Sunday, March 28, 2010


You have brains, he said, a heart,

all the courage you need.

And here I am, here,

my feet on the home ground.

Funny how long it took to know:

questions, obstacles, witches, friends.

And he? Not Great and Terrible

as I was taught, but little,

a small still voice, tiny flame,

that glimmer of grace

behind the curtain of my skin.


Thursday, March 25, 2010


The Muse must be in Miami,

drinking sweet tough coffee in a Cuban café,

laughing when a rat scurries across the sidewalk,

listening to the brown-legged mothers scold.

She must be spending afternoons walking

where the água meets the blanca,

watching one porpoise cruising,

one small airplane dragging its ad,

one plump woman airing her tits in the sun.

Evenings she goes to the Italian Restaurant

where three waiters in tight black pants

attend to her.

They offer soft ripe cheeses and red wine,

lightly brush her shoulder when they pass,

tell her the tiramisu was made just for her.

When they bring the bill, they touch

her sunburned hand, sigh when she rises to go.

They promise her

they’ll count the moments till she comes again.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I run like a little animal across the road,

a squirrel confused by traffic,

doing things that must be done.

Would someone come place me on a rock in the sun--

a squirrel confused by traffic--

where I could watch the soft waving grasses?

Would someone come place me on a rock in the sun

where the yellow flowers shimmer in the meadow,

where I could watch the soft waving grasses?

I set out like a red eft after rain--

where the yellow flowers shimmer in the meadow--

wanting to be somewhere else.

I set out like a red eft after rain,

while the traffic turns around me its dangerous wheels

wanting to be somewhere else.

I cannot see my way.

While the traffic turns around me its dangerous wheels

would someone please pluck me from the hard bewildering road

(I cannot see my way)

and set me down among the ferns?

Would someone please pluck me from the hard bewildering road--

doing things that must be done--

and set me down among the ferns?

I run like a little animal across the road.

MFCP--I'm posting this in honor of the salamander migrations going on in Vermont now. My husband and I escorted 48 of them across the road last night, in the rain.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


“Looking for signs of spring” has been a game in my family for years and years, and as in all family games, ritual is important. Whenever I come home excited, claiming the first singing robin, it is traditional for my husband to say, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, I heard one last week.” I’ve missed several of the firsts this spring: my husband claims that he heard robins two weeks ago, my neighbor Jean heard bluebirds on March sixteenth, a friend saw redwinged blackbirds on March first. I did see the first turkey vulture and the first harrier, both on March 17. I’ve also seen the owl who ate frogs from our pond last spring, hanging around on the edges of the field out back, and in the woods; I’ve seen the crows chasing it. The pond is still frozen solid, so there are no early frogs for it to be eating.

But one year, I also saw the best sign of spring ever, one that I’d never seen before and likely will not see again. I saw it on a gray, ugly day in early March. It was slushy with a little damp wind blowing, the sky was heavy with approching rain or maybe soaking cold snow. When I was a kid, it was on such days that my father would threaten to “transfer to Arizona,” and all of us children would carry on about how we couldn’t possibly leave Vermont. (Now that I’m grown up, on such days, Arizona sounds pretty good to me.) I was in my office at the church where I was working then, sorting through a pile of mail that was not much more inspirational than the piles of filthy snow outside, when the phone rang. It was a woman whom I will call Jane, a chronically needy person whom I’d known for years.

Jane had been terribly disadvantaged and disabled all her life, and regularly she came to me for things: money for gas, a little help with her rent. And usually I helped her out of the fund that I had for such things. That morning Jane told me that she needed a coat. Her old one had worn out, she said, and there weren’t any her size at the Salvation Army or at the local thrift store. Usually in cases like this, I’d call around to other places I knew; I would have dug up something somewhere. But that morning--not out of kindness, but because I didn’t feel like chasing around-- I told her to meet me at KMart after lunch.

She was late. Her miserable old wreck of a car had a flat tire on the way up, she told me. But she was as excited as a little child to be in a store looking for a new coat, and I felt ashamed that I was doing this for my own convenience. We found a rack of spring coats that were her size, and she picked one out--a bright yellow one--and she put it on, and smiled like I’d never seen her smile. It looked good on her, I said, and I meant it. I paid for it, and she stuffed her ratty torn old navy blue coat into the plastic KMart bag and wore her new one out. I watched Jane cross the parking lot, a spot of cheer, a sign of Spring shining through the dismal gray drizzle.

That year, I conceded the first robin to my husband, but I think I got the better deal: I saw Jane in a yellow spring coat.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Son, thou art ever with me,

and all that I have is thine.

~Luke 15:31

Every day he got up before cockcrow

to milk the cows and clean the gutters.

He cut and stacked and hauled,

came into the house every evening

sticky with sweat

and fell asleep right after supper.

His face was always sunburned,

his hands were rough and scored with cuts.

The work was his, and the worry:

the price of milk and grain,

drought or fields too wet to mow.

And the beauty was his as well:

warblers trilling in the hedges,

soft tongues of calves,

the scent of ripening corn.

Raspberries, blackberries,

early apples, sour and green.

Then that brother came home

and there was the party.

A little calf killed,

the beer drunk up,

litter all over the lawn,

and for what?

To celebrate the return

of a wastrel they were better

off without. And his father,

bewildered and happy,

standing in the kitchen explaining.

I know he’s no good.

I know he’ll be off again.

But all he’ll ever get is a party.

Let him enjoy it,

and later, when they’ve all gone

downtown to the bars,

you and I will have a single malt

out on the porch

and watch the stars.

Friday, March 12, 2010


The weather in Ireland in May was terrible. We wore sweaters every day, and piled quilts over our down sleeping bags every night. But we were there again to climb mountains, and so we did: in gale-force winds, sometimes-- winds that drove veils of rain and fog over our heads and through our clothes.

Ben Bulben, that strange ship-shaped mountain with a smooth green turf top and sloping stone sides, was unhappy about our coming. Although the day of its climbing dawned clear and bright, being superstitious we brought rain pants and ponchos and a compass. We were half-way up the steep slope, striding boldly through heather and bright moss, with the ewes and new lambs calling to each other around us, when we turned to see the view below us. The valley had vanished, like Brigadoon, in a dense fog rolling up from the sea. And when we looked up again to where the flat top of the mountain had been, it too had disappeared suddenly, under a cap of mist. We were caught like the filling of a sandwich, but we laughed, and took our bearings, and continued to climb. There was no view from the top at all, only a glimpse of a neighboring mountain appearing like the Matterhorn through breaks in the swirling clouds. We picked our way down, hunting for fossils and bones in the stream beds.

That night we stayed in a hostel that had been partly dug into the side of the hill above Glencolumbcille. The warden, a small and cheerful woman named Mary who rubbed her hands together when she talked, listened clicking her tongue and shaking her head to our account of the climb. "Perhaps it was the fairies," she said. We ate our supper that night overlooking a brown hill with a stone watch-tower on the edge. On the seaward side, the hill sloped sharply down to a curved white-sand and green-water bay. We watched the sun set over the water in the cloudless sky.

Why do we travel? To climb mountains three thousand miles and five hours away from home? To exclaim over the architectural and archaeological ruins of civilizations long gone? To comfort ourselves with the knowledge that the cares and hopes of humanity are universal, and to hear of them in accents and metaphors a world away from our own? Yes.

But we travel, too, in order to come home: to see the reassuring curve of Boston Harbor under the airplane's wing, to feel a catch in the throat when, stepping off the plane, we see the sign welcoming us to the United States of America. We travel to count the landmarks as we return: the New Hampshire State Line, the Veterans' Hospital in White River Junction, the capitol dome and the Goddess of Agriculture gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine, Taft's Corners, the Cheese Factory in Hinesburg, Monkton Pond, Route 7, New Haven Junction.

The leaves have opened since we've been gone; the neighbors took photographs of our tulips, which were magnificent. The peas didn't come up very well since it was wet and cold here, too; but there are new chives and Egyptian onions in the garden, and dandelions in the grass. The mosquitoes have emerged from the ponds and puddles, the pollywogs have hatched, the bobolinks toss above the hayfields, the orioles are back. We missed the trout-lilies, but the gay-wings and foam flowers are lighting up the corners of the woods, and there are a thousand shades of green on the hillsides.

We travel so that we might see home with a new clarity. I imagine myself coming to Vermont from Ireland for the first time: there is no jade-green sea here, eating slowly away at straight-sided headlands; there are no stone ring-forts or castles, no ruined abbeys or cathedrals. But the land here is not eroded with over-grazing and peat-cutting. Here there are forests on the hills; here the wind does not blow endlessly.

Late in our travels, as I stood in the courtyard of another hostel, pulling baggage once again from a bread-box-sized rental car, I stopped to listen to a Blackbird singing in a tree. The Irish Blackbird is a thrush, shaped like an American Robin, but coal-black and red-billed. His song is very like, but not quite like, an American Robin's song. This one sang in a tree that was very like, but not quite like, a sugar maple. And as I watched and listened, I felt a tugging at my heart, and I understood in a small immediate way the longing of the immigrant, the pain of the exile. To leave one's home and never see it again--never again to hear a Robin or to stand in the shade of a maple--

We've puzzled about the Irish people's indifference toward their beautiful hills; we've laughed about stone-aged monuments sitting unmarked in cow-pastures. But now we are home, with new eyes. Now we are strangers for a little while in our own place, finding wonder in our backyard, hearing the Robins' songs afresh. We travel to come home.

June, 1994

Thursday, March 11, 2010


So much roadside flotsam:

bits of broken dish and doll,

a stained apron, a plastic sword,

three toy cars, a sparkplug wrench.

Once a pair of felt clogs that fit.

Once a black and white kitten

who followed me home

and grew into a quiet cat.

Once a silver bracelet

with a handmade moon

slipped off my wrist

while I was looking down.

I haven’t found the Buddha

(I met Jesus once,

but didn’t kill him

since they already had),

so still I scan the road for treasure:

a jacknife, a single earring,

an cattleman’s orange cane,

the illustrated pamphlet that will explain it all.

MFCP, Spring, 2009

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


--for Kathy

I have a friend who sees through dreams.

Lately I dream about coyotes, I tell her.

They’re trying to get into my house.

Sometimes I’m walking in the field out back

and they chase me in,

then they sit outside, waiting.

Only they aren’t like coyotes.

I mean, even in the dreams I know

that if we had wolves around here,

they’d be wolves.

They’re too big for coyotes,

too shaggy.

They move easy,

yawn wide, stretch loose,

like they know where they are,

and it’s the only place they can be.

This place, this way,

or nothing.

Coyotes aren’t like that:

they’re wary and slinky,

they can eat anything,

fit in anywhere.

Like me, I laugh.

But there are no wolves around here.

So I know, in the dreams,

they must be coyotes.

My friend narrows her eyes at me.

Don’t be so sure, she says.

Why don’t you open the door?

MFCP, December, 1998

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Plaster People

Wipe Feet!

Do not go in Gallery!!

Clean up downstairs

and exit Out Back

--sign in the hallway outside sculpture studio, Castleton State College

Among the paintings,

installations of true Art

the Plaster People blunder,

powdery tracks wrecking

the good carpet,

powdery fingerprints

defacing all that is

canonical and clear.

One can’t have them

scattering their dust,

clouds and billows,

the stuff of stars.

The Plaster People in their

poofy hordes trample

up from the foundations.

They have buried

every civilization in turn.

Oh, look on their creative

struction, and despair!

Thursday, March 4, 2010


I remember the day I first smelled the sea,

how it tugged at my sprouting romantic soul.

For hours I walked the sheltered shore, picking shells;

the stranger gulls sang my song.

I believed that everything perfect could be gathered,

tied in a bag to bring home.

I believed, then, in beauty unchanging,

truth frozen like figures on an Attic vase.

But on this other shore I see there are no perfect shells.

I have gathered what I could:

thick worn slabs of helmet shell, crackled cockle,

crescent moonshells thinned to thumbnails,

black oysters like footbones, black spirals of whelk,

Mother-of-Pearl all pummeled away.

I have watched my footprints disappear,

watched pelicans disappear behind green glass waves,

long brown waves breaking to purple and white.

Gannets are falling straight as feathered spears

among silver flanked foam-grazing dolphins.

Down the transient gold sifting shell-powder sand

where gull and plover patter, picking death,

the gorgeous dried guts of a giant fish

twist away from salt black leather hide.

Shapeshifting dunes blow slow along this one black road

and gulls drop shells to feast on what they find.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Howling at the Moon

There is a tribe of coyotes living in the woods somewhere behind our house; we heard them for the first time on a moonlit night in winter. We were skiing in the fields, enjoying the silence and the whiteness and admiring our moonshadows in the snow. But the coyote voices broke through the silence around us: first a single high yip that slid into a drawn-out howl, then a whole choir of voices with the unmistakable yapping of pups rising above the lower notes. I'm not afraid of coyotes. And yet, I have somewhere in my brain the memory of being prey, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I wanted to run from their eerie song. My logical mind knew that they were not hunting me, but my body wanted to head back to the cave and the fire. I stayed, though, and listened long while they sang somewhere on the edge of the woods.

We've heard them many times since then, always after dark. They sometimes feed on the remains of calves that our farmer neighbor leaves on the edge of a hayfield. On the mornings after the concerts we find scattered bones and bits of black and white hair and hide in the field, and in the winter the blood and tracks and flattened-out places where the coyotes have rolled like domestic dogs in the snow.

Our most dramatic encounter with a coyote happened on a January day. We were walking with our dog in the little overgrown-pasture woods west of our house, when a grey-brown blur streaked toward us down the path, and, as if it had come by to pick up escape velocity, careened off at a tangent into the trees. The dog, panting hard, followed hopelessly a few seconds later. If I had been standing still, prepared and waiting for the coyote to appear, I would not have seen more than the blur, although had I been ready, I might have held out my hand to feel its cold coarse fur as it passed.

And then there was the time, on a warm August evening, that my husband and I came upon a young coyote feeding on the very foul carcass of a calf that had been lying on the bone-pile for quite some time. We could see his profile as he sat between bites; we watched him throw a bone in the air and catch it; we saw him hold down a piece of bone and flesh with his forepaws and tear at it with his teeth. When he finally saw us, he ran away instantly, his long dark tail and hindquarters held low, as if he were afraid that we'd grab him from behind. If we carry an ancestral memory of him as our ancient predator, the memory he carries of us is more recent. Later, in the light of the half-moon, we heard a single coyote howl, and in the morning, the remains of the calf were gone.

But it was when the Gulf War was raging and the reports of deaths and burning oil wells and fouled water supplies were coming in, that the coyotes gave me the gift of hope. Late at night, I was awakened by worries and dreams, and called by the full moon shining through the window, I put on a coat and stepped out into the frosty yard and heard the coyotes singing. I fancied first that they were mourning for the dying creatures of the desert half a world away, but that was my song, not theirs. As their voices rose and fell and intertwined, I could see them in my mind's eye, chasing each other, throwing bones in the air, rolling in the snow, lifting their heads and singing with all their hearts in celebration of the life that somehow, by some grace, manages always to break through the darkest nights that we know. If these elusive, hated, hunted scavenger brothers and sisters of mine can sing through the sorrows of Earth, then, maybe, there is some hope for us all.

From "The Five Town News," February, 1993

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Keeping Lent?

Why would I want to keep it?

I’d rather toss it out,

put it in a box for the rummage sale,

give it to the Deserving Poor.

I certainly don’t need it:

it doesn’t fit any more,

and besides,

I never liked the color.

MFCP, written on April 1, 1999, perhaps an Ash Wednesday?