moss, lichen
scribble on rock, a signal
guessed

She’s gone now into human-kind,
her dreamings lost: the island
sings itself

PANTOUM FOR EARLY SPRING

Mid-March. The dirty crust of snow, and frozen mud.
A trio of geese have taken over the median strip–
poking their beaks at barren dirt, hoping for grass.
A man tramps back & forth in time with the traffic lights.

Geese have arrived to possess the median strip–
the pickings are scant. No matter: they persist.
The panhandler’s boots have carved a furrow;
his flimsy sign and Starbucks cup always the same.

Pickings are scant this chilly evening.
I fumble around in my purse for dollar bills.
Sign in one hand, he stops, holds out the cup,
but the traffic stream is relentless: I’ll have to drive on

Fumbling in my bag for bills, I miss my chance.
Some kinds of hunger know no season.
The traffic moves on, relentless. The stoplight’s
gone green. The man stops, turns back to his track.

Some kinds of longing know no season.
Sadly, I stuff the money back into my purse–
The light’s turned green, the man has turned his back.
Too late. Mid-March: the frozen mud, the geese.

Note: The pantoum is a form of poetry similar to a villanelle in that there are repeating lines throughout the poem. It is composed of a series of quatrains; the second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. (Contemporary versions allow a goodly amount of variation but it’s still a challenge!)

STILL LIFE (16th C. Dutch)

About Death they were never wrong, the Old Masters,
how it quietly sits in one corner of the canvas–
a skull, yes, old and burnished, golden
as a girl’s washed hair. It sits half-hidden
behind the elegant copper pitcher that mirrors
a full wineglass and some ripe grapes.
A cut lemon, a pearl-handled knife,
a napkin and a scatter of walnuts
surround a splendid, glistening fish,
Laid out on a pewter dish, its one
wild eye interrogates the scene.
Who cut the lemon-rind into spiral curls?
Who dreamt up this feast? Where are the guests?
Offstage, invisible, honing their appetites–
a skull the only human presence here,
silently marking Time.

THE WEED-WATCHER

From first nubbins poking up
out of cracks in the highway
out of strips of curbside dirt
fissures in the sidewalk,
I’ve been watching them
all season. As though to learn
some lesson about survival.

A motley nation of weeds
geysering up like Old Faithful–
the Ragweed’s silvery tops
reaching up week after week
to tower tall as a schoolchild
by early September.
The False Bamboo thickening
by the roadside into a jungle
to rocket high in triumph
before it pales to brown
fades & topples the first cold night.

What is it about this old story?
Maybe that stubborn energy
the will to surge upwards over
& over, ugly or pretty or plain,
maybe the music of their names–
Burdock & Bullthistle
Foxtail & Knotweed–
this loveliness against all odds.

ODE to the PORCUPINE

Just what
was God thinking,
I wonder
when he devised you
and set you free
up in the trees?
Solitary as the sloth
with a face like a boot
your passion is
salt:
chewing the bark of conifers
yellow teeth
sharp as machetes
gnawing
sweaty shoes
handles of tools
salty with human use
sniffing out the liverwort,
the yellow water-lily
and the rock-salted debris
along the highway.
Oh be careful,
dear stupid quill-pig!
Clumsy, and greedy too,
sometimes you over-reach
in search of a tasty twig
and fall like a ripe apple
out of the tree–
to waddle forth
smelly as an old hermit
your weak eyes
searching the dark world.
Only if disturbed
do you raise up
those fearsome weapons
with their barbed tips.
I celebrate you
because you are so much
like my own heart:
slow-moving, near-sighted
and which like you wears
an undercoat of silky down
beneath its armor
of rattling quills
so ready to bristle
with anger
or love, so slow
to recover.
-Geraldine Zetzel

WILDLIFE

The big male giraffe glides
across the savannah,
intent on shepherding
his pod of wives and calves.
The tourist’s camcorder
has caught the flow
of those pacing legs,
unhurried, steady as oiled
pistons. And the almost
comical dignity
of that crowned head.

The sound of the wind
is recorded too, and the low
excited murmur
of human voices. Missing
only are the smells–
of acacia, baobab, dust,
and the distant whiff of carrion.

Watching a friend’s safari
movies, I’m back with you
and Bea and me, that time–
stranded with a flat tire on a red-
dirt road somewhere in Kenya.
John had flagged down
a passing lorry, gone for help.
You smoke cigarette after
cigarette. Bea and I sip stale
water from a canteen.
Heat shimmers off the hood
of the car. The motor ticks
like a cricket as it cools.

Then out of nowhere a trio
of giraffes appears, just beyond
the roadside brush.
Peacefully pulling leaves
from the treetops with their
long, clever, purple tongues.
So near we can smell
their heat, hear their
steady chewing. So near
we can see their luminous eyes
and improbable girlish eyelashes.
Undisturbed by our human
presence–if indeed we
existed at all, for them.

A Fresh Egg
-For Becky & her hens

Spooning out the marigold-
yellow yolk, cutting up
the springy white—this egg
needs no salt or pepper,
and butter would be
sacrilege–the taste is
so homely, familiar,
and still fills me with wonder.

Who was it, I think, as I
scrape out the last morsels
–that first human being
to dare eat an egg?
I imagine some hungry
prehistoric mother foraging
on the wide savannah—
did downwards at the bird,
miss, then find her hands
coated with sticky golden
sap and translucent juice?
Grunting in dismay, she raises
her hands to her mouth, sniffs,
begins to lick the odd stuff off
each finger, one by one.
And runs back to tell the others.

Sated, I sit a while longer
at the breakfast table
peeling off with my fingernail
a few thin strips of eggwhite
still sticking to the shell’s inside
and putting them into my mouth–
remembering how Miss Bellamy
the young Science teacher
I had a crush on in 6th Grade
showed us the innermost
flexible skin of a hardboiled egg
and told us it was what’s called
a semi-permeable membrane.