Judith McCombs

Sun wakes us, and the squirrels yell
from ice-slick trees. You stroke my breast,
I curl around your newborn warmth
and give you milk. Small skull, small foot,
we share the river of your thirst,
the blood-warmed slope you burrow in,
the breathing murmurs and the pulse
that drifts into your feeding sleep.
Outside, beyond your dreaming hands,
tree shadows vein the ice-bound roofs.
Raccoons break elder buds, or fight
for bread I left beneath the tree;
their young go hungry, cold, go nowhere
in our subdivided world.
Is it the fit survive? My species
cunning and its luxuries
prevail: therefore in helpless trust
you nuzzle, suckling, predator
as I am predator, the fierce
inheritors of earth: therefore
I do what any creature would:
I turn to you, and feed my young.
It is true that those who push the weak ones aside
to get to the lifeboat/the ammo/the grub—
who marooned on an island of ice
lie in their tents, nursing their grudges,
threatening and filching while others provide—
may live to be rescued, beget, and die in warm beds.
And those who are lost early on, without issue, stay dead.
And those who go out on the floes or the edge of the cliff
to bring back the eggs/the hatchlings/the seal meat for all,
who when birds and mammals have left
and no ship appeared, make soup from skins and offal,
and share it out fairly, so all may live—
even those who secretly give scraps of their own
to the sick and the hungry-eyed young
may live to be rescued, raise children, and die in warm beds.
Can we ask evolution, or whatever god
is calling these shots:
Why are you stacking the deck for both sides?
Are goodness and greed equally fit to survive?
Or would you rather, after that fuss
in the garden, keep the big-headed creatures like us
from fixing the odds?
Who knows where joy first was, or next will be?
After those hours of night becoming grey day,
the long flight home passing over the ever-lit cities,
the last sleeping cliffs like map-shapes fading,
we saw, as we climbed through clouds in aquarial light,
our plane’s shadow float like a toy on cloud banks below,
riding the wave-troughs, the fathoms, the risings.
How many time zones, breached in our sleep, go under
before light slants on my face, and yours, and below us
the earth takes shape, white waves on our new-found shore?
Then the tiny old man in a frayed Chinese suit
across from us, alone and bent in his waiting,
quietly raised the white pasteboard box from his lap
to the amber light in the plane’s scarred window,
and finches sang out, unseen, and his grey wrinkled face
eased with their song, and we and others
were washed with his joy, though he never looked up from his place.
How could we thank him?
                He passed through the terminal doors
bearing his treasure before him, rapt as a boy
given charge of a lantern or torch, to show his elders
the path that leads through darkness to a full summer lake.

Judith McCombs grew up in almost all the continental states, in a geodetic surveyor's family. Her work appears in Calyx, Nimrod (a Neruda Award), Poet Lore, Poetry Northwest, Potomac Review  (Poetry Prize), Prairie Schooner, Prism, Sisters of the Earth, and online in Beltway, Innisfree Poetry Journal, and Not Just Air.  She has held NEH and Canadian Senior Embassy Fellowships, and Michigan and Maryland Arts Awards. The poems appearing here are from her Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New, a 2006 finalist for the Milt Kessler Poetry Book Award. She teaches at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, edits for Word Works, and arranges the Kensington Row Bookshop Poetry Readings.



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