Archive for February, 2016


“…a million generations removed from expectations…”

[This is the sixth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, and December. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

JANUARY

When the fifth month mocks you with faraway suns,
See through their dust for signs of order.
Beyond the trees, the Two Riders
Rise before us, refreshed by their sojourn
At fathomless wells. Whether you see them
Stand side by side in the same direction
Or tail to tail, as they turn like reflections
To cast their fortunes on contrary paths,
It is grave and auspicious to spy them at dusk
As they compass the verge of the vast green wheel.
Be still at first. They startle easily.

But luck gives out, and late one night
The month awakens, though the wiser course
Is to slouch in a mousehole and sleep for weeks.
From a despondent roar, the ravenous winds
Burst from the treetops and batter our doors
Like a bishop’s murderers barred from vespers.
Prickly footsteps fall from the attic
And drop through the walls; we drive long nails
Through the beams by the windows and wait for shrieks.
With nothing to stir them, nests freeze over.
In the birdless orchards, branches wither
And crumple like spiders, spindly and drained.
The barn turns gray from the granite ashes
And shattered slate where the shivering carver
Shed his apron and sheathed his rasp.
Willful flurries whirl on the pavement
And strain to take form when the streetlights pale,
Coming in rancor to claim a debt.

Ancient poets were plain in their scorn:
Only the laziest look down their noses
At the chores men face when frigid downpours
Drive them indoors. The dreariest labors
Bloom into leisure by the light of candles:
They forged new blades, branded cattle,
Sharpened their tools, cut troughs from lumber,
Laid out trellises, labeled their measures,
And plaited new beehives and baskets for spring.
Their work is gone, but the gift that endures
Is a bracing air of expectation.
To spite the cold, our kitchen swirls
With the cheerful scent of simmering bones
And honeyed bread. We bring in the plants,
Test the lanterns, lay out batteries,
Fill buckets with water, and watch the sky,
Sitting side by side, like signs of our own,
Restored by visions of the storm to come.

Two old black dogs swap dares in the headlights,
As rigid as rocks on the road through the wood.

Two pilgrims shoulder their shovels, as bone
Crackles and freezes underfoot as they go.

Deaf to the snoring of snow-blind bats,
Two white messengers molt on a ledge.

On two numb legs, the laughing plowman
Arrays his blades. The blizzard parts.

A grieving beggar barks out a prophecy
As two red ears turn in fulfillment.

Two shotgun blasts shake woodpeckers
From their cramped hollows. A holy silence
Falls like starlight, and falls for days.

“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice…”

[This is the fifth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, and November. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

DECEMBER

The dark extends a dreadful wait.
A bristling veil divides the heavens
From the baffled and weary who warble songs
About purpose and fate; so the fourth month looms.
Nursed by drizzle and dreary wind,
The dimmest stars stir and waken
The God of the Cave. He gropes in the murk
To draw around him a ragged pelt
Threaded together with grim sinews
As he heaves himself up on his hindmost legs.
His naked snout sniffs the treetops,
And when he senses something wanting
He ambles out to the open sky,
Where his grisly claw clutches and raises
A torch, to hallow a turn in the world,
To comfort and guide his golden heirs.
In the gloom beside him, the glimmer quickens
A tender form. With its first exertion,
A vital shrug, it sheds a caul
Of sizzling pips, silver and orange,
That blanch and harden when they hit the air,
Reeling and clacking with erratic ticks
As we face straight up on a foggy morning
With empty vessels in our open hands
And softly cheer when chance ordains
That they plink in our dish. Promises ripen
From simple patterns. Put them away;
We save them to scatter if summer returns.

But love, maybe I remember it wrong.
On a dish by the window, you dried the seeds
From a blue pumpkin—no blessed spark,
Just the graying excess of an aching vine
That shaded the gate of a grinning witch—
Or no, not a witch, just a woman who smiled
Though we valued no shred of her village of junk.
And wasn’t it warm? I walked—no, I drove
To a dank, nettled plot to undo my old work.
I ripped out poles. I pulled down fences.
Scrap-wood trellises scraped up my forehead.
I wandered through twilight to the walled garden;
I paced the flagstones, and feeling bold
I twisted the fruit from a defiant branch,
A squishy medlar, and mumbled a prayer
For the barest inkling of an ancient rhyme.
I wrote it here. But how did it go?
“Now pray we bless the bletted mess—”
“Of course they rot, then ripen at last—”
I strained to remember my medlar song.

“Come sit by my side,” you sang that night,
“And let the world slip.” Your sly foreboding
Had noble ends: “we shall never be younger.”
You knew some months leave us no other choice
But to settle for stories by somebody else,
So I argued the grace of a grubby old man
With lice-riddled wings and waterlogged eyes
Who rose from his coop “with the risky flapping
Of a senile vulture.” I sighed, envious.
Then a flash caught my eye on the edge of our grove,
A whirl in the woods like a wobbly hubcap,
A circle of bears with blazing torches
Stacking up cordwood and kindling bonfires
On the grassy edge of the interstate ramp—
I turned the pages. We talked for a while.
You banked the ashes for better times.
There was, you assured me, one real herald:
A rusty mantis emerged from a hole
And fiddled away at the foot of the door.
He would not speak. I expected couplets.
You sized up his sense with a scientist’s poise:
“He drinks in the light of a dwindling month.
See how he stands up straight on the brick?
He comes to witness the calendar turn,
Not to grieve over words in a work without end.”

When the fourth month turns, the townsmen defy
The sprawling dread; they dare to unravel
Their own constellations. Along the road
Between the ferryman’s slip and fallow ditches,
They reach in the air with easy grace
To twist new sparks into twinkling sockets
And straighten the fraying strands anew.
These stopgap stars tell a story they love,
A claim that the heavens roll closer to earth,
A promise pulled nearer in perfect lines.
Then two lost donkeys return to their barn.
The wind blows homeward a wayward goat.
The weaver, the potter, the painter, the wrencher
Of limestone and iron all open their gates.
On hillside porches, hungry mothers
Hurry to root through a harvest of packets
And precious cans. The country mud
Is giddy with sunshine, golden and white,
And hunters nod. Nothing is dying.
Like flies that emerge in confused expectation,
They shed their jackets and shake their heads.
The winter is weirdly warm, a cockroach
In a taped-up box, biding its time.
For now, be here. When the night dispenses
Its spattering rain, risk disappointment;
Run straight downstairs and stand alone
On the open deck, dry and blinding,
As dunes once harbored derelict monks.
Though the morning office is hours away,
The sun surrounds you; it rises wide
From all directions, reeling out shadows
That arc from the tree line to tremble and bow
Toward the fleeting sight at the centermost point
Of an infinite wheel. The waiting ends:
Like the long, low rumble of reluctant strangers
Exhorted to pray in a packed cathedral
Who stir in chaos but stand as one,
A field of living fire heaves skyward,
And all the words you ever needed
Inflame the air with urgent news.