--for Sharon and Earl
Our babysitter lives across from the Dodge Street cemetery,
And behind her broad, untroubled face.
Her sons play touch football all afternoon
Among the graves of clerks and Norwegian settlers.
At night, these huge trees, rooted in such quiet,
Arch over the tombstones as if in exultation,
As if they inhaled starlight.
Their limbs reach
Toward each other & their roots must touch the dead.
When I was fifteen,
There was a girl who loved me, whom I did not love, & she
Died, that year, of spinal meningitis. By then she
Had already left home, & was working in a carnival—
One of those booths where you are supposed
To toss a dime onto a small dish. Finally,
In Laredo, Texas, someone anonymous & too late, bought her
A bus ticket back….
Her father, a gambler and a horse dealer, wept
Openly the day she was buried. I remember looking off
In embarrassment at the woods behind his house.
The woods were gray, vagrant, the color of smoke
Or sky. I remember thinking then that
If I had loved her, or even slept with her once,
She might still be alive.
And if, instead, we had gone away together
On two bay horses that farted when they began to gallop,
And if, later, we had let them
Graze at their leisure on the small tufts of spring grass
In those woods, & if the disintegrating print of the ferns
Had been a lullaby there against the dry stones & and the trunks
Of fallen trees, then maybe nothing would have happened….
There are times, hiking with my wife past
Abandoned orchards of freckled apples & patches of sunlight
In New Hampshire, or holding her closely against me at night
Until she sleeps, when nothing else matters, when
The trees shine without meaning more than they are, in moonlight
And when it seems possible to disappear wholly into someone
Else, as into a wish on a birthday, the candles trembling…
Maybe nothing would have happened, but I heard that
Her father died, a year later, in a Sierra lumber camp.
He had been drinking steadily all week,
And was dealing cards
When the muscle of his own heart
Kicked him back into his chair so hard its wood snapped.
He must have thought there was something
Suddenly very young inside his body,
If he had time to think….
And if death is an adolescent, closing his eyes to the music
On the radio of that passing car,
I think he does not know his own strength.
If I stand here long enough in the stillness I can feel
His silence involve, somehow, the silence of these trees,
The sky, the little squawking toy my son lost
When it slipped into the river today….
Today, I am thirty-four years old. I know
That horse dealer with a limp loved his plain & crazy daughter.
I know, also, that it did no good.
Soon, the snows will come again & cover that place
Where he sat at a wobbling card table underneath
A Ponderosa pine, & cover
Even the three cards he dropped there, three silent diamonds,
And cover everything in the Sierras, & make my meaning plain.