Letters, be the memory of this moment,
Ruth’s 3-legged Golden Lab
sniffing for news beneath the hedge,
grass glittering with rain,
the bird feeder mangled by our car.

Years from now I want to remember
how we walked the splendid earth
and saw it.  When children read this
and smile at its old fashioned vision,
then words, stubborn little boxcars

lugging meaning across the rickety
wooden bridge to the future, hold,
hold.  Couple against time, bear
the red geranium, the slender birch—
you, sentences–glitter against

the massive dark of nothing.  Tell
of feet that buffed this doorsill
till it gleams, of cartwheeling
children.  Remember the Rosetta
stone, the hum of Xerox machines,

remember monks copying, how
a prisoner in solitary picked up
a pebble to scribble stories
on the wall.  Letters, I tell you,
even if your paper yellows in the attic,

even if it’s torn and thrown into the sea,
each of you separate from your brothers,
swim through the ocean, row across
the sky, walk through the wasteland,
find a reader.  Stay together.  Hold. 


Sunlight is breaking into colors around me
     like a catastrophe I can neither
          shake nor explain–  
how the sun’s gold finger
     dusts the tops of maples.
          How the maple’s articulate roots 
wrestle with dumb earth. 
     How our houses, breaking free of foliage,
          stare candidly at one another’s naked bodies.
Time washes all the bridges out, dismembers
     the maples, expires like a parking meter.
          We check and recheck our watches and
pay costly tickets anyway. 
     Yet look what a little thing can defeat time.
          I made this from bits of salvage–
my own breath
     and a few second-hand words.


               –In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at
                 the International convention of Atheists.

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside and question the metal sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God.  And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t

there that makes the notion flare like
a forest fire until I have to spend the afternoon
spraying it with the hose to put it out.  Even
on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I whisper, God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which–though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit. 

Oh, we have only so many words to think with. 
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe.  You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is.  It rings.  You don’t know who it could be. 

You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug.  It rings.  You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered up
metal bits.  It rings again.  You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.


                                                                –for Don Murdoch
This is the end of the world, slow motion, this burning,
             burning till earth is parched, the cypress crisping,
                          cactus brown, brown grass, brown horizon.
Through the Cathedral hands of the faithful pass a candle.
             Feel the pull of prayer in the hot dark.
                          Tell God nothing can live without water,
water, which is 70% of what you’re praying with,
             rivers longing through you for more water.
                          That’s when it comes to you:
in prayer lies prayer’s answer.  In the calling out,
             the visitation.  In the arrow lives the target’s eye.
                          So water rises from its knees, believing water
will come.  When rain starts, a fat drop
             joined by her sisters, the sound of dripping like
                          a shy nun sneezing, your heart stops with pleasure
and you pick up the cantaloupe you’ll have for dinner                                                      
             to shake it.  The promise inside:  flesh
                          the color of sunset, the slosh of a whole ocean.


                                      -After George Herbert

This tiny ruin in my eye, small
flaw in the fabric, little speck
of blood in the egg, deep chip
in the windshield, north star,
pole star, floater that doesn’t
float, spot where my hand is not,
little piton nailing every rock
I see, no matter if that image
turns to sand, or sand to sea,
I embrace you, piece of absence
that reminds me what I will be–
all dark someday unless God
rescues me, oh speck
that might still teach me how to see.


March rocks us in its hammock
of purple sky.  Snow retreats. 
Thunder has not yet cleared its throat
and found a voice.  Silence scours
the tin kettle of earth.

At my desk now, I think of my friend
who has vanished from the earth.
All morning I have been reaching for her with
this noun, that verb, but even the most delicate
sentence blunders against her absence
and comes unraveled.  What are words, but
vapor?   If I could eat with her–
a peach, some bread, a bit of cheese,
I would ask her what she’s learned.

Driving at night, you cannot hear
the swell of traffic traveling
in the other direction,
but you can see headlights
scribbling out a journey.
And you wish them well.


When snow covers the azaleas
with its hoary wisdom,
and our terra cotta pots
wear white hats of surrender,
and sparrows puff up
dreadfully in the cedar
against the cold,  I pull on
my dead father’s hunting jacket
and step from the room of language
with its beautiful, treacherous
human motives into silence
cold enough to kill me,
frostbite so quick it whittles all
to a fierce will to live. 
Standing here in the frozen chamber
of a sparrow’s mind, I can hear
someone in the room of language:
May these sunflower seeds
ignite  the sun in them.
May these sparrows be like lanterns
that light their own way home.


For a hundred miles
    the fields have worn
           beards of ugly stubble
                     and night is falling
and you can’t find
    a lover, not on AM or FM,
           and the hand at the toll booth
                     wears a glove
so as not to touch you.
    You pay for yourself,
           then for the car behind you,
so someone pushing headlights
    through the heavy dark
           will feel luck
                     go off like a Roman candle,
so she’ll give a car length
    to the maniac who cuts her off,
and you, there in your lonely bubble,
    can think of each tail light,
           each anonymous fender
                     as a friend. 


In the old stories it’s always worth the trouble
               but this time you doubt it.
For months she’s hidden herself
               at the brambled rim of that steep hill

bleating for help as the wind
               sings its increasingly wicked song.
Winter is coming.  It means business.  
               You think of yourself as the field

she’s absent from, as the shepherd who must
               find her. You began to understand
how mercy can start as little more
               than a direction you can move in,

how your heart hates death.
               You begin picking your way toward her
through a whole vocabulary
               of wild flowers and thorns.


It must have been a windy night like this
      the trees swaying and hissing,
              tossing their hair in desperate gestures,

when he broke out of the spell
      and realized it wasn’t fair.
            He never chose her.

When he woke up, she stood before him
       like a bright goblet filling up with water.
             He was thirsty.  How splendid

it can be to drink when you’re thirsty,
      was what he thought.  He was that young.
              Now he realizes there is a stain

spreading on his heart, that the name
        she gave the Yak chafes him
                 and she sings off key.  He never chose

her.  He’d like to grab his knife
          and cut off her song
               but rain is slanting down

and she is running toward him, her eyes terrified
         under the bending, cracking maples
               and a curtain pulls back in him

and he takes her into his arms
          and begins the long journey toward
               learning to love what he’s been given.