Who Knows? That Lifelong question
i. He Risks a Walk
Between two pock-marked beech, on a strand of wire
For cows he recalls from childhood, the cruel barbs shine,
Blossoms of brightness. When darkness stoops, Orion
Will shine likewise, as always, among the stars.
He’ll nock his arrow, as if to kindle mayhem
Below. For now, the old man thinks of the house,
Where his wife must still feel disquiet. The weather scared them
Last night with sideways rain, which in due course froze.
When he all but trips on a winter-kill, he wonders,
Has he read somewhere of a people who buried their dead
As the grouse in his path is buried, neck and head
Alone protruding, or was that just some old torture?
The grouse’s stiffened ruff is lustrous with frost.
The bird had hidden in powder. When it turned to ice,
It sealed the body in. So peculiar a sight
Has stopped the old man cold in this foolish walk.
Today’s no day for wandering under trees
Going off around him everywhere, loud as guns–
The clap and crack of bursting limbs and trunks.
Sunbeams garland the forest in silvery beads,
Every branch and bole, both shattered and whole,
A radiant filament. He can’t see why
Death looks so brilliant. Its dead eyes rimed and white,
The head might be a flower, or maybe a jewel
Carelessly dropped by somebody roaming here
Where the walker feels his way, the trail so sheer.
ii. He Walks and Stops
His trail so sheer, his knees not what they were,
The walker finds himself
Pausing more often than stepping, and in these lulls–
Although he’s tired of memory,
Damnable habit that’s been the stuff of his life–
The past creeps up again.
He muses how it’s the biggest surprise he’s known:
The fact that he’s gotten old,
That, for example, he’s forced to put a hand
On each of those cobbly knees
And push down hard whenever he needs to step up
Onto even slight swells or rock-forms.
It’s what he did, he recalls, on grammar-school stairs,
And then, in adolescence,
Went on to mock the younger boys for doing.
He sees those small ones still,
Their untucked shirts and trousers and untied shoes
Gone muddy out on the playground,
As they pant on the steps, their little mouths agape,
The dread, imperious bell
Reminds them that they’re late again. They’re late.
The old man also sees
In this red oak grove a few stumps here and there
Of long-gone trees he hewed
Forty years back or more, their wood turned dozey,
Such that he all but pictures
Their turning to air itself were he to kick them,
Although of course he won’t,
For fear of losing balance. Imagination,
Vision – it’s all he has,
It seems, by which he means the ceaseless function
Of selective memory.
He thinks of war in Syria now, for instance,
And thinks he ought to be thinking
Of that, or of any news his mother described
In his boyhood as “current events,”
Rebuking his idle dreaming. He hears her voice
To this day and can’t gainsay it.
Three cord in eight short hours: that’s what he’d fell
And cut and split and stack.
Why shouldn’t he still be strong? Another surprise.
He walks on fifty feet
And pauses once again. A random gust
Blows in a scent of winter.
He can’t identify it, although it’s familiar:
He’s taken this odor in
For seven decades, but now he wants to ignore it.
He’d rather not be mired
For even a moment in even the least old question.
Yet how does one look ahead
Or out from here? The prospect appears absurd.
For all of that, he notes
The buds of February tending to purple
The way they’ve always done,
And he can’t help it: he has to conjure spring.
He can’t resist somehow.
Is this mere habit too, or might it be
An authentic sense of revival?
He walks a while again and stops again,
Walks on and doesn’t know.
iii. He’ll Stay With That
He doesn’t know as he walks,
That two coyotes are mating
Within yards of where he passes,
In that late-growth fir clump northward.
He knows only enough to imagine
They’re there. If he passes again
In eight weeks or so, the bitch–
Will howl, if she exists.
She’ll be guarding her whelps from the walker
Unless or until he moves on.
If she feels fear, she’ll hide it.
Ice out on the river
Will have loosened up its suction
To either shore, and he
May not witness this either. Who knows?
Who knows? That lifelong question.
He tries not to prophesy
What constitutes his future,
Quietly urging himself instead
To consider what little he can know,
Or at least can see: for instance,
These tiny, wriggling specks
In the granular stuff under trees:
Snow fleas, harbingers
Of the sugar maker’s season.
Perhaps he’ll stay with that,
Will end with sweet figuration
As home rises into sight.