Monday, October 30, 2006


She had entered a deep and complicated forest, the kind in which the darkest fairy tales are set. She had a map, a tarp, a compass and a lamp, standard issue, she was told, all she would need for her journey.

Through study she had come to know the few things essential for survival: how to find true north, the names and usages of the most common weeds, and, of course, for water, divination.

The rest, she was assured, she would learn along the way, including how to read. There would be no rosetta stone, just blank rockface, crisscrossed with branches and bathed in light.

She departed in autumn, telling only one person about her journey, the one who would hear and wish her farewell and then forget everything.

She entered the deep, complicated forest. Shafts of sunlight pierced the pine canopy. There was music; the forest groaned and wheezed and creaked like an enormous windchest. She heard obbligatos of birdsong and glissandi of falling water; she felt the basso profundo of the earth turning beneath her feet. She hummed along.

As her eyes grew accustomed to the light she realized she was not alone. There were others in the forest. Other -- what ? -- vagabonds ? Pilgrims ? They moved together as one body through the wind and falling leaves, reading the moving glyphs of leaf and light and wind.

It may feel like submission, she'd been told at the outset.

Yes, she'd agreed.

There were tracts, she knew, that laid bare the geography of the woods, stunningly beautiful schematics incorporating what once was and what would someday be. Her own map was smudged, and of questionable origin -- a squiggle here for water, a curve and a flurry of x's there depicting a hillside covered with trees. It was little more than a doodle on a cocktail napkin.

Some said that, beyond the forest, there was a beautiful city. Others whispered that the forest itself was that beautiful city. Still others said the forest was, improbably, a man. Or that the forest was two overlapping cities -- the one she had left behind, and the one she was approaching.

She understood overlapping. How leaving and staying can coexist. How a forest can be two cities and a man and vagabonds moving as one body through falling leaves.

And she understood this, too: that the deep and complicated forest was as ordinary as her kitchen, her workplace, the streets of her town.

As ordinary as a hardwood seat, as morning light through colored glass; as ordinary as lessons in a high-ceilinged study; as ordinary as teacher, priest.

The imagination said Simone Weil is continually filling up the fissures through which grace might pass.

She thought of the two-hands-and-ten-fingers game her mother had taught her half a century ago: this is the church, this is the steeple; open the gate and see all the people !

She stopped in the middle of the forest path, interlaced her fingers inside the shelter of her palms. Overturing and opening her hands, she saw the people who'd taken her in, welcomed her, and fed her.

It was the first lesson, and the only map she'd ever need.


Sunday, October 22, 2006

How But Not Why

A hard fall, a tap, oak on rock,
in daylight forensic as a cop flash,
postmortem, watchtower or other-
wise blinding, there being no e-
scape or xit, go quietly then,

drift like cedar down
since evergreen's a lie and you,
colorblind anyway, collude
with shades already, as you have
for all these years --

and whence the coil
one leg shorter
the sun in the west then east
the tipped scale and fault line
the sacrifice and corkscrew of do not apply

as applied to origins and strangers
extinguished by their dress
by the blazing customary of their robes
by the haut and bas of
their couture culture church even their nylons !

And gall, well,
all shall be one
and/or the other,
bead, burn,
wool-weaver, heart --

follow them through the woods,
icons, clues, crumbs, wayside
pawn balls so heroically and heretically misconstrued
like "scavenger" or "lexicon" or "simonize"
it's not easy being saying

where even the light is plastic
(some say contingent, some say don't
touch my eye) but you could awaken to it
(to what ?) you could even
awaken in it

a whisk in a whirlwind, breath-
taken, no longer concerned
with all those penurious discussions
of ransom or green stamps
(how does that work ?)

until you become your hands
the left dying before the right and vice versa
(ignore the Bishop who banks so hard on it)
what do they say, now,
eloquent, mute, clasping cold air ?


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Other People's Gardens

I first took pictures in the community gardens near Rock Meadow in Belmont last December. I remember that day: the snow underfoot, the sun warm on my back, the skeletal remains of plants, the tipsy, cobbled fences winding through the patchwork of garden plots.

I hadn't been there since, so I decided to return, before the snow this year, to photograph the remnants of harvest. I was pleased to find the pink and lavender makeshift peace gate. It seemed slightly worn and beset, but brighter than ever: there was peace to be found here,it said, among growing things and gardeners.

Walking the labyrinth of paths between the small fenced-in plots, I was acutely aware of being a guest, a stranger, practically a trespasser. It was hard not to read wariness and warning in the glaucous eyes of the garden's overseer.

The overseer of the gardens in the Audubon Sanctuary had been more of an oversleeper, and a sign on the gate assured visitors (except rabbits) of their welcome. The Rock Meadow owl was wide awake. I tiptoed past.

I tend to feel like a stranger, an outsider, even in the most familiar of settings. So I reassured myself this was community land and I was a part of, if not the Belmont community, at least I was a citizen in good standing of adjoining Waltham, and proximity should stand for something.

And, if not a gardener, I was, at least, an appreciator of gardens, full of gratitude and praise for the people who'd labored in these plots. That, also, I reasoned, should stand for something. A poet appreciates a reader; a cook appreciates a diner. Surely these gardeners would appreciate someone documenting their work.

The gardens, at least at this time of year, were a composite of the wild and the cultivated. Weeds were happily cohabiting with flowers and vegetables,

chrysanthemum with evening primrose,

sunflower with foxtail,

corn with tansy,

tomato with toadflax,

dahlias and cosmos and vetch.

It was as if impending winter had obliterated distinctions: all living things, humble weed

and prize winning rose,

industrious gardener and loafing photographer

are in it together,

all arising from the same mysterious Source, all headed for the same unfathomable darkness,

and all, while the light still holds, celebrating, each in its own way,

the astonishing given of being here at all.

The last shall be first, says the text. The meek shall inherit, the empty shall be filled. The garden of the world collapses through autumn toward winter. Recently, I sat on a rock in the bed of a dried up vernal pool, thinking

what songs sleep in the mud below my feet ? It's a long haul from ordinary time to Easter, but everything's contained within the kingdom of this moment, this mud: absence, presence, birth, death, longing, resurrection.

This year I hear Rilke's autumnal who has no house now differently.

On Sundays, now, I sit in my new house amidst my new siblings, holding back decades of tears. Foster child of God, I still don't quite believe my good fortune. I'm stumbling awkwardly through some strange, unofficial mystagogia -- post baptism, pre-confirmation -- awaiting further instructions.

They'll come to me unexpectedly, I'm sure, like the briefings handed off surreptitiously to secret agents, and they'll be labeled burn or, more aptly, eat after reading.

But, for the time being, it's someone else's garden, a garden to which I've nonetheless been welcomed despite all my failings -- my hard heart, my arrogance, my self-importance, my misanthropy, my distraction; my scorn, my judgment, my anger, my greed, my sharp tongue. It is as in George Herbert's poem --

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

"A guest," I answer'd, "worthy to be here";
Love said, "You shall be he."
"I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee."
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
"Who made the eyes but I?"

"Truth, Lord, but I have marr'd them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve."
"And know you not," says Love, "who bore the blame?"
"My dear, then I will serve."
"You must sit down," says Love, "and taste my meat."
So I did sit and eat.

I moved slowly through the astonishing visual gifts of the fall garden. The day grew warmer, brighter. Thank you for these things I thought, addressing an absent gardener,

for this spurred, crimson flower wilting on rusty wire,

for the last light that falls on a hanging head,

and for three white blossoms that open, face to frost.


Monday, October 09, 2006


I knew that the woods, if I followed the confusing trails correctly, would give way to a field and the autumn remnants of a community garden. It was midmorning, but the overhead canopy was still thick enough to filter out much of the sun. I walked along, following a vague inner map that gestured uphill, left, hoping it was correct. The last time I walked here it was November; then, a hunter and his dog had been my companions at a distance. Today I was alone.

The trail turned downhill, and I could see a clear air beyond the treetops. It was the field. I stood squinting in the sun, happy to see that all was as I'd remembered -- wild meadow surrounding and encroaching upon cultivated plots, stands of heavy-headed sunflowers, corn, beans,

and pockets of brilliant, late-blooming flowers.

I waded through waist-high growth of beggarticks

and foxtails

toward the sunflowers, some free,

others enclosed,

all heavy with seed, seed,

the year's apotheosis, source of winter's daily bread and of new life next spring.

But there was a lot of night and winter to traverse before then, and I was, after all, in a sun-soaked field headed through paths flanked by gangly, swaying Jerusalem Artichokes. There was, I remembered, a plot of late blooming flowers planted at the far end of the field, someone's brilliant fall garden, carefully cultivated, quite different from the fields of weeds and wildflowers where I was used to wandering.

There it was. I invited myself in. Was I trespassing ? Hardly. It was a community plot, and flowers are grown to be seen and admired. Was I, weed photographer, transgressing some personal credo ? Was I being unfaithful to my subject, the humble, the random, the accidental, the mere ?

I moved among the gorgeous flowers, grateful to the absent gardener, as certain of my welcome as I was in any meadow. Which was, come to think of it, odd for someone used to thinking of herself as the unwelcome stranger.

I had, after all, recently come in out of the cold. The argument that any transcendent that can't be deduced from a forest or a stream is not valid had simply collapsed. One might just as well argue that "w-a-t-e-r" is invalid because it can't be deduced from the cool, wet, flowing stuff pouring from the pump onto our fingers.

Of course, the cool-wet-stuff-on-the-fingers complex is deconstructable into atoms and energies and neural fluxes and their mental epiphenomena, and glimpsing this is bracingly humbling, but still there is the de profundis clamavi that the approach of night and winter pulls from me, not just a cry, but a cry to thee, O Lord --

and suddenly vertiginous moments of recursive selfconsciousness seem less pathologic fits of depersonalization, and more small, incomplete visitations,

moments of the forehead pressed against cool, clear glass,

moments when the forehead and the glass are indistinguishable

and what's beyond comes alluringly close to being in focus, and the idea that death is a problem simply collapses --

-- at least for a second; at least for, as the phrase goes,

the time being.

In the field death and life are in equilibrium. There is dying and eating and being reborn as something else. There is looking, and saying, and silence; there is birdsong, the hum of bees and the hiss of wind through dried grass.

And, finally, there is gratitude,

moving upward and outward movement toward -- toward what ? Benefactor ? Beneficence ?

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