Poems from The Dream of a Moral Life
Eating Wild Mushrooms
After the rain, when the earth releases
a little wheezing breath and loosens
its brittle hold on the surface of things,
wild mushrooms appear under the trees,
against logs and along the rotting
boards behind the barn. I see them lift
the ground under the quince and spread
the scallions apart and rise, and open.
I have been shown by those who know
the slick-skinned Blewit, the Prince
like a man’s head, and Satyr’s Beard
with its yellow mange. But for the rest
I cultivate an ignorance and pick
puffballs a particular shade of beige,
toadstools with the prettiest caps
or purple, spongy stem. What I don’t know
can’t hurt me. What I do know
is that mushrooms rise from the dead
to die again, to enter the death
of whatever enters the earth. When I
pick an unfamiliar mushroom and eat it
the ground gives up for once and is cheated.
It is like kissing a stranger on the mouth.
It is knowing what you are and being forgiven.
Under the Catalpa Trees
At first I could remove the bandages
and look at myself the way I have looked
at photographs, curious but detached.
Later I was filled with a kind of repulsion
and guilt, the same I felt
when passing cripples on the street
and I could not look away.
They tell me I’ll get used to this
strange face that I cannot recognize as me,
but that is a lie. Even in my dreams
when I stand back and watch myself
chased, caught and dismembered,
it is my old face that grimaces and screams.
But it is true about the world, how it goes
on without us, or in spite of us, and even
the pain I feared would be the end of me
brings a kind of solace to these gray,
spring mornings. It does not disappoint.
I once craved latitude, the ability to become
someone different, someone strange. Now
I must learn to accept that my prayers
were answered and fulfilled. There is no good
reason for what becomes of us, but I have discovered
no malice. We move and are moved.
Standing under the catalpa trees, watching
the heart-shaped leaves open larger
than I ever thought possible, I feel comfortable
with my new face. I am even ready
for the children, for their mimicry. Let them
have my stooped walk, my grin and sullen gestures.
Then let them change.
Our Life in California
Near San Ardo the grasses tremble
and oak trees bend to the south against a constant wind.
Here our faith is tested
by the air that passes us ceaselessly
and takes each lost breath as we stumble through the hills.
The monotony of breathing, like our heartbeat,
is not the reassuring monotony
of the hills stacked row upon row
beyond our bearing and our ken.
The sun moves with the wind and will be gone,
but there is another light
coming from below, casting trees from the shadows.
There is a shadow beneath me
which moves as I move,
and the tracks I leave in the fragile grass
know more than I know of my duty here,
my worth and my chance.
Sometimes when the wind shifts quickly back from the woods
the flames from the slash heap surround me, and I smell myself burning.
All day a junco has watched from the fruit trees as I fed the fire.
The flames jump and the green limbs snap and hiss
but the junco stays. He doesn’t know what I have done.
He leads me to the persimmon tree and begins to sing.
He looks right at me and he doesn’t leave.
He must not care what’s in my heart.
Pack rats watch from their home in the eaves.
The presses are down. The hypnotic machines
rest now in their bulk like men who have gathered
for gossip or prayer. I swear I have heard them
sigh in their great satisfaction.
We are born to this work, to love set loose
upon the world; to give life to bodies, words,
the orderly repetition of ourselves. We are the tools
of increase, and multiply our common emotion: joy
at our labors, which we repeat again and again.