A CLOSER LOOK: Pattiann Rogers

Pattiann Rogers is a poet driven toward
both the science of nature and the theologies
that arise within it: “Everything I see of heaven,
I know by the earth,” she has said.
She beautifully joins these personal imperatives
through the music of poetry:
In poetry, I’m singing. . . . Poetry uses language
to create a music borne inside human experiences
and emotions. And when the music created
by the sounds and ordering of the words matches
the thrust of the meanings of the words,
then a radiant state of awareness can occur.

Rogers’ immersion in the abundant life that teems around us, of which we are but a part, can suggest that our theologies ought to make more room for our fellow creatures, all of them. And that the primacy of place we accord ourselves, in all our self-regard, carries a whiff of illegitimacy. In the breathtaking “Being Accomplished,” she respects the
consequential place in the universe of a mouse and so reveals our common consequentiality:
                                       Picture the night pressing in
around those hands, forced, simply by their presence,
to fit its great black bulk exactly around every hair
and every pinlike nail, forced to outline perfectly
every needle-thin bone without crushing one, to carry
its immensity right up to the precise boundary of flesh
but no farther.
In “Address: the Archaeans, One Cell Creatures,” she goes further, acknowledging the place and dignity of life right down to the smallest and most ancient, the Archaeans (“more committed than oblivion, / more prolific than stars”):
And not one of their trillions
has ever been given a tombstone.
I’ve never noticed a lessening
of light in the ceasing of any one
of them. They are more mutable
than mere breathing and vanishing,
more mysterious than resurrection,
too minimal for death.
Pattiann Rogers is the author of twelve collections of poetry and two collections of essays, including Quickening Fields (Penguin Poets, 2017), The Grand Array (Trinity University Press, 2010), Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed, 2005), Song of the World Becoming, New and Collected Poems, 1981-2001 (Milkweed Editions, 2001), The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan University Press, 1986). Her awards and honors  include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry, Poetry’s Tietjens and Bess Hokin Prizes, the Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest, the Strousse Award from Prairie Schooner, and five Pushcart Prizes. Rogers has taught at numerous colleges and universities as well as in high schools and kindergartens.

Please see Rod Jellema
s essay on the work of Pattiann Rogers, available from the Current Issue page or here.

Learn more about Pattiann Rogers:




A note from Pattiann Rogers:

The 25 poems I’ve chosen for Innisfree’s Closer Look series are not intended to be a coherent gathering. They are examples of various themes, subjects, and voices that I believe are primary in the body of my work written over the past 35 years. Some of these themes and subjects have received more attention than others. One or two have received virtually no attention at all, especially the poems in Part IV, which have a distinctively different voice and stance. They are collected in my book Legendary Performance, not widely marketed. But perhaps, among the differences in these 25 poems, there is also a subtle continuity of method, an undercurrent of approach to a subject, that binds them and their various themes together. Although I grouped the poems into four parts primarily to create breaks to facilitate the reading, I have attempted to place poems with similar themes together.

I appreciate the opportunity that the Innisfree Poetry Journal has given me to present, through these 25 poems, the contrasts and similarities among the various elements of my work as a whole. I thank Greg McBride for his work on the Journal and those who assist him.


The Family Is All There Is

Think of those old, enduring connections
found in all flesh—the channeling
wires and threads, vacuoles, granules,
plasma and pods, purple veins, ascending
boles and coral sapwood (sugar-
and light-filled), those common ligaments,
filaments, fibers and canals.

Seminal to all kin also is the open
mouth—in heart urchin and octopus belly,
in catfish, moonfish, forest lily,
and rugosa rose, in thirsty magpie,
wailing cat cub, barker, yodeler,
yawning coati.

And there is a pervasive clasping
common to the clan—the hard nails
of lichen and ivy sucker
on the church wall, the bean tendril
and the taproot, the bolted coupling
of crane flies, the hold of the shearwater
on its morning squid, guanine
to cytosine, adenine to thymine,
fingers around fingers, the grip
of the voice on presence, the grasp
of the self on place.

Remember the same hair on pygmy
dormouse and yellow-necked caterpillar,
covering red baboon, thistle seed
and willow herb? Remember the similar
snorts of warthog, walrus, male moose
and sumo wrestler? Remember the familiar
whinny and shimmer found in river birches,
bay mares and bullfrog tadpoles,
in children playing at shoulder tag
on a summer lawn?

The family—weavers, reachers, winders
and connivers, pumpers, runners, air
and bubble riders, rock-sitters, wave-gliders,
wire-wobblers, soothers, flagellators—all
brothers, sisters, all there is.

Name something else.
from Splitting and Binding (Wesleyan U. Press) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)

In Addition to Faith, Hope and Charity

I’m sure there’s a god
in favor of drums. Consider
their pervasiveness—the thump,
thump and slide of waves
on a stretched hide of beach,
the rising beat and slap
of their crests against shore
baffles, the rapping of otters
cracking molluscs with stones,
woodpeckers beak-banging, the beaver’s
whack of his tail-paddle, the ape
playing the bam of his own chest,
the million tickering rolls
of rain off the flat-leaves
and razor-rims of the forest.

And we know the noise
of our own inventions—snare and kettle,
bongo, conga, big bass, toy tin,
timbales, tambourine, tom-tom.

But the heart must be the most
pervasive drum of all. Imagine
hearing all together every tinny
snare of every heartbeat
in every jumping mouse and harvest
mouse, sagebrush vole and least
shrew living across the prairie;
and add to that cacophony the individual
staccato tickings inside all gnatcatchers,
kingbirds, kestrels, rock doves, pine
warblers crossing, criss-crossing
each other in the sky, the sound
of their beatings overlapping
with the singular hammerings
of the hearts of cougar, coyote,
weasel, badger, pronghorn, the ponderous
bass of the black bear; and on deserts too,
all the knackings, the flutterings
inside wart snakes, whiptails, racers
and sidewinders, earless lizards, cactus
owls; plus the clamors undersea, slow
booming in the breasts of beluga
and bowhead, uniform rappings
in a passing school of cod or bib,
the thidderings of bat rays and needlefish.

Imagine the earth carrying this continuous
din, this multifarious festival of pulsing
thuds, stutters and drummings, wheeling
on and on across the universe.

This must be proof of a power existing
somewhere definitely in favor
of such a racket.
from Geocentric (Gibbs Smith Publisher) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems

The Rites of Passage

The inner cell of each frog egg laid today
in these still open waters is surrounded
by melanin pigment, by a jelly capsule
acting as cushion to the falling of the surf,
as buffer to the loud crow-calling
coming from the cleared forests to the north.

At 77 degrees the single cell cleaves in 90 minutes,
then cleaves again and in five hours forms the hollow
ball of the blastula. In the dark, 18 hours later,
even as a shuffle in the grass moves the shadows
on the shore and the stripes of the moon on the sand
disappear and the sounds of the heron jerk
across the lake, the growing blastula turns itself
inside out unassisted and becomes a gut.

What is the source of the tension instigating next
the rudimentary tail and gills, the cobweb of veins?
What is the impetus slowly directing the hard-core
current right up the scale to that one definite moment
when a fold of cells quivers suddenly for the first time
and someone says loudly “heart,” born, beating steadily,
bearing now in the white water of the moon
the instantaneous distinction of being liable to death?

Above me, the full moon, round and floating deep
in its capsule of sky, never trembles.
In ten thousand years it will never involute
its white frozen blastula to form a gut,
will never by a heart be called born.

Think of that part of me wishing tonight to remember
the split-second edge before the beginning,
to remember by a sudden white involution of sight,
by a vision of tension folding itself
inside clear open waters, by imitating a manipulation
of cells in a moment of distinction, wishing to remember
the entire language made during that crossing.

                from The Expectations of Light (Princeton University Press)
                and Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed)

Being Accomplished

Balancing on her haunches, the mouse can accomplish
certain things with her hands. She can pull the hull
from a barley seed in paperlike pieces the size of threads.
she can turn and turn a crumb to create smaller motes
the size of her mouth. She can burrow in sand and grasp
one single crystal grain in both of her hands.
A quarter of a dried pea can fill her palm.

She can hold the earless, eyeless head
of her furless baby and push it to her teat.
The hollow of its mouth must feel like the invisible
confluence sucking continually deep inside a pink flower.

And the mouse is almost compelled
to see everything. Her hand, held up against the night sky,
can scarcely hide Venus or Polaris
or even a corner of the crescent moon.
It can cover only a fraction of the blue moth’s wing.
Its shadow could never mar or blot enough of the evening
to matter.

Imagine the mouse with her spider-sized hands
holding to a branch of dead hawthorn in the middle
of the winter field tonight. Picture the night pressing in
around those hands, forced, simply by their presence,
to fit its great black bulk exactly around every hair
and every pinlike nail, forced to outline perfectly
every needle-thin bone without crushing one, to carry
its immensity right up to the precise boundary of flesh
but no farther. Think how the heavy weight of infinity,
expanding outward in all directions forever, is forced,
nevertheless, to mold itself right here and now
to every peculiarity of those appendages.

And even the mind, capable of engulfing
the night sky, capable of enclosing infinity,
capable of surrounding itself inside any contemplation,
has been obliged, for this moment, to accommodate the least
grasp of that mouse, the dot of her knuckle, the accomplishment
of her slightest intent.
from The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan University Press) and Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)

Address: the Archaeans, One Cell Creatures

Although most are totally naked
and too scant for even the slightest
color and although they have no voice
that I’ve ever heard for cry or song, they are,
nevertheless, more than mirage, more
than hallucination, more than falsehood.

They have confronted sulfuric
boiling black sea bottoms and stayed, 
held on under ten tons of polar ice,
established themselves in dense salts
and acids, survived eating metal ions.
They are more committed than oblivion,
more prolific than stars.

Far too ancient for scripture, each
one bears in its one cell one text—
the first whit of alpha, the first
jot of bearing, beneath the riling
sun the first nourishing of self. 

Too lavish for saints, too trifling
for baptism, they have existed
throughout never gaining girth enough
to hold a firm hope of salvation. 
Too meager in heart for compassion,
too lean for tears, less in substance
than sacrifice, not one has ever
carried a cross anywhere. 

And not one of their trillions
has ever been given a tombstone.
I’ve never noticed a lessening
of light in the ceasing of any one
of them. They are more mutable
than mere breathing and vanishing,
more mysterious than resurrection,
too minimal for death.
from Wayfare (Penguin)

Hail, Spirit

A weaver, this spider, she plays her eight thin
black legs and their needle nail toes across
the threads faster, more precisely, than a harpist
at concert can pluck the strings in pizzicato. 

Although blind at night, she nevertheless
fastens a thread to a branch of chokecherry
on one side of the path, links it to a limb
of shining sumac opposite, latches the scaffold
to ground stone and brace of rooted grasses. 
And the structure takes dimension.

Skittering upside down across and around,
she hooks the hooks, knots the widening
spirals, the tightened radii, orbs and hubs,
bridges and bridgeheads. We can never hear
the music she makes as she plucks her silk
strings with all the toes and spurs and tarsal
tufts of her eight legs at once. She performs
the reading of her soul.

Oh, remember how vital her eyes, the eyes
of her gut, eyes of her touch gauging the tension,
her eyes of gravity and balance, of purpose,
steady eyes of reckoning. Don’t miss
the moment when she drops, a quick grasp,
catches, swings forward again. An artiste.

She expands the sky, her completed grid
a gamble, a ploy played on the night. The silk
is still, translucent and aerial, hanging in a glint
of half-moon. The work is her heart strung
on its tethers, ravenous, abiding.
from Holy Heathen Rhapsody (Penguin/RandomHouse)


The Possible Suffering of a God During Creation

It might be continuous—the despair he experiences
over the imperfection of the unfinished, the weaving
body of the imprisoned moonfish, for instance,
whose invisible arms in the mid-waters of the deep sea
are not yet free, or the velvet-blue vervain
whose grainy tongue will not move to speak, or the ear
of the spitting spider still oblivious to sound.

It might be pervasive—the anguish he feels
over the falling away of everything that the duration
of the creation must, of necessity, demand, maybe feeling
the break of each and every russet-headed grass
collapsing under winter ice or feeling the split
of each dried and brittle yellow wing of the sycamore
as it falls from the branch. Maybe he winces
at each particle-by-particle disintegration of the limestone
ledge into the crevasse and the resulting compulsion
of the crevasse to rise grain by grain, obliterating itself.

And maybe he suffers from the suffering
inherent to the transitory, feeling grief himself
for the grief of shattered beaches, disembodied bones
and claws, twisted squid, piles of ripped and tangled,
uprooted turtles and rock crabs and Jonah crabs,
sand bugs, seaweed and kelp.

How can he stand to comprehend the hard, pitiful
unrelenting cycles of coitus, ovipositors, sperm and zygotes,
the repeated unions and dissolutions over and over,
the constant tenacious burying and covering and hiding
and nesting, the furious nurturing of eggs, the bright
breaking-forth and the inevitable cold blowing-away?
Think of the million million dried stems of decaying
dragonflies, the thousand thousand leathery cavities
of old toads, the mounds of cows’ teeth, the tufts
of torn fur, the contorted eyes, the broken feet, the rank
bloated odors, the fecund brown-haired mildews
that are the residue of his process. How can he tolerate knowing
there is nothing else here on earth as bright and salty
as blood spilled in the open?

Maybe he wakes periodically at night,
wiping away the tears he doesn’t know
he has cried in his sleep, not having had time yet to tell
himself precisely how it is he must mourn, not having had time yet
to elicit from his creation its invention
of his own solace.
from The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan U. Press) and Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)

The Process

First she gave all that she carried
in her arms, setting those trinkets down easily.
Then she removed her scarlet sash and gave it
for bandage, her scarf for blindfold, her shawl,
her handkerchief for shroud.

She let her violet kimono slip from her shoulders,
giving it too, because it was warm and could surround,
enwrap like dusk, and because it held her dark-river,
night-swimmer fragrances tight in the deep
stitches of its seams.

And she cut off her hair, offering its strands
for weaving, for pillow, lining, talisman,
for solace.

She gave her bracelets, the rings
from her fingers—those circles of gold jingling
like crickets, those loops of silver
chiming like spring—and gave her hands as well,
her fingers, the way they could particularize.

Her feet and their balance, her legs
and their stride, she relinquished;
and her belly, her thighs, her lap—wide, empty,
open as a prairie
her breasts full of sunlight,
like peaches and honey, like succor.  She gave away
her bones—ribcage for scaffold, spine,
smaller knuckles for kindling, for sparks,
for flame.

And what remained—her face, her visage
reflective, transparent as sky—she gave
and even her word, her name, its echo,
until all, everything was given and everything
received, and she was no one,
gone, nothing,
from Geocentric (Gibbs Smith Publisher) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)

Watching the Ancestral Prayers of Venerable Others

Lena Higgins, 92, breastless,

blind, chewing her gums by the window,

is old, but the Great Comet of 1843

is much older than that. Dry land

tortoises with their elephantine

feet are often very old, but giant

sequoias of the western Sierras

are generations older than that.

The first prayer rattle, made

on the savannah of seeds and bones

strung together, is old, but the first

winged cockroach to appear on earth

is hundreds of millions of years

older than that. A flowering plant

fossil or a mollusk fossil in limy

shale is old. Stony meteorites buried

beneath polar ice are older than that,

and death itself is very, very

ancient, but life is certainly older

than death. Shadows and silhouettes

created by primordial seastorms

erupting in crests high above

one another occurred eons ago,

but the sun and its flaring eruptions

existed long before they did. Light

from the most distant known quasar

seen at this moment tonight is old

(should light be said to exist

in time), but the moment witnessed

just previous is older than that.

The compact, pea-drop power

of the initial, beginning nothing

is surely oldest, but then the intention,

with its integrity, must have come
before and thus is obviously
older than that. Amen.
from Song of the World Becoming (Milkweed  Editions) and Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)
Woman Riding a Tiger

She sits astride and rides him easily
as if traveling this way were what she
was born to do. She floats with his motion,
she a ship, he the sea. His shoulders
and haunches are an easy surf.

She needs no reins, no stirrups. Occasionally
she grasps the fur of his neck with both
hands. Her fingers disappear deep into
his pelt, hold to his beat and his current.

He moves silently in the way of cats,
not seas, like the shadow of a sea moving
with light across the day. They travel
unnoticed through the boulevards and shops
of the cities, the steam and smoke of cooking
fires in the camps. Nothing is disturbed
by their presence. No blinds close hastily. 
No child cries out. No one rises. Not even
the black monkeys or the guardian birds
in the courtyards are bothered

Crossing the open clearings, she glances up
at the sky where she sees them both reflected
in blue like the sea. They are a blue without
verge like the sky, without the boundaries
of bone or shore, without delineation. The blue
of his fur is deeper than the sea. Nothing can
infringe upon them. Like time, their journey
is the sky in the way the sky is not.

She remembers suddenly again
the moment when he swallowed her whole,
not the memory of violence, not the memory
of surrender, not the memory of release,
but the memory of totality like the sky.
Now she lays her head down
on his head. She stretches on her belly
the full length of his threshold, becomes
his bearing. She sees with his eyes
as they enter the blue gates of the prophecy
through which their god is passing.

                from Wayfare (Penguin)

Servant, Birthright

If god was a cow, I could lead him
by a rope through a ring in his nose,
hang a bell around his neck, always
hear him wherever he was, even alone
in the open night. I could feed him
and fatten him. I could take him to clover
and fields of new grasses, put hay
on the snow for him in winter. I could
walk him to shelter out of hailstones
and thunderstorms, through the smoke
of summer fires, past trailing wolves, free him
from thorny bramble and cactus patches.
If god was a cow, I could slaughter him. 
I could bludgeon him in the head
between the eyes with a hammer,
crack his skull, see his brains seeping. 
I could watch his legs crumple under him
as he sank to the ground. I could feel
in the shake of the earth, and remember,
the weight of him as he fell.

I could eat him, drain his blood,
cook his blood and spoon it in
like soup. I could roast him, savor
his flanks and ribs and simmering
fat, absorb his fragrances, the perfumes
of his waft and smoke. I could skin him
and tan his hide and fashion his hide
and wear his hide as shoes, as hat,
as weskit, be covered by the pelt
of god, walk inside of god.

I could say, “I know you, god. 
It was I who named you cow.
I have kept you, prepared you,
honored you, watched over you. 
I have borne witness to you. After all,
I butchered you with care and skill. 
I cut you open to the core. I uncovered
your parts. I touched all of your parts,
your secret parts. I have tasted you,
chewed you up, swallowed you,
sucked your bones and spit them out,
bleached your empty skull and hung it
high on my wall. I have wanted
you. I have needed you. You
have become and forsaken me.
In this we must both be satisfied.”
from Generations (Penguin) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)

The Greatest Grandeur

Some say it’s in the reptilian dance
of the purple-tongued sand goanna,
for there the magnificent translation
of tenacity into bone and grace occurs.

And some declare it to be an expansive
desert—solid rust-orange rock
like dusk captured on earth in stone—
simply for the perfect contrast it provides
to the blue-grey ridge of rain
in the distant hills.

Some claim the harmonics of shifting
electron rings to be most rare and some
the complex motion of seven sandpipers
bisecting the arcs and pitches
of come and retreat over the mounting

Others, for grandeur, choose the terror
of lightning peals on prairies or the tall
collapsing cathedrals of stormy seas,
because there they feel dwarfed
and appropriately helpless; others select
the serenity of that ceiling/cellar
of stars they see at night on placid lakes,
because there they feel assured
and universally magnanimous.

But it is the dark emptiness contained
in every next moment that seems to me
the most singularly glorious gift,
that void which one is free to fill
with processions of men bearing burning
cedar knots or with parades of blue horses,
belled and ribboned and stepping sideways,
with tumbling white-faced mimes or companies
of black-robed choristers; to fill simply
with hammered silver teapots or kiln-dried
crockery, tangerine and almond custards,
polonaises, polkas, whittling sticks, wailing
walls; that space large enough to hold all
invented blasphemies and pieties,10,000
definitions of god and more, never fully
filled, never.
from Geocentric  (Gibbs Smith Publisher) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)


The Hummingbird: A Seduction

If I were a female hummingbird perched still
and quiet on an upper myrtle branch
in the spring afternoon and if you were a male
alone in the whole heavens before me, having parted
yourself, for me, from cedar top and honeysuckle stem
and earth down, your body hovering in midair
far away from jewelweed, thistle and bee balm;

and if I watched how you fell, plummeting before me,
and how you rose again and fell, with such mastery
that I believed for a moment you were the sky
and the red-marked bird diving inside your circumference
was just the physical revelation of the light’s
most perfect desire;

and if I saw your sweeping and sucking
performance of swirling egg and semen in the air,
the weaving, twisting vision of red petal
and nectar and soaring rump, the rush of your wing
in its grand confusion of arcing and splitting
created completely out of nothing just for me,

then when you came down to me, I would call you
my own spinning bloom of ruby sage, my funneling
storm of sunlit sperm and pollen, my only breathless
piece of scarlet sky, and I would bless the base
of each of your feathers and touch the tine
of string muscles binding your wings and taste
the odor of your glistening oils and hunt
the honey in your crimson flare
and I would take you and take you and take you
deep into any kind of nest you ever wanted.
from The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan U. Press) and Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)


I wish something slow and gentle and good
would happen to me, a patient and prolonged
kind of happiness coming in the same way evening
comes to a wide-branched sycamore standing
in an empty field; each branch, not succumbing,
not taken, but feeling its entire existence
a willing revolution of cells; even asleep,
feeling a decision of gold spreading
over its ragged bark and motionless knots of seed,
over every naked, vulnerable juncture; each leaf
becoming a lavender shell, a stem-deep line
of violet turning slowly and carefully to possess exactly
the pale and patient color of the sky coming.

I wish something that slow and that patient
would come to me, maybe like the happiness
growing when the lover’s hand, easy on the thigh
or easy on the breast, moves like late light moves
over the branches of a sycamore, causing
a slow revolution of decision in the body;
even asleep, feeling the spread of hazy coral
and ivory-grey rising through the legs and spine
to alter the belief behind the eyes; feeling the slow
turn of wave after wave of acquiescence moving
from the inner throat to the radiance of a gold belly
to a bone center of purple; an easy, slow-turning
happiness of possession like that, prolonged.

I wish something that gentle and that careful
and that patient would come to me. Death
might be that way if one knew how to wait for it,
if death came easily and slowly,
if death were good.

            from The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan U. Press)                           and Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)

Grandmother’s Sister
for Emma and Edith
They sit, side by side on the bed, sewing
the buttons back on her dress.  Each needle
slides through each button as easily as a hair
of metal light, through the floral cotton print,
pulling the threads behind, drawing the round
disks tight.

After he grabbed her by her housedress, breaking
the buttons all the way down the front, he tore
the new yellow curtains from the kitchen windows,
left by the back, kicking the screen door, wrenching
it so the spring bent backward.

Side by side, shoulders touching, the dress
spread over their knees, they sit together
on the bed, gold in the summer dusk, threading,

The curtains, yellow, rickrack-trimmed, torn
from their windows, lay on the linoleum; her dress
hung open, hose slipping, buttons scattered
on the floor, the screen door shuddering.

Side by side in the rainforest, surrounded by wild
ginger and beadlily, a nurse log rich with licorice
ferns and draperies of club moss hanging
in the maples over head, they sit together
in the day darkness, looping thread with needles
like splinters of light, their fingers unburnt
by the brilliance.

He grabbed the neck of her dress, tearing
down and apart, one button striking her cheek.
The screen door cracked open with a sharp
shot, the spring screaming backward, the curtains
collapsed on the linoleum floor.

Beside the ocean, a Greek-blue sea, they sew,
shoulders touching, the dress spread between them
on their knees, its cotton flowers like wings
fluttering against the white sky. And in the winter
garden, snow caught in each violet crease
of sinewy vine, each cross of the lattice, they sit
beneath the arbor, their needles glinting
like icicles of fire. And in the field, in place,
they bend their heads together, their fingers
looping, fastening, as the foxtail grasses fall, loop,
fasten, rise, the threads knotted, secured.
Sitting on the chenille spread, side by side,
Moberly, Missouri, 1949, they work together alone
before the open window, whispering; the evening star,
upon which, they fully realize, they have no need to wish,
is just beginning to show.

                from Quickening Fields (Penguin/Random House)

The Moss Method

Most lie low, flourishing with damp,
harvesting sunlight, no commotion, mosses
mouse-silent even through wind and hail,
stoic through motors roaring fumes,
through fat-clawed bears grubbing.

They can soothe the knife-edges of stones
with frothy leaf by leaf of gray/green life, 
and burned-ground mosses cover destruction,
charred stumps, trees felled and blackened.
Cosmopolitan mosses likewise salve
sidewalk cracks, crumbling walls.

They root in thin alpine air, on sedentary
sand dunes, cling to cliff seeps beneath
spilling springs.  For rest, they make mats
on streamside banks, for pleasure produce silky
tufts, wavy brooms of themselves in woodlands
for beauty, red roof moss for whim, elf
cap, haircap, sphagnum for nurturing.

No fossil record of note, no bone
history, so lenient they possess only
those memories remembered.

I believe they could comfort the world
with their ministries. That is my hope,
even though this world be a jagged rock,
even though this rock be an icy berg of blue
or a mirage of summer misunderstood
(moss balm for misunderstanding),
even though this world be blind and awry
and adrift, scattering souls like spores
through the deep of a starlit sea.

            from Quickening Fields  (Penguin/RandomHouse)

The Importance of the Whale in the Field of Iris

They would be difficult to tell apart, except
that one of them sails as a single body of flowing
grey-violet and purple-brown flashes of sun, in and out
across the steady sky.  And one of them brushes
its ruffled flukes and wrinkled sepals constantly
against the salt-smooth skin of the other as it swims past,
and one of them possesses a radiant indigo moment
deep beneath its lidded crux into which the curious
might stare.

In the early morning sun, however, both are equally
colored and silently sung in orange. And both gather
and promote white prairie gulls which call
and circle and soar about them, diving occasionally
to nip the microscopic snails from their brows.
and both intuitively perceive the patterns
of webs and courseways, the identical blue-glass
hairs of connective spiders and blood
laced across their crystal skin.

If someone may assume that the iris at midnight sways
and bends, attempting to focus the North Star
exactly at the blue-tinged center of its pale stem,
then someone may also imagine how the whale rolls
and turns, straining to align inside its narrow eye
at midnight, the bright star-point of Polaris.

And doesn’t the iris, by its memory of whale,
straighten its bladed leaves like rows of baleen
open in the sun? And doesn’t the whale, rising
to the surface, breathe by the cupped space
of the iris it remembers inside its breast?

If they hadn’t been found naturally together,
who would ever have thought to say: The lunge
of the breaching whale is the fragile dream
of the spring iris at dawn; the root of the iris
is the whale’s hard wish for careful hands finding
the earth on their own?

It is only by this juxtaposition we can know
that someone exceptional, in a moment of abandon,
pressing fresh iris to his face in the dark,
has taken the whale completely into his heart;
that someone of abandon, in an exceptional moment,
sitting astride the whale’s great sounding spine,
has been taken down into the quiet heart
of the iris; that someone imagining a field
completely abandoned by iris and whale can then see
the absence of an exceptional backbone arching
in purple through dark flowers against the evening sky,
can see how that union of certainty which only exists
by the heart within the whale within the flower rising
within the breaching heart within the heart centered
within the star-point of the field’s only buoyant heart
is so clearly and tragically missing there.
from Splitting and Binding (Wesleyan U. Press) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)

Rolling Naked in the Morning Dew

Out among the wet grasses and wild barley-covered
meadows, backside, frontside, through the white clover
and feather peabush, over spongy tussocks
and shaggy-mane mushrooms, the abandoned nests
of larks and bobolinks, face to face
with vole trails, snail niches, jelly
slug eggs; or in a stone-walled garden, level
with the stemmed bulbs of orange and scarlet tulips,
cricket carcasses, the bent blossoms of sweet william,
shoulder over shoulder, leg over leg, clear
to the ferny edge of the goldfish pond—some people
believe in the rejuvenating powers of this act—naked
as a toad in the forest, belly and hips, thighs
and ankles drenched in the dew-filled gulches
of oak leaves, in the soft fall beneath yellow birches,
all of the skin exposed directly to the killy cry
of the king bird, the buzzing of grasshopper sparrows,
those calls merging with the dawn-red mists
of crimson steeplebush, entering the bare body then
not merely through the ears but through the skin
of every naked person willing every event and potentiality
of a damp transforming dawn to enter.

Lillie Langtry practiced it, when weather permitted,
lying down naked every morning in the dew,
with all of her beauty believing the single petal
of her white skin could absorb and assume
that radiating purity of liquid and light.
And I admit to believing myself, without question,
in the magical powers of dew on the cheeks
and breasts of Lillie Langtry believing devotedly
in the magical powers of early morning dew on the skin
of her body lolling in purple beds of bird’s-foot violets,
pink prairie mimosa. And I believe, without doubt,
in the mystery of the healing energy coming
from that wholehearted belief in the beneficent results
of the good delights of the naked body rolling
and rolling through all the silked and sun-filled,
dusky-winged, sheathed and sparkled, looped
and dizzied effluences of each dawn
of the rolling earth.

Just consider how the mere idea of it alone
has already caused me to sing and sing
this whole morning long.
from Splitting and Binding (Wesleyan U. Press) and                     Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)

Parlor Game on a Snowy Winter Night

Albert, standing at the window, began by saying,
“False china eggs in a chicken's nest stimulate
the hen to lay eggs that are real,
and they also occasionally fool weasels.”

“Telling the truth to a chicken then

replied Sonia,
must be considered a grievous sin,
and deception, in this case, an extraordinary virtue.”

“Chickens, brooding on china eggs as well as real ones,”
said Cecil, rubbing his chin,
might regard glass eggs
as admirably false, but a weasel nosing the nest
would consider glass eggs a malevolent tomfoolery
and the devil’s own droppings.”

“A weasel, testing the reality of eggs,
must find glass and albumen
equally easy to identify,” continued Albert.

“China eggs, whether warm or not,” said Felicia,
mocking herself in the mirror,
at least consistently maintain
their existence as false eggs.”

“Perhaps the true egg, unable to maintain its reality
for long, is actually a weak imitation
of the eternal nature of the glass egg,” said Albert,
drawing his initials on the frosty windowpane.

“Someone must investigate how the real image
of a false egg in the chicken’s true eye causes the cells
of a potential egg to become an actuality,” said Gordon,
laying his book on the table.

“Can we agree then that the false china egg,
a deceptive but actual instigator,
is the first true beginning of the chicken yard?”
asked Sonia, filling in the last line of the game sheet.

Albert, rushing outdoors to discover
what the dogs had cornered in the brush beside the barn,
found a weasel in the snow
with bloody yolk on its whiskers and a broken tooth.
from The Tattooed Lady in the Garden (Wesleyan U. Press) and         Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)

Naked Boys on Naked Ponies

They ride through invisible hollows
and along the indefinite edges of marshy streams,
fog swirling up to their ears
over beds of sida and flowering spurge.
The ponies’ withers become ivory with pollen
from the blossoming quince, and the bare
legs of the boys are marked by flickertail
barley and wild mint. Moisture
on the corn cockle along the ridges
makes constant suns in their eyes.

Galloping through forests and across fields
of drying grasses, this is what they create
by themselves—spilled ginseng and screeching
pipits, dusts rising from the witherod
and the wild raisin, an effusion of broken
beargrass somersaulting skyward
and mouse-ear chickweed kicked high.

And beside the river they see themselves
on the opposite bank following themselves
through water chestnuts and willow oak, and they see
themselves threading among the stand of hornbeam
in the forest ahead. Watching from the precipice
above the canyon at evening, they know the bronze
ponies and their riders curving in a line
along the ledges below.

And at night they see themselves riding upside down
across the sky, hair and tails and manes
dragging in the grasses among the long horn beetles
and burrowing owls. And they see themselves galloping
across the prairie turned upside down, hair
and tails and manes dragging in the dusty glow
of the starry nebulae. They know they are the definite
wish of all unexplored spaces to be ponies and boys.

I tell you the speed of the ponies depends absolutely
on the soaring of the rider squeezing tightly
inside each of their skulls. And the wings of the boys
depend absolutely on the flight of the ponies
galloping across the prairies contained in their bones.
and the soaring of the prairies depends absolutely
on the wings of the ponies squeezing tightly
inside every grass and bone found in the flight of the boys.

And who cares where they are going,
And who cares if they are real or not,
When their ride by itself is that glorious?
from Legendary Performance (Ion Books/Raccoon) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)

The Well-Wisher from Half-Way Around the World

Though everyone knows the well-wisher exists (many
have trinkets sent by him to prove it), no one has
seen him or heard his name. Like two figures etched
on the opposite sides of a silver coin,
no one can see himself and the well-wisher
at the same moment.

Nevertheless the naked boys on their ponies
have set out many times to locate the well-wisher,
but they simply find themselves on the path
between the sugarwoods and the cliffs
above the sea or crossing the marble bridge
over the River of Rhom or sleeping at the eastern edge
of the summer savannah. The well-wisher always lives
on the opposite side of wherever they are.

Therefore Albert, wading in July among the inlet pools,
looking for thorny sea stars and rock-boring urchins
tries to remember that it is winter, at the moment,
for the well-wisher. And when the shadow
of the purple finch flying over the lawn is seen
against the bright grass at noon or when the tunnel
of light made by Albert’s torch suddenly appears
through the black forest at midnight, Sonia is reminded
that the well-wisher exists.

Sometimes Felicia likes to watch the sunset so long
and so carefully that she can still see its glow
even after the dimmest star of Andromeda can be found.
She wants to see the last moment of the sun’s ending
exactly as the well-wisher is witnessing
the first instant of its beginning.

Cecil, delirious for a week with a late winter fever,
believed that he and the day were stretched
from horizon to horizon together in two dimensions,
that there was no chamber pot, no dog asleep
beneath the bed, there being no other side
to the bed. Unable to pronounce the words deep
or shallow or above or below, his eyes looked
neither up nor down. It was only after the arrival
of the star-shaped violets sent by the well-wisher
and the simultaneous breaking of his fever,
that he was able to see inside and outside once more.

The blind beggar, who once spent eleven days
in the Deeper Caverns, claims that during his last hour
beneath the earth when he finally saw nothing of himself              
but his blindness, he almost touched the well-wisher.

Gordon, twirling a coin on the table, believes
that death, like the rapid spinning of a flashing
silver coin, is the only experience during which the unity
of opposite surfaces might finally be perceived.
from Legendary Performance (Ion Books/Raccoon) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)

The Documentation of Absence

No one can find Kioka in the winter.

Yet Cecil came back from sledding this evening
believing it was Kioka’s body he had seen buried
in the brown, red-like lines under the ice at the pond.

And Felicia, running yesterday morning to the clearing
where the snowbirds were squabbling,
said the birds were dusting in the warm ashes
left from Kioka’s fire.

During a February blizzard, Sonia thought
she could hear Kioka’s pony stomping and thrashing,
screaming as if it were tethered in the sleet
in the open field, and she imagined she heard
someone on the roof singing the “Song of Lamentation
For Tethered Ponies” that Kioka learned from his father.

Everyone wonders what it means to be Kioka,
alive in the blizzard, taking the fury of the icy wind
into his lungs over and over all night, sleeping
face to face with the sleet. What will he look like
in the spring, having watched the storm thrashing
like a tethered pony, having screamed himself
like wind tied to the end of a rope?

Felicia says icicles are simply the vision of the sun
caught on the blade of Kioka’s knife then frozen and multiplied
across the northern eaves. That's why
she likes to eat them.

All day Tuesday Cecil, hiking in the snow,
tried to find the hollow tree where he dreamed he saw
the naked body of Kioka curled and frozen,
covered with the frost of his own breath.

Gordon says a dream is definite proof
of the physical absence of its subject.

Felicia has written on her chalkboard,
“Winter comes when Kioka is cold.”

Albert, who is tired of telling everyone
that native imitators definitely don’t hibernate,
found a single red feather this morning lying
on the unmarked snow on the south side
of the berry hedge.
from Legendary Performance from (Ion Books/Raccoon) and         Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)     

A Seasonal Tradition

Felicia’s music teacher gives a concert for Sonia,
Cecil, Albert, Gordon and Felicia and her insane uncle
in the front parlor every holiday season.
After her traditional repertoire she always plays
one piece on her violin in a register so high
the music can’t be heard.

The silence of the parlor during that piece
is almost complete, broken only by the sputter
of a candle, a creaking yawn from one of the dogs.

Albert admires the entranced look
on the music teacher’s face and the curious trembling
form of her fingers as she plays. He thinks
he can hear the unheard music in the same way he can hear
wind among the black strings of the icy willows blowing
in the tundra night. He thinks the silence he hears
is the same silence found in the eyes of the frogs living
below the mud at the bottom of the frozen bays.

With tears in her eyes, Felicia says the unheard song
reminds her of the cries of unborn rice rats
and bog lemmings buried in the winter marsh
and the humming of the white hobble bush blossom still
in its seed and the trill of the unreal bird discovered
in the river trees by the river sun.

Watching the violinist swaying in her velvet gown,
closing her eyes, pursing her lips, Cecil knows
Sonia is the only possible theme of this composition.

Hoping for a cure for Felicia’s uncle, Sonia thinks
the inaudible music might be the unspoken speech
in which he is thought to have lost himself years ago.

At the conclusion of the piece (signaled
by the lowering of the violin) there is always spontaneous
applause and much barking and leaping by the dogs.

The unheard composition is the one song
most discussed later over tea and pastries,
and, although it was the subject of the quarrel
during which Cecil knocked Albert’s doughnut
from his hand last year, it is still generally considered
the evening’s greatest success.
from Legendary Performance (Ion Books/Raccoon) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)

The Love of Enchantment: Felicia
Was Kissed in the Garden Last Night

Someone unseen behind her in the sage
and iris odors of the gravel pathway
definitely took her by the shoulders,
pushed her hair aside carefully and kissed her
with decision and concern just once,
there at the darkness below her ear.

And there was breath in that kiss
as if the hesitation and impetuosity
of spring together had finally found
one motion. And there was love
in that motion as when the parting
and reconciliation inside a hawthorn seed
finally divine together a branch
full of blossoms.

And now, by her belief in the imagined spell
created by that kiss, Felicia clearly perceives
the means by which the earth can be taut
with Indian pipe, heavy with matted roots
of salt marshes, dark with redwood shadows,
while at the same moment it can soar, clean
and shining, a white grain sailing
in the black heavens around the sun.

A new resiliency has risen in Felicia’s bones
since her encounter in the garden, a warm
and dominant, marrow-related alloy sustained
by her spine remembering those fingertips brushing
her shoulders with praise. Everyone recognizes
the new buoyancy of esteem in the charmed energy
and sureness of her body swimming across
the lily-bordered lake this evening.

Now even Gordon wants to see and touch
that small exalted, transfigured,
lip-defined, miraculous moment of her neck.

And no one is sorry that, even if just once,
Felicia was kissed and cherished that way
in an ordinary garden rightly declared, rightly
proclaimed, justifiably announced by Felicia, running
to clasp both of Albert’s hands in her own,
as grandly enchanted last night.
from Legendary Performance (Ion Books/Raccoon) and
Firekeeper, Selected Poems
(Milkweed Editions)


when Kioka lifted the flap and ran
       out the door of his sweat bath tipi         headed
           toward the glacial melt    his steamy naked
               body dripping

                    he ran right through the perfect
oval moment of the day    right through the first
      loop of the night-to-come    right through the first
                 spreading ring of his own shouting

                                                           and kept on going   
       dancing through all the horizon’s spinning hoops
             in and out every secondary hue
                   of his own nature    emerging from the violet hallway   
a shade of iris       emerging from the crimson corridor   
              sun-red        emerging from the sapphire sheath
                                                                    a bean-pod green

            his face pressed forward    his hair
      flying    he pushed beyond the five unlatched
              doorways of his name      sprinted through the bull’s eye
of his own pointed finger    raced through
                     the needle-eye of his grandmother
s mettle
                    through the last strategic spyhole
cut by his grandfather

                    passing through the circle
of his linked arms    passing through the gate
        of his own “amen”   down the spiralling tunnel of his sex
through the open mouth of his own death
                                                                              he dove finally
        straight into the depths
                   of that icy pool
                 only to rise
                 out of the stillness again shooting
        above the water    waving and cursing and blowing
                            fiercely and it’s a fact

             nobody can run like Kioka can.
from Geocentric (Gibbs Smith Publisher) and                          Firekeeper, Selected Poems (Milkweed Editions)



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