Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memory


I. First Leaves

Outside was the whole world:
There were the first leaves, turning;
the coffee shop; the office parking lot, half full—
I was earlier than usual, and as I turned the car off,

the last chirrup of radio:
There is word a plane has collided

Inside, the halls were formless,
the nameplates bore no letters.

We saw Pakistan for the first time:
the news kept cutting to a woman
ululating celebration.
We had never noticed her before;

we thought we were flying to San Francisco,

we had poppies in our hair,

we had warmed our lips with lattes,

we had names and shoes and outside
was autumn, the first leaves turning

in the trees: our dim acquaintance with fire.

II. Leonids

They were supposed to infuse the sky with light,
transfix our eyes with a radiance so vast
it might roar, like Christ come back as lion—

At three I left the city to see the sky
unstained by unbuilding,
past layers of dust, past tourists who’d come to stare.

In the park, cars had gathered; headlights
shone through exhaust, fog had fallen.

All around strangers moved through the dark,
craning our necks toward the sky
we hoped would come through,

give us something grand to hook our hopes to—

but when the meteors fell it was in silence,
their trails slight as scraping claws
of a hungry stray locked just beyond the door.

III. Lobby

The high window springs a leak of light
past the flags, across the marble floor,
washing the branded lobby,
spangling the eyes of the desk clerks,
the tender at the empty bar.

No one’s flying now.
The charred hull lies only a mile away;
the locals are drinking at home, their eyes
bound to their televisions.
Late afternoon, mid autumn, but the heat is stifling,

and there’s a bride coming in the sliding door.
Her dress is dirty at the hem,
her makeup creasing beneath
her eyes—still,
the staff around the lobby glance up,
then stare, when she appears.

Transfigured by the sunlight through the glass,
which, fixed in time, seems more fire than light,

she is, in the precision and toil of her finery,
so common even now,
that if the hotel staff lose their breath a moment

it is not beauty that pulls it from their lungs,
but this moment of the ordinary resuming,
the needle set back to the groove
where music stopped.

It is simply out of amazement
that people still
do this thing, this way—

the plans, the hoist of girders’ order and design,
the gravity and balance required to rivet

one life to another until two
share a single silhouette,
visible from afar on any clear, bright morning.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The World According to Martha

Reading Russell McLendon's recent piece about the anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, made me think about animal histories. I had been thinking about the way humans consider their past--issues of inheritance, family ties, legacies that are passed down through generations, and how those are both good and bad for people. How there are things our ancestors did that we're still on the hook for; things our ancestors suffered that still ripple out into our own lives. The way that people born to a place feel connected to it and will defend it, and how animals are (at least in theory) separated from that kind of thinking.

People have whole stories of how they belong in a place and how it belongs to them, a version of history that adds up to an explanation of how we came to be where we are, and often a story of why we control what we do.

When you visit the Alhambra in Granada, for example, or the cathedral in Seville, you're walking through spaces that have been Christian and Muslim and Christian and Muslim for centuries, based on the battles for control that went on there. The bell tower in the Seville cathedral, La Giralda, used to be a minaret. So much of the architecture is like that, a sort of structural palimpsest on which one thing was written and then written over and then written over again, but pieces of the original thing still show through.

While I was at the Alhambra years ago, I noticed not just the architecture, but the swallows who were flying in and out of one of the main courtyards, swooping for bugs, occasionally dipping into one of the fountains. It made me think about their ancestors: Had this swallow's family lived here for long? Did this line of birds go back centuries, so that their great-great-great-great grandfathers might have witnessed the fights between religious devotees, each trying to claim the land for their own vision?

And if animals were inclined to record their history in the same way we keep track of ours--the wars, the treaties, the grudges that are held and echo for centuries--what might they have to say about the primates who left the animal kingdom and became something else?

(I should note that I'm actually a dog lover, but that the parasitical nature of our favorite slobbering companions has always made me wonder how other animals perceive them--whether they're considered the Benedict Arnolds of the wild kingdom. And also that the thing I liked best about the process of writing this poem was discovering that a group of apes is called a "shrewdness"--probably the best herd term ever.)


This draft went extinct.