The Owl and I
Once the half-ass cross got burned on our lawn, my mother lit out
for the north to have me. My father was stationed in Gadsden, Alabama
Prior to World War II, commander of so-called Colored Troops,
And he’d invited a few of his men into the house, you see,
A radical thing back then and there in the heart of Jim-Crow Dixie.
So my mother fled giving birth down there, though I don’t have any idea
Why I’d think of this, which, near to her death, she spoke of so many years after.
Why now, on watching a barred owl coast to a hemlock gone dark at sunfall,
Everything else as well going dark around me here where I stand?
Once, at midnight, Mom thought she’d heard a whoop of human anguish
Outside, and wondered whether some soldier was being lynched. My father
Went out for a look but found nothing. My lifelong relations with my mother
Were vexed, I suspect today, in part because between us two
Lay a lot in common. Jews were crammed into cattle cars right then,
But for Dad and his troops, the evil in Europe yet lay months ahead.
Still, real or imagined, that cry of misery stuck with Mom, no matter
No signs of nearby violence turned up next morning. The company
Came en masse to mess: Shit on a Shingle, as the GIs said,
Dried beef on toast. So life went on, at least for a while– more or less.
It ought to bring comfort that I’m where I am, aging but safe, my clan
Constantly swelling as sons and daughters produce their sons and daughters,
And winter, so harsh this year, gives way at last to spring, with snowdrops
Glinting, the freshets making their evanescent cascades through woods.
I recall how my mother loved this season. Why, then, this lonesome mood?
It feels that I’m in some pitch-black tunnel and won’t get out again,
That this, as the saying goes, is it, and all I have at the end
–Of course there can’t be anything to it– is the sorrowful eight-note anthem
Of that lone owl, the sound just now having reached my vexed old head,
Though I’d be foolish to think that song was addressed to any human.
From up here, the valley looks soused
with spring, and whatever I see
seems a gift. Meanwhile, so help me, I wonder
why I never knew a thing
about cribbage. Not that it mattered,
just that back in the ward, my ghost of a roommate,
92 years old,
set up a game to play
with his daughter, who told him they could stay with it
till the Red Sox came on TV.
I gave a huff of relief,
not too loud, I hope, relieved
to know a change was coming
from all those idiot game shows,
the volume turned to headache pitch,
the old man’s droop-lobed ears
even weaker, I guess, than mine.
I lay there fettered: oxygen hose,
monitor, saline IV.
I’d had some chest pains that morning.
Three drawings of blood, all hours apart,
were apparently needed to prove
I’d suffered no incident.
And so, worse luck, I was going to be stuck
for a night with this poor old guy.
The daughter kept saying, “Be patient.”
He’d been in that room for over a month.
So the two of us watched the baseball,
the Sox getting by on breaks,
passed balls and bloops and walks, and squeaking
a victory out in the ninth.
We whooped until he coughed
so hard I rang my buzzer.
A nurse came in and frowned and pinned him.
the hack, then fell asleep.
But all night he’d jerk awake and shout,
“Is anybody out there?”
How long can a man be patient?
I wasn’t one to say. I’d be gone
early the following morning,
my diagnosis: heartburn.
Sprung at last, I’ve taken this hike
up a hands-and-knees ridge to rejoice
in a healthy heart. Yes, the world
appears suffused with a sort of grace.
There’s the scent of melting snow,
muddy soil, wet duff.
Gray frogs chortle from vernal pools,
the freshets tinkle downhill,
woodpeckers rattle the air,
new growth festoons the tips of boughs,
and sky is far more vivid
than what we call sky-blue.
So why on earth should I think about cribbage?
No matter. I wouldn’t set out
before I looked it up–
research, old-style, in a reference book.
Reading, I heard gurneys jangle,
a PA, alarms that signaled
sad souls trying to get up from beds
that they were meant to stay in.
I hear that clamor now,
even these miles and hours away.
Cribbage seems to have been invented
by John Suckling, near-forgotten
seventeenth-century writer and peer,
said to be “carefree and witty,”
features of poets called the Cavaliers.