The Cutters, Smokestack
We found the oak at dawn,
a catastrophe of limbs
stretched in stony lassitude,
a dying Gaul, subdivided
into eighteen, twenty
bruised segments strewn
across the meadow,
unstacked, indecent, like Iraqi dead,
an unfinished chore left
by the cutters until morning.
I remember a time
when the world seemed crafted
of dovetail, tongue, and groove,
part fit snug against part,
segment against segment,
joint against joint,
before that long slow train
awakened us to an unbearable darkness,
began its relentless traverse,
pulling thief after thief after thief,
and piece by piece the morning collapsed,
and something more, something worse.
Now these cutters fly in the night,
laced with amphetamines,
armed with wings and weapons,
scanning with searing, unnatural sight.
You'd think the world would convulse,
that the hapless azaleas
would erupt into anger,
refuse to blossom from grief.
But the world has no memory,
and the forsythia,
persistent, perennial, naive,
bursts again into springtime,
and asks us again to believe.
A tapered stile of yellow bricks
embraced by bands of iron
that drip a stain of rust
down fire hardened vertebrae
each four or five feet high,
this spine remains erect
beside a power plant now derelict
with window holes of jagged glass,
collapsing roof, floorboards sinking slowly
beneath a coffin lid of dust.
Try to measure this anomaly.
An aging smokestack against a winter sky
contains an Auschwitz.
Even defunct it spews out ash
that will not settle quietly;
the mere looking at it stirs
a hundred years of phantoms:
transport trains and ovens,
flames devouring Dresden,
gray white flakes falling softly
napalm and little girls burning,
gulags, death squads, desecrated nuns,
bodies bloating Lake Victoria,
Sarajevo rising through its flue,
skulls like bricks laid neatly by a paddy,
trenches crumbling into graveyards in Verdun,
all we buried in that century
we recently escaped.
Still flaming towers sear the sky
and human shadows come floating down.
A squirrel works the nearby ground,
stuffs its mouth with shovels full of brittle leaves,
hauls them load by load up a dormant oak
to a crotch between two branches
too slender for the nest that, tumor-like,
nearly doubles the circumference of the trunk.
I once had a dog, a grateful
mongrel saved from the pound,
that used to take its place on a porch
that overlooked a similar slope
of working squirrels, sat patiently
doing geometry, inert as fired clay
except the faintest tremor in its jaw;
a careful eye would see a trace
of clear saliva start to pool about its gums
and note its pupils plotting diagrams
until a theorem, fully formed,
sprang from its skull and down the hill it shot,
a black and white hypotenuse,
some hapless prey scrambling to complete the line
back to the tree from which it strayed,
the meeting preordained, simple triangulation.
The dog always laid the carcass at my door.
The smokestack pours out shadows
that don't burden the squirrel or the dog,
or as yet the little girl wrapped in pink
I saw in a Vermont shoe store
sliding her foot into a metal ruler,
limbs supple but back erect,
taking her own measure,
framing out a self
and announcing through her sunshine smile
at the budding of this new century
that it was good.
She fixed on me, a stranger,
for all she knew a thinking dog,
as if searching in a mirror,
demanding irises and daffodils,
demanding soil in which to bloom.
I wanted to believe in her,
wanted to know how tall she would grow,
what shape she would take,
how she would measure herself
when she was bent and full of memories,
if she would find some better standard
than those we've used to frame this aging world:
dog, squirrel, smokestack, ash.