Before Malcolm’s funeral got started, I stood talking with John the blacksmith, who told me He’d been spending some pretty hard hours With a pair of two-year-old Friesian mares Who’d never had their feet trimmed. In a flash, I thought of a feral donkey In Ireland, back thirty years,
Poor animal, lowly mount of the Christ, Hobbling on hooves long as breadloaves. This had nothing whatever to do with Malcolm, But somehow it did, as it happened. Malcolm had once pronounced me as husband. A wonder. I’d gotten the girl, More than the clumsy hero can fathom
When it crops up in sappy movies. So Malcolm is part of a long, joyful marriage, And the family it made, including The children he baptized. One reading Came from a funny note He’d left for the pastor, which said in part: “Non-judgment day is coming,
Beware.” I could virtually feel Malcolm’s voice, Insisting as ever that God Was too big to conform to anyone’s will. There was no one so evil or ill To have strayed beyond the Lord’s grace, he claimed. He was frumpy and funny but mostly Just good. An accomplished athlete as well,
Improbably fierce on the courts, Although he loved his every opponent, He’d wanted his ashes interred In a tennis-ball can. It might seem absurd That I conjured horse or burro, But as we mourners chuckled and wept, I imagined I heard soft words, Malcolm’s, and knew his hand would have stroked
Those neglected, suffering creatures. That funeral day, for all who were there, Was so painful I’d almost swear It hurt them to stand on God’s green earth. For my part at least I wished I could somehow walk for a while on air.
I have just one person left on earth who’s been My friend through grade school, high school, church, and sports, The pastor says. Meanwhile the winter rain Explodes on the metal roof like handgun shots,
And it’s hard to hear the man go on: Thing is, He’s lost his memory. There comes a catch In his throat, a thing that no one here has witnessed Through all his ministry. Here’s the trouble, he adds,
I’m left alone with the things we knew together. Silence ensues, save for a few quiet coughs, And rustlings of the worship programs’ paper. Then the preacher seems to change his theme right off,
Speaking of Mary, and how she must have suffered When her son referred to his apostolic peers As family, not to her or his brothers, Not to Joseph—as if he forgot the years
Spent in their household, as if he kept no thought Of ties that bind. The congregants are old. They try to listen, but their minds go wandering off To things like the pounding rain outside, so cold
And ugly and loud. The storm, so out of season, So wintry, still improbably recalls The milder months, which vanished in a moment, And which they summon vaguely, if at all.
Tiny, almost an anti-weight, if it blew off my palm in the wind I might not even notice. Dashing against the back porch glass, the bird fell onto logs I’d stacked there, or rather heaped. I loaded our wood more neatly out in the shed but this jumble of lumber reminded me my life lacked grace.
Wind didn’t kill the bird but misprision. My oldest daughter had just given birth to twins, and I was thinking of them of course when I saw the sparrow. We’re in a hopeful season. I’d like to imagine new beginnings, not ponder for instance the self-styled Christian Warriors I heard about lately, devoted to killing police,
to launching Armageddon. They claim these are days of Antichrist, and I could almost agree—for other reasons. Thou shalt not murder is among the Commandments, I’d remind the warriors, all nine of whom live in Michigan, a place near hell in this near Depression.
Days are bad worldwide, though in gospel God’s eye takes in the smallest sparrow. Vile hooligans among us storm over having a president who’s other than white. We’re all human, and none of us saved, and—as the old Greek said— it might have been best if we’d never been born.
And yet to imagine a world devoid of hope is too easy and lazy, I decide. Outside the odors of spring fly in on the wind: damp mulch, old ice, wet mud and sap. The sugar-makers hope for a few more gallons, hope for a few more years, to be with my children. I open the stove, sweep the bird in.
He awakens on February first, stunned again by that odd wonder: how quickly old has come. Of course if his will were done he’d have risen youthful, but age is here, he’ll own it. He thanks God
for its coming without companion pain, without reliance on medicine. As he has since he was younger, he puts on snowshoes and clambers over drifts and up a daunting bluff. As much by determination
as muscle he powers on through the powder. The view from here—a blessing: eastward the white White Mountains all seem to be staring placidly down on ice-dams hunched in the river. He kicks his feet out of leather bindings
to climb a tree. West, a neighbor’s strange herd of alpacas mills, all wool, though mere months back—short-shorn, with feeble reeds for necks— they were fragile creatures, naked, susceptible, silly, same as us all.
He forces air out through his teeth—birdwatcher trick—and imagines a lisping cloud, his sounds small jets of steam. Let kinglets come, he dreams. Did an eagle shriek? Too far to tell. But golden-crowned kinglets are flying
from his south to land all around, on his limb and all the way up to the crown, then are gone so quickly he all but missed the marvel: the kinglets come.
The smile on your mouth was the deadest thing Alive enough to have the strength to die. —“Neutral Tones” (Psalm 72))
It won’t last long, this snow that sheathes the dooryard pine in April and lays its feckless cover on the slope behind. Crocuses, just tall enough, poke their small blue noses through. It’s clear that they’re alive enough to live. April’s gale is loud as bombers. What’s left of ice around the pond in town is rough as predators’ teeth. The fisher fells the luckless squirrel.
There’s much I too may try to cover. For all of that I feel a gladness in watching this omni-inclusive white blot out the neutral tones that pushed our brilliant poet to ponder death, and love’s deceit, its cruelty. We’ve been together, my love and I, near three decades, which have scudded by like these sideways flakes. My lover-wife. There can come pangs, but the freshets have started
to wander the brush and make their signs: soon we’ll find the trillium, the painted kind, in that secret place which I discovered springs ago, and which since then I’ve kept a secret from all but her—from even our children; and the valley’s white-faced Herefords, while winter endured, dropped new calves, which now, though mud clots up like blood, shine clean as a man’s most colorful dream.
What is this one’s dream? That life go on as ever. That all our lives go on. No more than dream, of course. I know, the planet heating up, the cretin politicians waving swords, as if, by counter-logic, war might transform earth into something more saintly. So many hard facts conspire against me. To know that, though, is to make me cling the harder to gifts that appear to be given
without my having to deserve them. Flowers, beasts, the glinting trees. My disposition, which has moved me here to mute dispute with my great better, in spite of all my darker doubt. Inkling that something will soon come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth. Let us praise the Lord, and every weather. Or the smile on the mouth of my lover, which still can blind like snow.
Or the road agent waving from his bright-red plow as it smooths the mud-clotted back lanes over.
After the tourist’s two blue insomniac nights, patrols of all that had been lost, botched, or sweet but severed, during the Albinoni he went off, up, away, so that, say, the sudden recall of his late mother in grainy portrait in her yearbook, over the captions: “brightest,” and—in the quaint patois of the gentry during their Depression—“most attractive,” and the despair she may have felt as children and alcohol supervened: if any such feckless maundering occurred to him . . . Well, off, up and away went she as well, borne heavenward on the andante’s strains. Two trumpets. One great organ. Peace might well lie at hand. Peace was at hand. During Martini’s toccata in C,
a vision of his tall naked wife, under a tall naked sun, produced in him in the church a subtle stirring, even a mild tumescence, which he would otherwise have described as out of order, were it not that this newer order arched so beyond any scheme he’d normally posit that within it all things were possible, as they are, it is said, with God, Who during the Manfredini revealed Himself to our tourist in what he construed as His human form, His prison garb stained and rent, His savaged body hefted by men and women—their countenances looking more angry than mournful— from a loud place like that bar on the corner of Thakurova and Evropska, which he had walked by that evening on his way to transport: the Metro, which carried him into this old quarter
in a car along with that beauteous, amorous young Czech couple with their red-tipped white staffs and whited eyes, then spilled him out to rumpsteak with garlic, alone, and then to the 9 p.m. concert, alone. During the Ave Maria of Schubert, he saw a joy he hadn’t seen in the tears of St. Peter as rendered faceforth by an artist, Swiss of all things, unknown to him till that forenoon in the Castle gallery. The wailing weanling calves of his childhood now placidly grazed. The famous small songbirds lit on the outstretched arms of Francis. Peter’s tears had appeared only woeful this morning. The hour of music concluded, the tourist walked, though it felt still like soaring, his cobblestone-wearied heels devoid of any pain, back into this world, broken and joyous and praying,
“Never to be the same.” Never perhaps again.
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