The Poems


Click on a title to read the full text.

  1  Blue Heron
  2  Midwinter
  3  Plum Gateway
  4  Sunday Brunch at Pop's Café
  5  February 5th, 2003
  6  Coyote
  7  Sun Dog
  8  South Fork in Spring
  9  Meerschaum
10  Mendocino
11  Summer Storm
12  Red Fox
13  Breeze
14  Peregrine
15  Hot Tub
16  The River
17  Mojave
18  The Stairs
19  in love with nothing
20  It's Not Your Life
21  Night Bird

To sample, you can download and hear a track from the CD: Breeze.




Blue Heron

Six hours south of Tamanrasset
a line of blue rocks crosses the desert
like dragon's teeth.

There is no blue on earth like that blue.

The wonder of that string of color,
reflecting a lapis sky like puddles on a sidewalk,
awakens memories of earth for rain
and stuns the surrounding desert into silence.
Nearby, squatting in the dust,
where the last dry fish flapped in the mud and died
ten thousand years ago,
a blue heron stares at the ground
five hundred miles from water.

What glistening memory brings it back
to these rocks and wind-blown wastes?
A shot rings out between the cliffs.
Feathers scatter in the wind.
Red pulp is strewn across the sand,
staining the fossils of extinct shellfish.

Somewhere in the distance
the sound of a vehicle grows fainter.
And then the silence returns.
Tonight the jackal will come,
and tomorrow the vulture,
and in a year or two a traveler will pass by,
his face stained blue from the cloth
that wraps his head against the sun and wind.

He will look down from his camel
on a few white bones,
and calculate the time elapsed
and the method of destruction,
and move on,
the flapping of his burnous
unheard among the dazzling rocks.

No word is spoken,
but the circle is completed now,
a blue man on a dun camel has interceded,
and the bones and the rocks can rest.

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Midwinter

Yesterday was the first day of rain.

There was not a bird to be seen,
till three bluebirds flew down
and sat on the mulberry tree,
to observe the cold, gray day.

Today was the second day of rain.

A robin sang in the oak tree across the meadow
mistaking two frost-free mornings for the coming of spring.

Tonight the rain beats against the window,
and the woodstove roars at the wind.

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Plum Gateway

Perhaps you know it
- a Japanese woodblock print
produced in the hundreds
after the war,
the title printed at the bottom
in English,
like a poster.
A souvenir
for the occupying forces,
a collectable
for the new orientalists.

When I was younger and more innocent
I had the nerve to take it to Sotheby's,
and received a rather cold reception.
For it is true what the man said,
that this is no Hiroshige.
And what my friend the painter said is also true,
that there is not much distinction in the figures,
their faces featureless,
they float an inch or two above the ground.

But it hangs on the wall above my head
in a black lacquer frame,
and the plum blossom cascades in the foreground
in a shower of delicate pink,
and beyond the gateway trees shade a quiet courtyard.

And there is something about it.

And not just because there,
standing in the gateway,
reluctant in a white playsuit,
(the only white to be seen,
at the plumb center,
the focus of attention)
is me,
and there is my mother,
leaning towards me,
tall, in pale blue,
her black hair tied back,
fussing over me.

Outside, our neighbor
- let's call her Obasan -
pauses mid-stride
(such tiny steps)
in her brown kimono,
a baby on her back,
and turns to encourage me.

Come now. Nito has a train for you to play with. It will be fun.

She is the co-conspirator.

For mother would like to get rid of me,
though she would never show it,
never push,
let me suspect
what she does not know that I,
not four years old,
already know
- that life is a juggling of lies
and compromises,
that she has a lover
and longs to see me gone,
to be alone with him.

There is a wooden threshold at my feet,
as is the style in Japan,
and I have not crossed it.
Why should I?
This is my home.
Why take that step
and leave my mother to her man?
To be complicit in a lie?
Why should I join the game
That grown-ups play?

I have a choice
to move or scream.

I raise my foot
and step outside
onto the swept dirt path
to take the hand of Obasan in this conspiracy,
and join the game called life.

This is the death of childhood
- the thresholds we cross,
the bargains we strike.

Trading innocence
for the promise of a toy train.

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Sunday Brunch at Pop's Café

noisy room
harried waitress
gathering menus

more arrivals
greeting neighbors
scraping chairs

aunts and uncles
passing photos
and Tabasco

kids with straws
wide eyes
and video games

whoops of delight
squeals of success

and in my corner
mushroom omelet and rye
and the sudden descent
of a cavernous
silence

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February 5th, 2003

When I got home
I ran upstairs
and buried myself in emails,
avoiding the view from the window.

It was something I had not done before -
escaped the day -
but how else to deal with
that particular unimaginable brilliance?

It was everywhere,
the sparkling trees,
grass like a balm over the land,
air so crisp and clear
it seemed the very womb we sprang from -
too substantial for mere breathing,
to be embraced and squeezed for its life juice.

The mountains waited at the edges,
reluctant to be seen head on,
knowing well the impact of their beauty.

Is it simple atmospherics
that makes the human body tremble
with breathless excitement,
causes men to mutter "Oh my God"
and earth to shout its ecstasy to the sky?

Where can we go from here?
What more is to be done?

My refuge was a darkened room
at the end of the road,
and a flickering screen.

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Coyote

coyote pauses
in his crossing of the meadow
and looks back at me
over his shoulder
like a passage of music heard
for the first time
not something familiar
that lopes along the driveway everyday
but an event
which brings with it
a message from the other side
from a time
before the collar and the cupboard love
a backward look
from a place beyond the rational
towards our domesticity
urging us to return
or catch up
the way Mozart looks back
not with any knowledge
but asking a question we cannot answer

later
sitting in my armchair
I listen to something wild and perfect
that knocks at the same door
and reports
that this is not what was meant at all
that this is not about growing old and making tea
but is much stranger than that
and all the more compelling
because this is not Serengeti
where we might expect the numinous
but a glimpse
seen and heard in comfort
across a coffee table,
with its coasters and magazines,
across a carpet, across the meadow,
where fences and phone lines
draw imaginary borders
around the rattlesnake grass

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Sun Dog

I have had this title
staring at me for months now,
almost since the day I first heard the phrase
Sun Dog,
which was in 2003,
in April,
when Maril called me
from outside the small cabin
where I was living
in Lake County,
and I went out onto the deck
into a clear cool morning,
for the first time since breakfast,
to find her,
still in her pink slippers,
staring at a cloudless sky
and pointing south
above the oak trees.

There,
in an empty sky
pure and blue
was a single cloud
no bigger than a hand,
like a flame -
and not just in shape -
its feathery fingers
iridescent
like a rainbow,
dazzling white at the bottom,
glowing pale green and blue,
to orange and pink.

Rings around the sun I have seen,
and clouds lit up like
beacons of fire,
but one pure flame of a cloud
touched by God
and shining with light
just for Maril and me?

It's a Sun Dog, she said.

(Note: Since writing Sun Dog I have come to the conclusion that what Maril and I saw was actually the rarer "fire rainbow" (circumhorizontal arc) which forms from ice crystals in cirrus clouds when the sun is 58° above the horizon.)

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South Fork in Spring

I woke to the sound
Of the green river rushing by

And walked down through the willows
To the green river rushing by

Taking the path to the Glory Hole
By the green river rushing by

To see what was left of our summer place
With the green river rushing by

Ten thousand tons of sand
By the green river rushing by

Driftwood caught high
Above the green river rushing by

Willows bent low
In the green river rushing by

I stood and stared
At the green river rushing by

Watching the eddies curl and swell
In the green river rushing by

Trying to imagine those sunburnt days
With the green river rushing by

Before the flooding
Of the green river rushing by

And suddenly exhilarated
By the green river rushing by

Took off my clothes and jumped

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Meerschaum

(meerschaum is a light rock, found in Turkey and East Africa, from which pipe bowls are made)

it was a remote dusty road
leading nowhere on a hot afternoon
between occasional sprays of Ceanothus

rounding a bend
still rutted from spring rain
a small landslide
spilled onto the dirt

among the grays and greens
of sand and serpentine
a few white rocks
shone like lilies

I stopped and picked one up
small, and strangely misshapen
for something exposed to the wind and the rain for the first time
harder than chalk
softer than broken china
but with the same ripples in the fractures

and whether to feel the texture
or taste its alkaline dryness
in that sage-smoked place
I put it to my tongue

and then I was back at Amboseli
innocent among the thorn trees and Grant's gazelle
a piece of meerschaum hanging from my tongue
white as the snows of Kilimanjaro
Stephen laughing in his khaki shorts and desert boots
binoculars bouncing on his chest
far from camp
a little afraid
of lion and leopard
but thinking ourselves immortal
too young to care

here, the rock stuck briefly and fell to the ground
taking the memories with it
too much a part of this native landscape
where reality abides

I took it home
and placed it
in a small dish
of white vinegar

in the morning
nothing was left
but a pool of liquid
like spilt milk

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Mendocino

In the distance
a blue truck
emerges from the forest
and descends through a meadow
with the trace of a cloud of dust.

This patchwork Mendocino summer
of green and gold
rolling ecstatically to the sea
past redwoods and rocky outcrops
gray with time -
a water tank, a kestrel, a winding road
leading nowhere . . .

Now a crunch of gravel
and round the bend through the shadows
the blue truck again.

How many lefts and rights?
How many gateposts?
How many blind curves beside the creek
past the burgeoning poison oak
already red in the August heat?

This is where the present settles on the land
flowing down ancient slopes
into the dark underfir
where the moist silence is interrupted
suddenly
by the squawk of a blue jay.

Stop time now.
Keep it this way.
Let the oak drink the next winter's rain
and the redwoods continue their conversation
down there near the water
where the dust from a passing truck
hangs in the air.

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Summer Storm

A sudden wind,
and the sky above the Greenleaf Ranch is gray,
and rumbling,
and all around
the sound of cars speeding home,
to close windows,
and take the washing off the line,
or move the cement
from its sunny spot
on the palette by the shed.

In this endless California summer what is there to forget?
It is not supposed to rain until October.

The curtains flap,
the dust flies,
unripe apples thud to the ground for the deer.
The cat appears from under the house,
asking to be let in.

Now comes the sound of rain on leaves.
An African child runs home through the forest,
with mud-spattered ankles.

Comes the smell of rain on earth,
like the first monsoon drops on the beggar's sidewalk.
Comes the memory of rain in the desert,
earth's ancient thirst quenched
in one vast and holy downpour.

I stand at the door and look outside.
Water flows past
bearing the fruits of the season -
wingéd termites, fir cones and plastic toys -
and collects in puddles
on the driveway
with petals at the edges.

In this endless California summer what is there to forget?
It is not supposed to rain until October.

The power goes out.
I sit and listen
to the river rising,
happy to be relieved
of the need to be doing.
The evening fades.
I light a candle
and pour a glass of wine
and see
through the window
the moon come up
like Falstaff,
fat and drunk and wet.

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Red Fox

I surprised her drinking
where the garden water runs over the edge
and down the hill

So she ran off
but stopped to look back at me
at the edge of the potato patch

I greeted her
and called her sweet names
that she seemed to appreciate

So she sat down to listen
a few feet further away
with her guileless face

But I ran out
of nice things to say
before she ran out of time

So I bowed briefly
and retreated up the hill
to my watering.

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Breeze

Oh for a breeze like today's breeze,
That came billowing curtains
Knocking cards off the windowsill!

It sighed up the valley,
Bending the tulip tree, making the pines moan,
Blowing the first brown leaves across the grass,
Rearranging the goldfinches on the sunflowers.

I ran to the river through the willows
And found it stopped in its tracks,
Yellow leaves suspended,
Not knowing whether to continue downstream
Or float back where they came from.

So I too stood there, breathing the air,
Not knowing myself,
And skimmed some stones across the water,
Undecided if this was the last breeze of summer
Winding up the river
Or the first wind of winter
Sweeping down the mountain,
Whether it was rain I could smell
Or just the memory of long hot days
Floating past this holy place.

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Peregrine

earlier
in the last light
I walked through the drizzle
beside the river

a few swallows
skimmed the surface
unreflected
as if flying over pebbles

in the unwinding of the day
I moved with ease
among the rocks
shedding the day's activity

drifting slowly home to
a comfortable chair
wine and music
and the folding back of the bedspread

but then
from nowhere
a sound like a knife
and a flash
like steel descending
broke into this world
from another dimension,
indifferent
to the rules
of gravity and acceleration
and the sentiments of nightfall
that hold sway here

(and last fall
on Chaparral Mountain
it was the same -
the sudden shock of visitation,
the intrusion of perfection
into this mediocre world
of reading glasses
and wet feet,
and the realization
that I was not alone
with rock and manzanita)

always too fast
for connection
- look! I too am here -
and over too soon
for comfort or reward

exactly like these trumpets
from Verdi's Requiem
come with such a thrill
and gone

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Hot Tub

in time

the sound of rain
fades into the night

above the trees
the clouds move on

and in the silence
the pine tree drips

and the stars return
as if they had always been there

waiting for the rain to stop
to sparkle on the water

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The River

In the cool of the evening
I knelt beside the river
among the vinegar weed
and asked it to take what was left of me
as I had lately become a burden to myself.

Not in the habit of talking to rivers,
or even listening to them for that matter,
I was surprised by the force and clarity of the response.

"You humans of the five senses expect too much of rivers.
There are too many poems and nonsense written about us:
sacred rivers, brown rivers, sullen, lugubrious -- gods even! --
or, on the other hand, chattering, bickering down valleys,
and so on and so forth.
It is all very flattering,
but we feel more ourselves doing what we are best at -
a little water for a vegetable garden,
relief for feet at summer picnics
backdrop for nightingales, perhaps,
a little erosion,
the occasional flood,
ongoing problems for the builders of bridges, of course.
No eyes, no ears, no way to understand your plea.
Our form is not our own.
It belongs to the banks and beaches that contain us.
Mutable current and movement is our being,
Endless and careless flood our style.

How can I carry away your pain and burden,
let alone what you are asking for -
that which is left of you?
You alone know that.

But I can know you
the way the water knows the rocks.
I can flow around your limbs
and ease the aching muscles of your body
in cool water remarkably free of contaminants
considering the adjacent viticulture.

Tumble with me a way, between the vineyards.
Feel the pulse of my heartbeat.
Test your strength against my tireless current."

Cool, I thought.

But it was more than cool.
It was cold.
I hesitated -
not, as I said before,
the romantic type who believes
that nature in some way speaks to us,
but impressed nonetheless by the river's common sense.

I waded out into the current and plunged in.

My god it was cold!
The shock stole the air from my lungs.
I came up gasping
amazed at myself
thrashing at the water
exhilarated
diving down and leaping up
shaking my head in disbelief
tumbling downstream
fighting back
grinning like a madman
laughing
seeing
that what the river said was true.

Walking home I sought some confirmation
that my burden was on its way to Jenner and beyond.

The sky was beet red above Mill Creek
but showed no other signs of epiphany,
and in the glowing cottonwoods beside the river
a kingfisher,
indifferent to the moment,
cackled in the silence.

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Mojave

Sometime in the night
the flapping of the tent
and sand whispering close,
and wide awake
through the opening in the roof
stars shudder
and fall,
illuminating the silence.

Are you here again?

The wind dies
and love wells up
and overflows
out of the tent
and across the sand
down the dirt road
between the clicking ocotillos
where the owls hunt
past the boulders of granite
campfires smoldering
and up onto the freeway
where a string of lights heads for Long Beach,
spreads out across the Valley,
in and out of rest stops and gas stations,
pulls off for an ice cream at Buttonwillow,
takes a county road for a meal at a Mexican place it knows,
and visits a thousand places all the long way back
to where it came from,
leaving the tent shimmering
on the sand.

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The Stairs

that day
he dreamed
it took half the morning
to climb the stairs
that time was needed
for the view from each window
for the smell of the dust on the handrail
and the sound of felt slippers on old limestone

strange, the feeling of isolation
watching Andrea through the window
playing among the dahlias
in the garden below
seeing clearly but unseen

and when his eyes reached the level of the top floor
he paused on the stair
with a view across paving stones of dust and cobwebs
counted the number of remaining steps
figured the inches from heel to eye
and calculated the height he would need to raise his foot
at each step
to reach his destination

it seemed too much

but then he was there
the old experiments still bubbling comfortingly
in the sunlit chambers opening out
just as he remembered
as if someone had been there
all those years
to look after them

but it wasn't him

he was in the mountains
climbing other stairways
lost at sea
burned by sun and wind

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in love with nothing

a while back
i decided
my love for you
was pathological

that this see-saw affair
of trembling heartbeat
and nervous distraction
suddenly flipping
at your disappearance
into morbid gloom
and immobility
is no natural state
for a functioning human

though I also considered
it might just be the air
forever changing
shimmering sparkling
in which this small body
moves and has its being
and attempts to hold its own
against the overwhelming truth
of its insignificance

but recently i decided
it is neither of these
for you never disappear
and the air is too insubstantial
to move this mountain
and my love
does not attach to you
or anyone
but is empty of all but longing
and like music so light
there is no way to grab and hold
and is gone as i am gone
rising into the air
on its pipes and whispered cadences
is love in love with nothing

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It's Not Your Life

It's not your life you said
And I remember exactly where we were
Not the time of year
Or even the weather
But the place on the levee
With the river on the right
As we walked back
And the rusty pump
Down the bank
Among the rocks
And the kingfisher
Cackling in the cottonwoods

And you were fierce
The way you said it
Not detached and indifferent
Like the night before in Forestville
But frustrated almost
Wanting me to get it
Urging me to catch up
So we can play together
On the same court

And I felt so ashamed
For complaining
For having the selfishness
To claim this series of events
As my own
To doubt the authorship
Of this particular short story
And the meanness
To question
The hand I was dealt
When it was not even mine
And I knew it

But mainly I was ashamed
For showing you my ugliness
For letting you see
My limbs bleeding with the pain
Of not getting it

But we played big stick with Honey
And walked on
Back to the car
Between the vineyards
Watching the evening settle over Healdsburg
And slowly my life became a memory
A series of shots
Like this one
With no place left to ask the question
Then whose life is it

For it's not that it's not my life
Over the hills and down the river
Houses friends and harpsichords
Whose life could it be
But mine
No we're not disputing that

(Distracted for a moment
By the cry of an osprey
From the redwood
Looking back
At the place
Where the pain and the pleasure
Were mine
To avoid or pursue)

What we're saying
Back at the car now
Honey climbing in
Doors closing
Click of seat belts
Engine starting
The sudden contentment
Of nothing left to talk about
Is that
This simple crunch
Of tires on gravel
This hum of happiness
This wet dog smell
Is life
Delivered
But unaddressed

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Night Bird

I cannot say
I was not expecting you

Sometimes we can smell the rain
In a cloudless sky

And there are so many paths
Through these woods

That your approach
Drifted in and out of my windows

With the birdsong
And the lilacs

So I was never sure
It was not the fickle breeze

Turning my head
And touching my heart

But when you did appear
Silently bearing gifts

Like a night bird
Come with snow

Beauty and abundance
Fell from your wings

And covered the land

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