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            Calloused as an Old Oak Burr

Walking in the forests of a wide valley

Rimmed by cliffs above us, rolling mist

Over the slopes out across the blue vastness

The vultures glided across the blue sky from

One side to the other, while kites and kestrels

Worked the fields where the woods were 

Cut when first men walked within the walls.

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We stood under the canopy of branches

In the shade of old oaks, ages growing

Slowly seeking their sunlight, ever taller,

Thicker boles, holding aloft leaves and,

Even when those died, in winter, green

Epiphytes; a host of other lives, for centuries,

Saying to all in the forest: “Behold, I am here.”

Feeding feast for insects and birds that eat them;

Showering grazed ground with acorns for boar;

Robins following rootings, under those, creating

Holes where night-time animals hide yet.

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One had recently fallen, after perhaps half a

Millennium spreading seeds and supporting

Epiphytic ferns: now hanging upside down 

From the bough that held them high so easy

Over which we climbed on the clean bark.

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And I thought of those who carried an axe 

Into these woods to gather firewood,

To create charcoal from the oaks:

Brought perhaps as soon as they could walk 

And pick up a twig to help their father,

And kept at it until they could walk no more:

Years of seasons spent sweating and freezing alternatively

Snacking on dark bread and forest berries,

Bring back home a snared rabbit if one was had.

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How many injuries did they accumulate,

Inflicted by such occupations? A series of

Splinters, cuts, bruises and bones broken;

But shrugged off and shouldered on

Until calloused, like the knots and burrs 

Of the trunks we touch: the pollarded boughs

Wounded, but budding forth once more for fifty years,

Until the axe of those weathered workers eventually fell again.

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For even great oaks are eventually tumbled,

Even if only by time. And those ferns and lichens

That thought they clung to a solid structure are thrown 

Over, to cling and seek the sun as best they can.

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We sat upon the curved bough and ate our own victuals,

Thinking of those workers who listened to the same scene

Of songbirds and wind, and wondered of what life was

Like outside these woods, these walls of valley wide

Yet long and uneasily walked out of, and wished 

For more, for escape, easiness, for freedom from their destiny,

But accepted, their lives would be lived, alongside these trees.

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Then the telephone took my attention for a time:

A thread landing in my lap with a crack-like impact of

A snapping branch upon me,

And I sat upon a stump and sipped water to keep down the lump

In my throat at this long twitter list of lads and lassies 

Of a too young age who’d taken their own lives, the last option:

Locked in the loss that seems so extensive in these times

Of lockdown, long as a valley apparently without exit;

The looking out at a world that looks so perfect, looking back;

The pressure like storm clouds gathered above the cliffs,

Building until smooth wood cracks and saplings snap.

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If only they could have come to this forest, felt the breathing branches,

The soft sunspots, the birdsong rest upon them.

If only they could have stuck around long enough, to resist

Instead of rejecting the pain, the splintered spirit, the bruised soul.

If only they’d stayed a little longer, told another their wishes:

Shouted, screamed, even to a pillow, “I am here and I exist!

“I have a life that is well lived, and will be lived if given 

The chance; a hand, a hug, a kiss.”

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For even those who never had to lift a stick or chop a log, can 

Build up burrs, callouses, train themselves to toughness,

Over the course of a century or half, from the finer grain

Of slow winter growth gaining perspective to appreciate this:

‘Tis only at the end we can reminisce.

Looking back, we can count up mistakes, regrets, 

See the setbacks we withstood, taking bad with good,

Standing tall till Nature takes us, rather than the blade,

If only because we owe it to the saplings stretching in our shade.

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Though only the beasts and bugs it gave life to

Knew of its presence, tall as it was, and only those, who

Were touched by its life will note its fall, 

And all the rest of us are ignorant of what it meant to them,

For a tree, that is perhaps enough;

And if we could but be as wise, it would

Too, be sufficient for us.

For those who have fallen too soon….

As Winter Comes

It comes for all of us.

But some of us are waiting. And we’re not going to be made to leave so easily.

And sometimes we can see the beauty in it all.

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            Winter Takes Grip of Us

Clouds fall, darker as they drop down upon the valley.

Night draws onwards, quick as winter wind, whistling

Along eaves, whipping at chattering apple leaves, 

Stripping trees, snapping stalks in the garden.

Bamboo poles that have supported peppers and 

Tomatoes all summer bend over, while the plants 

Are sapped of green, and shrivel even as ripening

Sole fruits dangle in the gusts. Only life remains 

It seems in hard cabbages and cauliflowers

Curled over to cover hearts from coming frosts.

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Still, we sit, after gleaning the garden for all that was

Tasty and tender, those last mouthfuls of summer

Not too damaged or dried up after stalks snapped,

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Refusing to leave even though no leaves are left, and

The night leaves us bereft of light: lingering outside

In twilight until winter takes the whole, sole

Sitters separated from the stalks that once sustained

Us, supported strongly, holding up only memories of

The sunshine that once suffused the blossoming apple

Grove, and unbent seedlings sprouted all around us.

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The allotment at dusk, Pamplona above with the last light of sunset. Pepper plants in the foreground, cardo – pig thistle and cabbages in the background before the tree. The peppers are frost damaged now.
The tomato plants, dead and shrivelled yet with a few fruits still edible held on. Pamplona cathedral is at the top right of the photo, silhouetted against the sky.

Procrastination, Panic, and Priorities in the Pandemic

So for the last couple of months I’ve been living like Hemingway. Well, without the writing, so much.

Or the bulls.

No bulls this year. No fiesta in Pamplona.

But I have been in Spain, enjoying the sunshine, and drinking.

I’ve been getting up early, with intentions of getting lots of writing done.

I have a run, or a cycle, while it’s cool, then have a swim after cleaning the pool.

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A road I recently cycled along with some friends – I usually go alone in the hills.

And I’ve spent an hour or two on the laptop, staring at the screen, as I scroll through my social media and read about the horrible things happening, the shitshow that is the former lone superpower, the rising death rates in various countries, and watching videos of the violent racism so many have to deal with and the violent reaction to any request for such racism to stop.

Then I get breakfast for my kids when they surface from their darkened bedroom around ten, and pretty much any chance to get writing done is gone until perhaps mid afternoon when I wake from a siesta and have another swim to get my brain restarted.

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An outing with the kids to an old windmill in the valley. We normally stay in the village, and I don’t normally post photos of the kids – but they’re unidentifiable here.

 

Of course, it’s a strange time to live. But we’re alive. And in the end, well, what more can we ask for?

People are worried, though. And I was thinking about this – about panic and procrastination in these times of pandemic.

Sometimes we think that when people panic they start doing things: racing around, becoming very busy.

But they don’t.

Instead it seems that they are paralysed and they do nothing.

However, perhaps their reality is that they see that given the futility of the situation, and their imminent demise, there’s basically no point in doing anything. Instead it’s best to just relax and do nothing.

Because doing nothing is in fact the best thing to do.

Perhaps it’s only when we’re faced with death that we realise that we should’ve been doing nothing all along.

The object of our existence is to do nothing.

Doing is not the important thing, it’s just being.

We should just be.

We should just watch, and chill out.

So while it seems that I have done very little in these days, and there are several books that are waiting to get finished and some to get started, I’ve decided to not worry about that because if I do get sick, I’ll probably just stop writing rather than race to get them finished.

I’ll do what I have been doing – looking after the kids, being with the family, enjoying the scenery and the flowers in the garden and the birds around the house.

At the end of the day, does it matter if the book is one third finished one half finished or three quarters finished if the book is unfinished? Perhaps it’s best to nearly finish at least, but I’m loath to spend my last days worrying about it.

Of course, I am not sick, and I hope I’m not in my last days – keeping the head down here!

So I have written some. And I will have some to show people soon.

And I never stop writing poetry.

So here’s some of that:

 

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A view of the olive tree centre of the world in Andalucia… peaceful, if pretty poor species-wise…

Where Would You Go To?

 

Racing downhill, skidding over gravel path between pine peaks.

Slide to a stop beside scarlet-poppy-strewn field of barley, golden

Eagles calling overhead, staring at gliding silhouettes, shielding eyes

Against glare of sun, hot upon shoulders. A lone figure, surrounded

By a chorus of chirps, whistles and warbles, sheet of susurration

Wind through poplar leaves under a blanket of blessed silence,

Among a bouquet of orchids and other wild flowers, wondering

Where would one go from here?

 

Eventually remounting, rolling onwards over eroded pudding-stone

Thinking this is the destination of a multitude, but home to me.

 

Many would trek to get here: the very idea posited as post-retirement

Plan, proposed to stretch the Mediterranean holiday eternally past

A year in Provence; sold to dozens of millions dreaming of this,

Present position I’ve stumbled upon for life. So,

 

Why would I want to do any more than simply be, here?

 

Everything I can add upon this blessing only gravy, icing.

What matter if my works are acclaimed or even hailed?

When their very creation brings my own elation, and this station

Provides all the time, and space to do so at my pondering pace.

It’s only left to me to accept this grace, riding though this pretty place.

 

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The view from our local windmills, one of the places I cycle. The hills on the right are where the golden eagles breed.

 

The Earth Dances

Thus, Shall we Dance

 

We shall dance, as the waters rise to sweep us under,

Clinging to one another as the cold creeps up.

 

As the fires near, burning all before them, we shall dance, locked in our final embrace, and thus they shall find us, as in the ashes of Pompey.

 

We shall dance, when the soldiers bang upon our doors, to take us away to the place nothing leaves except than screams and dead bodies.

We shall dance, to remember the disappeared, to hold their souls in our hearts, to follow their footsteps forward.

 

We shall dance the rains down upon the parched soil, the grass up into the sun. We shall dance the acorn out of its shell, the herds through their great circles,

We shall dance the great dance of the Earth, to the thunder and the birdsong, the cascade and the pulse of blood.

 

We shall dance our dirge to the tiger, the rhino, the great and diminutive wild brothers we have lost.

 

We shall dance to the Great Spirit, who sees all these deeds, all this destruction in the name of what you can not eat, what does not sustain, to sustain ourselves.

We shall dance, as we have done, for that is what we do. Thus have we always. Thus has it always been.

 

And if we live long enough, we shall dance upon your graves, and those of your ancestors, drumming them into dust for all this.

 

 

I wrote this poem during quarantine, when my family had a writing challenge to keep us entertained – we had to write something beginning with the phrase “we will dance” but in Spanish. I of course, wrote it in English and translated it for the zoom call! But it wasn’t quite the happy story everyone else wrote to cheer us up and pass the time.

But time passes, and little changes. Some things we want to change and some we don’t. And the things that stay the same seem to be the ones we want to change and those that do are sliding away from the wonder we have before us.

But we will go on.

A delayed St. Paddy’s Day post…

I started writing this last week, but incredible as it might seem from quarantine, I’ve been crazily busy in my little box!

so here’s what I wrote,

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone

It’s a strange one. Hopefully just a blip on our normality, one we’ll remember for being the odd one out rather than the first year of a few way of doing things, a new way of life.

It’s a day to think about all the Irish around the world – which in turn makes us think of all the other migrants, emigrants and immigrants of every other country and culture that venture out into new lands and mix and mingle to make a more united world.

Some of those would like to be home now. Because they don’t know if they’ll get home soon, or when, or if ever.

And there might be loved ones they’ll never see again. Some who won’t be there when this is over, and whose last goodbyes we won’t be able to attend, either in the hospital or over a grave.

That’s a hard thing to say, though everyone is thinking of it – and if not, well, they’re really not aware of what we’re facing here.

And that reality of death should drive home to us – and definitely drive us home, where we all need to be right now, staying a good distance from those outside our immediate family/friends circle with home we’re sharing air and surfaces – the important things in life.

These are those same friends and family, both whom we can touch and not right now.

The simple things we never think of, like simply going for a walk.

Fresh air, exercise.

Sunlight.

The sight of a tree, of a sparrow, a butterfly.

A smile from a stranger, a neighbour we’ve never talked to, the cashier at the supermarket.

 

And the unimportant things. Like hedge funds. We need hedgerows, not hedge funds, someone said.

We could simply stop trading for a few weeks, and we’d all be better off.

If they’ve closed the bars, and the shops, why not the stock exchange? How vital is it, really? What’s needed now is work, willingness, good faith and a calm comportment. Not overabundant in Wall Street.

 

Meanwhile we’re all inside, life is busily going on outside without us, glad for our absence. Songbirds can be heard now the traffic has gone down, the air is cleaner – for those blessed with a dog and an excuse to get out, but also for the rest of us with windows open to the spring – and I can only hope that the park maintenance has been reduced to unnecessary and the personnel redeployed to cleaning tasks (the street cleaning machine still trundles down past our house first thing in the morning though I doubt there’s much rubbish to pick up) so the grass and wildflowers can grow a little more unruly and insects can have a boon from our misfortune.

I only know that the first place my children and I will visit when we’re allowed out of our flat will be the park, to run in the grass and fall down in it and pick daisies and blow dandelion heads.

Till then, we’ll survive on our houseplants and fish tank and the tree outside the window and the birds that visit it.

Paddy's day.

 

And the knowledge that every day we stay inside the air quality improves, planes stay on the ground, and people realise they can survive perfectly well without buying plastic trinkets and clothes to fill their closets and that the water in the tap is good enough without having to fight over bottled water.

 

Stay safe, stay home, stay well.

 

Winter Poem

Closing up Camp

 

Fish flash lethargically argent in the creek,

Creeping upstream, gleaning the last

Of the caddis flies until torpor takes them.

 

Sun beams golden in glowing leaves but slants

Lower now, more weakly heating us, huddled

On the morning porch hugging our mugs.

 

We don’t swim before breakfast, only

Paddle after our afternoon nap, picking black

And other berries to boil jam and packing

Pumpkins for the car; chopping lumber

 

For the evening fire still keeps off falling

Chill, but within weeks we will give in to

Winter’s grip and slip away to the city.

 

Closing shutters against storms and snow,

Emptying water tanks and pipes from icing,

Clearing closets of anything attracting rodents

Or racoons and slowly strolling round the

Leaf-strewn lawn, taking one last long look

Out across the fall-reflective lake, then forsaking.

 

Still, thinking of spring keeps back sadness,

Slipping through seasons until suddenly

It’s our last, and we must shut up for good,

Or have it opened sadly in our absence,

Our passage through camp just a forest path.

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I write this back in September, thinking of the camp of my friend Tamir, who would have turned 60 a few days ago. I don’t have many photos of his summer place in autumn, but I am sure right now it’s deep in snow and the lake is starting to freeze over till springtime. Thus is life, as long as we still have springtime. And memories that shine like sunlight to keep us warm meanwhile.

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A blogpost in place of a poem

I lost a friend the other day, died of cancer, the way many do, after a decade or more living with the disease in varied bouts of beating and being beaten.

I often write a poem when someone important dies. This time no words came out of the void in a shape that made me think it should be a poem.

Perhaps it was because I found out the news over the internet – one of the few positive points about some social media sites that at least some use it for good, if sad actions. Many of his friends found out the same way. At the time I was in work, teaching in a school where nobody knows nor knew Tamir Teichman. As I found out when my grandmother died while I was in Boston, school kids don’t need to know about what’s going on behind the smile when you greet them in the classroom. The show goes on. So I’d little time to digest the news and let my memories return the way it would be needed to write a poem.

Instead, it’s a blog post.

Tamir bikeride.jpgI worked with Tamir for several years when I lived in Boston. We were two of three people in the CHS science dept., along with Anna Power, who’d been Tamir’s student teacher. They taught chemistry and physics, while I taught biology. We had three classes in a row, mine in the middle, joined by interior doors. We went in and out of one another’s class all the time, often leaving the doors open if one of us needed to use the bathroom. He made reagents for my experiments when I ran out, and was a great colleague. He was also a great teacher, who taught me a lot, and I hope in my own career some of what I learned from him has stuck and been transmitted to my own classroom.  He never varied in his frank and honest approach to his classes and the students. He was the same person in the classroom and out. His methods sometimes clashed with the administration’s views of how classrooms should be run, especially those of a new headmaster who after a couple of years fired Tamir – the laws in America are not usually much help to employees. The union had been ousted before I started in CHS and we had a right to work agreement in place of a contract.  Tamir saw the writing on the wall, but never changed the way he went about things. As far as the students are concerned, his way was clearly the right way to do things, as his friends could see on social media when a huge number of people declared he was the best teacher they’d ever had.

He was one of the best colleagues I ever had, I can tell you. And one of the best friends. We spent a lot of time together during the seven years I lived there, from going out for drinks on Fridays with the other teachers, to cycling along the Charles River on Saturdays, to a road trip we took in a U-Haul truck, taking some of his mother’s antique furniture from storage down in Boca Raton up to Brookline – a trip from Miami to Maine, all told. Living in rental accommodation, I was delighted to help him out in his garden, doing a little bit of landscaping in his house and the summer camp his family have on the shores of one of the lakes of Maine, where he’d invited me and my wife and we’d take in the wildlife and the silence. I’ve experienced fewer more peaceful places in the world – even in Wicklow the wind is always in your ears!

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Tamir on the open road

 

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At Kitty Hawk

 

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Tamir and my wife out on the lake

A dedicated environmentalist, he saved everything, from school materials to bike parts. One of his, and my, great disappointments was to see the old vintage benches of the labs torn up and thrown out rather than taken by an antiques dealer – it would have made an amazing pub bar. Before he left CHS, we donated lots of old chemicals and materials to one of my former student teachers who’d started in a charter school that needed stuff (in America, many schools rely on charity to do the best they can for their kids). He taught me how to cool a house at night and keep the heat out during the day, and for drinking glasses he used really lovely old jam jars to serve freshly squeezed orange juice in the humid summer.

He died after a long illness, which though debilitating at times never stopped him from his work as athletic coach, nor slowed him down on a bike ride – he outpaced me easily. He’d left another school since then, and was working in a less stressful job when I last talked to him.

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Our last bike ride along the Charles.

His mother had moved in with him, but she’d died just recently, coincidentally, or perhaps not. He was single, with two siblings living overseas and their children, two aged aunts and some cousins.

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Tamir in his mother’s car before we took a drive around Miami

 

Yet he leaves many, many mourning his passing. He leaves a multitude of memories among his friends and colleagues, and he has made a significant mark on the lives of his students. They will keep him alive. His actions have their ripples though the times to come, having helped form adults who will work to make this world, their world, a better place than the way it was when they were thrown it.

Whatever your view on the afterlife –I’ve no idea of Tamir’s, since we never talked much about religion, other than about his family’s history of having survived the Holocaust – one thing I’ve learned from this sad episode is that your actions during life will reflect on what happens when you die. Perhaps you’ll have a lot of kids to attend your funeral, have family to pray for your passage through purgatory and onto the pearly gates. Maybe you won’t. Yet even if you don’t, never think that your life hasn’t touched someone, that someone won’t mourn your absence, won’t think wistfully of the time you smiled at them, offered help, extended a hand, said a kindly word, gave your honest opinion and made them ponder, wonder, reconsider, feel some emotion.

As I said on social media, mostly directed at my (our) former students who knew Tamir, nobody dies who lives on in memories. Tamir will never be lost from the thoughts of those who knew him. His positive energy will reverberate though our worlds.

Sometimes when a person dies, we say, well, thank god they’re gone. Think of Margaret Thatcher…. I’ve experienced a few of those thoughts. There are some people who are just arseholes. Even children and grandkids can be glad to get shut of their elderly parents and grandparents, truth be told.

Other times, after the sadness comes a smile, a contentedness, a (cold) comfort, that at least you had the privilege to meet that man, to know that woman.

That’s what I feel now, a few days later. I know my life has been enriched for knowing Tamir and hanging out with him.

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chilling out in Saint Augustine, Fl. Rest well, T.

I only hope a little of his teaching style rubbed off on me, and that when I die, some at least will say something similar of me.

 

May Day Poems

 

Out Tomorrow: The Soul of Adam Short.

Adam Pre-order

Ever wonder what it would be like to have your soul ripped from your body? Adam Short knows.

Does anyone else know, though?

We might have an idea.

I still clearly remember when I got the idea for The Soul of Adam Short. It was almost exactly fifteen years ago – I typed up the first note on October second, year Two-Thousand. I was standing at a junction much like the Mosley Road of the book, having paused my bike. I stopped because I was sure a car was coming down the street, but when I looked more carefully there was nothing. It was a very strange feeling.

I cycled on, wondering what had happened, and wondering what would happen if a ghost car “knocked you down.” Could the spirit of the vehicle and its driver interact with your own sprit, your soul?

Once that situation of a character losing his or her soul occurred to me, the rest of the story took rough shape and I knew it was a tale for Young Adults, even though until then I’d written “adult.” books. The characters had to be teens. Lots of adults cycle – I still do, every day – but the symptoms of such an event would be more likely accepted as just a brain malfunction in a middle-aged person. (Yes, I consider myself middle-aged – doesn’t mean I am old, just I’m halfway through what I expect to attain, barring accidents… everyone older than me is OLD.)

And only teens would have the tenacity to go against the grain of what’s considered okay, the accepted wisdom, the proper thing to do. Some of us adults still have a little of that left, but not enough. Most of us are afraid of what “others might think” A look at the world today can show that fairly clearly. Unfortunately many teens think they’re not capable of acting on their own. They’ve been told they were toddlers that they’re too small to do things, it’s too dangerous to climb the tree, to walk home alone from school half the time.

One lesson Adam Short learns, is that life is as short as his name, that it can fly by in a heartbeat if you’re not paying attention, and the future is not something to be feared, but embraced; because it doesn’t matter, in the end, what your parents or neighbours think of your life choices. Everyone ends up before they’re quite ready, either sitting by the side of Mosley Road, or attending their own funeral, and it can happen in a heartbeat if you’re not ready. But being aware of it, it loses its scariness – and you can appreciate the little things that make a life worth living( some of which Adam loses and some he discovers), and step up to do the things that make a life great.

If we don’t at least try, well, we may as well have no soul.

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You can get a look at the blurb and extract at the MuseitUp website here…or at your local Amazon store here.

Deadlines

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Deadlines have been on my mind as my release date approaches for Leaving the Pack.

Most of them are dates made in my own mind, but it’s hard to keep writing inside when there’s so much going on elsewhere.

 

 

Deadline

 

What is a deadline? And how can one stand

Against the rush of a riffling stream past

Skinny legs of a standing heron over rounded stones,

Against the draw of deep water held behind a weir,

 

Against the rippling wind whipping through ripening barley,

And expanse of blue sky extending above a verdant plain,

Against the weight of sunlight upon a shoulder,

The swell of one’s chest at the sight of a field full

Of poppies and vetch, fetching delight at feeling,

Beating steady bass against the body, against the

Somniferous drone of bees through the blooms,

For whom the afternoon includes no siesta, or

Press of dancers in a crowded room, screaming

Swirling of swallows, flinging slight bodies against

Flies upon the wing, and insistent singing thrush

Trilling an announcement at all this end of daylight,

Making last flight and call to unseen nest?

How can anything resist the soft accumulation of

Seed cotton drifting down from dangling catkins?

 

The only dead line is that which marks the death of days,

Staying under sunlight as long as last its rays

Our only object, for the sun will set soon enough,

And the darkness will wash over all that was lit before it.