At the edge of the yard somewhere in Lithuania,
she takes it all in: the white bark of the forest,
the dark vertical shadows, the tall field between here
and horizon. Wind rises from the banks
of trees and rushes everywhere, reminding her
to lift her chest, inhale sharply, remember.
Who will come after her, and then what?
Will the grasses part the same way in tomorrow’s weather,
the leaves sing their breaking song, the air hold
the weight of the world evenly around each being?
Is she the first or the last to hear the ending world?
From years ahead, I wait for her to turn into the future.
When she does, her face catches the late light,
and she sees me, sitting cross-legged on a wooden floor
in Kansas. What is there to say from there to here
that would help? A cow walks through a parking lot,
a peacock screams, all of us far from oceans, wars, the
urgency of living in a world on the cusp of vanishing.
My great-grandmother doesn’t know she will die
in that very spot facing away from soldiers and fire.
How most this village will face the gun or the gas chamber,
quickly or slowly in the camps or holes in the ground,
little space to think the best, last thought.
The air she exhales falls off the earth, like the sun
tonight and every night. Her surviving children
will spread like water on hard ground that softens over time,
so far from her view at the edge of the yard.
All she knows is the cleansing light of the wind,
the moment the world balances before her,
the way love can shelter itself as a dark bird not-so-hidden
in the birches, ready to exhale from the leaves
that keep remaking themselves and the breath
from her body that will one day be my body.
How long have you been lost? All your life?
Then you’re getting somewhere.
The walls don’t fall for those who think
they know where they are.
It takes music, low and from the bottom of pain,
like what I sang out in childbirth, each call
a plea to open and let the new one come through.
Or the sound of the new widow releasing a handful
of dirt slowly quickly the long way down
to the top of the wooden casket where a thousand
hands hit the same drum at one moment.
Or the breaking laughter of a two-year-old running
for the first time, about to trip. Or the inhalation
of surprise and verve on the cusp of orgasm
in a cold room where all the blankets are kicked off.
Knowing the path has always been overrated
although washing the dishes and cleaning the counters helps.
Loving and looking for clues are what we have—
the slant of the sun across the dusty wooden floor,
the stranger who gives you his parking space.
When the big wind knocks you down, look carefully
for what’s ready: the horizon suddenly flashed
by the brilliant wings of an Indigo Bunting
vanishing into the future in a stand of cedar
where you’ve always lived.
Jericho was never forgotten and never forgets.
Remember how to follow the outline of the city
ready to unmake itself into something better.
Let yourself stop trying to hold up all that weight.
Come and sit on this beautiful, cold ground.
Be as lost as the rain making its way,
through the veins of the universe, home.
“Come, I will teach you,” your young self
tells my young self in the school gymnasium.
I learn how to step wide while turning
with such speed that I can spin around your step.
You already know that you will never go back to your country,
just as I must live a half continent away from where I started.
How long have we known each other?
In the dream, you show me a photo of your son, not yet born,
and place a few small stones on the grave of my father
long before he died. I call you on the phone and leave a message
between waking and forgetting we are not the same person.
Sometimes when you wake, you reach for my glasses
only to find your own. The music changes, but not time:
we are still practicing in the empty university classroom
or turning up the cassette player in the parking lot,
decades later from when we started. Like a dust devil
on the hot black surface so open and bare, we whirl crooked,
a Jew and a Tamil dancing the Swedish hambo.
Each step a leap around you, your brown arms light
as fallen leaves. I hold on and fly.
God in the Trees
First god was in the trees.
Don’t ask me how I knew. I just did.
The tree would shake. I would shiver.
Where I grew up, we measured our days
in highway exits, the length of breath
to hold in the flashing intervals of a tunnel.
But I fell in love with trees anyway.
Sometimes the tree would blow against the window
of the synagogue, and I would shiver again.
A good coincidence, I told myself, for this to happen
in what they told me was the house of god
although I knew the house was a tree,
its legs flourishing downward into secret roots
that drank from underground rivers rushing slow,
its arms holding up rooms full of birds
shivering just like me as I watched the tree also
from my bedroom window in Brooklyn
or stood beneath it while I was supposed to be
walking to school, touching the bark, asking,
in the chill that touched my spine, god not to leave me:
the open canopy of leaf or bare branch to wrap
around me like a prayer, the words of god
blowing through me without words.
The Last Light of the Year
In the house, the heat kicks on,
the refrigerator hums a room steady.
The last hedge apple on the tree rolls
off the roof, and the cat jumps on the table.
The friend you love is all ashes now
waiting for you and others to scatter.
The ideas you have about time or what’s right
are lighter than ash.
See the budded ends of the cottonwood,
months away from unfurling?
It’s like that, and also this: green-black etchings
of cedars waver on the soft sky.
Headlights from the crest of a hill
angle into an empty room.
Here. Take note.
Be still, good heart, bad heart.
Don’t be swayed by guessing which.
These poems live together with many others in my forthcoming book, How Time Moves: New and Selected Poems, as part of a new collection about time. For years, I thought the main river flowing through so much of was poetry was place, but I’ve come to realize that place is the land banking the river the is time, which curves, speeds up, slows down, floods, or dries up in our lives, and in geology, climate, biology, astronomy, and so much more.
As I age and change, facing wild rapids or long droughts, I’ve been grappling with what time means. Having two bouts of cancer, raising and somewhat launching three children, living in community with humans and eco-community with the evolving woodlands and prairies, and following the callings of my work and art focus my writing even more about what time means and could mean. Maybe part of it is just trying to understand how to inhabit this life as vibrantly as possible in the mysterious amount of time I have left.
These poems, no surprise, span time. “Visitor” returned to me from one of my oldest friends, Ravi, who took a photograph of this poem on his phone and texted it to me a few years ago, over 30 years since I wrote it for him. I revised it to get it closer to what we were hambo-ing around as I considered the thin places (a term meaning energetic places between this world and others, this time and others) between knowing where one of us ended and the other began. Likewise, “God in the Trees,” originally written 15 years ago for a collaborative performance of interfaith dialogue poetry with Joy Roulier Sawyer, is very much about those early and persistent glimpses of the holy, still evident to me as I type this sitting on my porch while wind plays the trees.
New poems in this collection speak also to time and liminality. “Crossing Over,” written to my imaginary great-grandmother in Lithuania, tries to be an embodied understanding of the breath and possibility our ancestors give us as well as an acknowledgment of how history intersects with thin places. I’m particularly drawn to air, weather, and other ways the earth and time breathe, considering how the atmosphere links us over time. “The Last Light of the Year” was written shortly after a close friend died at a time when notions of good and bad and other dualities seemed especially ludicrous. Some of my friend’s ashes are still on a shelf in my husband and my bedroom, waiting for the right moment for us to finish scattering them.
In “Jericho,” a poem inspired by Mary Chapin Carpenter’s magnificent song of the same title, I’m exploring what it means to get beyond the walls of what we think we can control. I’m reminded by this beautiful earth — despite the mess of humankind destruction, greed, and grief — how we can arrive where we are, letting fall away the walls of what we’re trying to impose on the world, at any moment. Just sit on the ground and listen.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., the 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate, is the author of 23 books, including Miriam’s Well, a novel; Everyday Magic: A Field Guide to the Mundane and Miraculous, and Following the Curve, poetry. Her previous work includes The Divorce Girl, a novel; Needle in the Bone, a non-fiction book on the Holocaust; The Sky Begins At Your Feet, a bioregional memoir on cancer and community; and six poetry collections, including the award-winning Chasing Weather with photographer Stephen Locke. Founder of Transformative Language Arts at Goddard College, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely. View her work at www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com.