Photography is the story I fail to put into words. — Destin Sparks
Once I watched a hawk, what I wanted to write of here first, plummet from a telephone wire above a bicycle path: a conical of wings, a silken hood of air bronzed in the light and tender-necked, too, I think it now, the hawk astride its prey so quickly, a whole raft of wings in the grass tips afloat. I found the owl at the river’s edge, the riparian where cow hooves pocked the sludge, and then the grasses’ feathered thing I toed until I turned it, thinking it a gosling dead. Heavy-lidded were its eyes, dreaming as if it were still drowsy from some fall, its body gone. And to you, I called out then, here, here, only the head for me to cradle home. Don’t ask me why I think this: but how wild, my love, we once were, how blossomed we must have seemed to the wheeling hawks, to those smooth blades of the sky we lift still our faces to, white and dark our flesh.
(after seeing a hawk on the anniversary of my mother’s death)
HJ Burt 1929-2020
By our shed, the spotted knapweed I whacked at the week before nodded beneath the rain’s weight— a storm’s blessing. I thought the birds, the smallest ones, had caught the air thermals toward the valleys and the great scissor curves of rivers they shadow. Only the raptors left—coopers and red hawks, the bald-faced turkey vulture. In the golden hour, an elk grazed up the hill past Jan’s old picnic table, and I followed as quietly as I could, gone, I was sure, and then its antlers, staggered as blue penstemon, rose above the grass. The morning aspens gave me shadows and red-capped russula, milky caps. Yellow birds scattered in the woods, rode the dieback. I had forgotten the names of field grass my mother knew— wildrye and June grass, fox barley and sedge— and then I knew them: the morning lush, end of summer, wind and din of wasp wild. Leonard said he dreamed the dead back and they were smoothed by joy.
one by one flowers open, then fall Wang Wei, 701-761
I suppose it was the 3:00 a.m. mewling, the new puppy nudging me into suburban dark and moon milk, that made me think of the moon snail propped on my study window sill between the photos of a moth orchid and the winter’s Wilson’s Snipe I fashioned into postcards. How long now has this moon snail gathered dust there, shifted my afternoon sun from light to richest shadow? I found it, nameless to me, at the edge of tidal spume and broken cockle shells, and carried it from the sea to here— a spiral in my palm perfect of nipple-brown apex and hollow umbilicus where once a foot and seven rows of teeth and feathered gill lay. Leonard keeps asking me why we are here. Why this cup of tea? Why this pen we write with beneath a soda straw width of galaxies uncountable? Nights, the predatory moon snail plows nocturnal shores, drills the shells of clams with holes we’ll string and wear. Or it lays a thousand eggs into collars of sand, shaped, we’ll say, into ones our priests wear. And now this puppy, everything new to it: the curly cues of dried snail and earthworm it finds beneath the gutter spout. Or the blue bachelor button in sudden fall bloom it chews happy at the driveway’s edge. Once conjured with my camera into dark and shadow, this moon snail pixelated into swirls of pigeon-blue and rose-flesh: somewhere, someplace else, a constant sea rain of tiny moon snail and this moon I blink beneath.
unless Soul clap its hands and sing —William Butler Yeats
Researchers found that the small cabbage white butterfly likely originated in eastern Europe and then spread into Asia and Siberia when trade was increasing along the Silk Road.
from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
I suppose it’s the name, not the butterfly’s, that caught me first, Silk Road. Then the butterfly’s, lowly cabbage-eater I keep imagining clinging, white-winged and green speckle-eyed, to a shining hem or a sleeve woven from a silk cocoon some ancient silk farmer boiled just before the silk worm’s emergence. That strand of silk, kept intact by that farmer’s boiling, spun longer than this walking path in a sunken canyon, itself millions of years old. And that Silk Road? Some seven thousand miles away and gone centuries with ancient dynasties and Ottoman Empires and Xanadu courts. Where was I now? With an ancient farmer eating a boiled silkworm and a cabbage white butterfly stowing itself away across worlds and tall ships and iron horses to be, here, with me. No wonder Leonard calls me from sleep at three a.m., no moon for a poet, to stand groggy and awed on a cabin porch beneath a universe called Observable, despite the billions of galaxies we still can’t see spiraling over the Milky Way— our Scattered Straw, our Silver River, Way of Birds. And so. It’s the cabbage white butterfly I am thinking of because a Master Birder told me of beautiful birds in a canyon and I went, to catch in singing the White-throated Swift or the Lazuli Bunting or the Plumbeous Vireo I could hang extant in a simple black frame by my kitchen window. But all I could find was a butterfly, plain as a moth and hanging upside down on a purple weed. Instar is a molting, I have read, the cabbage white butterfly’s exoskeleton shed every time for something new. Now the head black. Now the yellow clypeus of the face. Now those tiny green dots I love.
My ears are thick with them, the yellow jackets levitating out of this vole hole to hover through our scarecrows of gold banner and harebell. Murmuration is a word even without the starlings’ imprint above this leaf light. It is almost too beautiful to write: the birds I cannot see clustering at night beneath the Milky Way, river of light, their absence silence, and then the wasps I thought bees vibrating over the wet leaves, the pulpy flies, the destroying angels I’ve walked through. These wasps fly in and out beneath the metal sky into the dark cupboards of earth, thousands, while I plunge my arms through bees snout-deep in late blossom, everything and me until the first glittering frost alive.
[Beauty] compels awe, and awe Is well known for its capacity to silence. Louise Glück
I’ve been thinking about beauty and how these blue birds ahead of me keep throwing themselves off the aspen snags. Like a hinge, the mind already calling them ‘beautiful” and “sky,” though I don’t know really what beauty is or how to make it so in a poem about a gravel lane I keep writing. Leonard never sees the bluebirds, though he wants to, but, every day, I walk into them, little chips of sky I might touch. When Leonard was a boy, his mother taught him to sing a song about pockets and falling stars and he sings it to me now, when we are happiest. In just this hour, fall has towed in its clouds like blue barges. Beautiful. And I am remembering the earliest summer morning, not in this here, not in this now: tree swallows flushed above the sedge and a guttering of flickers. And now this perfect silhouette in the dirt I thought to photograph at my feet because there was light and there were wings and nothing to grieve, door nor earth.
I found this on a flowering weed in Castlewood Park on a day I was looking for birds. Butterfly? Moth? To be honest, I didn’t know. And then I learned that the butterfly has a bulb at the end of its antenna, unlike the moth and its feathered one, and a hooked tip called the “apiculus.” The name of this butterfly? Such beautiful names to wander through: Swallowtails and Hairstreaks, Elfins and Metalmarks and Gossamer-winged. Just the names begin to find a poem. This little guy is part of the Grass Skippers Family, perhaps a Least Skipper, weak in the wings, or an Orange Skipperling, its eggs orange-ringed and its larva rolling up in a single blade of grass. I don’t really care which butterfly it is: I woke up and couldn’t sleep and now a coyote has wandered down the suburban drainage ditch a block from our house to sing and I’ve been thinking about poetry and found this poem by Pavel Friedmann, who wrote this one day in 1942 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp beneath a white chestnut and gave it to me, tonight, and now me to you:
He was the last. Truly the last. Such yellowness was bitter and blinding Like the sun’s tear shattered on stone. That was his true colour. And how easily he climbed, and how high, Certainly, climbing, he wanted To kiss the last of my world.
I have been here for seven weeks, ‘Ghettoized’. Who loved me have found me, Daisies call to me, And the branches also of the white chestnut in the yard. But I haven’t seen a butterfly here. That last one was the last one. There are no butterflies, here, in the ghetto.
Have you ever held the shell of something in your hand for a long time and loved it and never known it until, one day, you learn the name of it, like Moon Snail?
Here it is. And here it will be, too:
I am thinking about the hand I found in Indiana, a mole’s hand, when I was somewhere near ten years old, back-walking from a bulldozed pond along a foot and cow path in an Indiana field my father owned. His weekend escape from medicine and the hospital rounds he’d leave us for in the Sunday afternoons of our returning. It was 1968, fifty-four years ago from where I sit now in my quiet Colorado study, a blue spruce at the window where chickadees fly, and where it brushes the eves in our February wind, and where I hold the shell of a moon snail I found in a sea drift a summer ago in Cape Cod with my love, as if it were time, salt-riped and smoothed, I cup in my hands.
First, there is the necessary quiet of close grass, of fallen rodent, belly up in the path of your wanting. This morning, all you loved disappeared, ghosts you’ve kept in your palms, the tip of your tongue. Now you stoop to the wide paths reckless others have shoe-ed into the mud. Above the flooded salt quarry, a woman hugs her knees. She will not waver in the hour you walk the wide lake, peering one-eyed for heron through your lens. Then, nothing, until you are back at the beginning, the water of a blue reservoir you had long forgotten spilling out of a pipe at your feet, water so quiet, you think, this is why the birds rush in. A heron hugs the lakeshore; a heron balances on the gray curves of a tree fallen so many years ago that it floats upon the water’s light. Long-necked, short-necked, the heron wait for the sun. Their feathers are the light hairs of moss the wind tassels. Why do you wait at the edge of the water, the camera heavy in your cold hands, waiting for cloud, for sun, for the stretch of wing, the long dangling feet of departure? A quick moment and the heron sheds a bit of itself, just one color the camera opens its eye for, then shuts: a blue shade gripping the half-cave of a tree that keeps trying to bury itself. Soon you will drive home. Soon you will cook, sit by a fire, prop your camera at the table’s edge to see what you have taken.