had less to do
with any harm
they might inflict
than with the sad
It's a motley lot. A few still stand
at attention like sentries at the ends
of their driveways, but more lean
askance as if they'd just received a blow
to the head, and in fact they've received
many, all winter, from jets of wet snow
shooting off the curved, tapered blade
of the plow. Some look wobbly, cocked
at oddball angles or slumping forlornly
on precariously listing posts. One box
bows steeply forward, as if in disgrace, its door
lolling sideways, unhinged. Others are dented,
battered, streaked with rust, bandaged in duct tape,
crisscrossed with clothesline or bungee cords.
A few lie abashed in remnants of the very snow
that knocked them from their perches.
Another is wedged in the crook of a tree
like a birdhouse, its post shattered nearby.
I almost feel sorry for them, worn out
by the long winter, off-kilter, not knowing
what hit them, trying to hold themselves
together, as they wait for news from spring.
It wasn't until we got the Christmas tree
into the house and up on the stand
that our daughter discovered a small bird's nest
tucked among its needled branches.
Amazing, that the nest had made it
all the way from Nova Scotia on a truck
mashed together with hundreds of other trees
without being dislodged or crushed.
And now it made the tree feel wilder,
a balsam fir growing in our living room,
as though at any moment a bird might flutter
through the house and return to the nest.
And yet, because we'd brought the tree indoors,
we'd turned the nest into the first ornament.
So we wound the tree with strings of lights,
draped it with strands of red beads,
and added the other ornaments, then dropped
two small brass bells into the nest, like eggs
containing music, and hung a painted goldfinch
from the branch above, as if to keep them warm.
Walking past the open window, she is surprised
by the song of the white-throated sparrow
and stops to listen. She has been thinking of
the dead ones she loves- her father who lived
over a century, and her oldest son, suddenly gone
at forty-seven- and she can't help thinking
she has called them back, that they are calling her
in the voices of these birds passing through Ohio
on their spring migration. . . because, after years
of summers in upstate New York, the white-throat
has become something like the family bird.
Her father used to stop whatever he was doing
and point out its clear, whistling song. She hears it
again: 'Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.'
She tries not to think, 'Poor Andy,' but she
has already thought it, and now she is weeping.
But then she hears another, so clear, it's as if
the bird were in the room with her, or in her head,
telling her that everything will be all right.
She cannot see them from her second-story window-
they are hidden in the new leaves of the old maple,
or behind the white blossoms of the dogwood-
but she stands and listens, knowing they will stay
for only a few days before moving on.
(Virginia Leishman reading To the Lighthouse)
Driving around town doing errands,
I almost have to pull to the side of the road
because I can't go on another minute without
seeing the words of some gorgeous passage
in the paperback I keep on the passenger seat…
but I resist that impulse and keep listening,
until it is almost Woolf herself sitting beside me
like some dear great aunt who happens to be a genius
telling me stories in a voice like sparkling waves
and following eddies of thought into the minds
of other people sitting around a dinner table
or strolling under the trees, pulling me along
in the current of her words like a twig riding a stream
around boulders and down foaming cascades,
getting drawn into a whirlpool of consciousness
and sucked under swirling into the thoughts of
someone else, swimming for a time among the reeds
and glinting minnows before breaking free
and popping back up to the surface only to discover
that in my engrossment I've overshot
the grocery store and have to turn around,
and even after I'm settled in the parking lot
I can't stop but sit there with the car idling
because now she is going over it all again
though differently this time, with new details
or from inside the mind of someone else,
as if each person were a hive, with its own
murmurs and stirrings, that we visit like bees,
haunting its dark compartments, but reaching
only so far, never to the very heart, the queen's
chamber where the deepest secrets are stored
(and only there to truly know another person),
though the vibrations and the dance of the worker bees
tell us something, give us something we can take
with us as we fly back out into honeyed daylight.
I saw a brown shape in the unmown grass,
half-hidden in a tuft, and crouching down
to get a closer look, I found a young rabbit,
no bigger than my hand, trembling there
in its makeshift nest. And I thought of John Clare:
this was one of his creatures in my own yard,
pressed close to the earth, timid and alone,
almost a visitation from the "bard
of the fallow field and the green meadow,"
who loved the things of nature for what they are.
It didn't run away when I parted the grass
and stroked its soft fur, but quivered in fear,
the arteries in its small translucent ears
glowing red, its dark eyes wide. I thought
of keeping it, at least for a few days,
feeding it bread and lettuce, giving it water
from an eye dropper. Then it did run away
in little bounds to the edge of the woods,
and into the woods. I thought again of Clare,
how, after he escaped from the asylum,
he walked almost a hundred miles home,
lost, delusional, beyond anyone's care,
waking soaked in a ditch beside the road,
so hungry that he fed himself on grass.
When I spot him in Tower Records, two aisles over,
flipping through bins of discounted CDs
at their going-out-of-business sale, his shaven head
half-covered by the hood of his gray sweatshirt,
my first thought is I want to tell my brother,
but my brother is dead. And yet I watch him furtively,
searching for some Malkovichian quirk,
some tic that might make Andy laugh,
but he isn't giving anything away
besides his slightly awkward stoop over the racks.
Then it comes to me that if I can't tell my brother
about John Malkovich, I can tell John Malkovich
about my brother, and my heart starts pounding.
Normally, I don't believe in pestering celebrities,
but there are exceptions: if Spalding Gray
walked in right now, I would definitely talk to him—
but that's impossible, since he, like my brother,
though under very different circumstances,
killed himself. But John Malkovich is alive
and standing right over there, and my mind
is racing ahead to the two of us leaving
the record store together, then having coffee
at a nearby diner, where I am already
telling him how my brother was obsessed
with the movie of Sam Shepard's True West
and especially with him, John Malkovich,
playing Lee, the older of two brothers;
how Andy, who was my older brother,
loved to imitate Malkovich, or rather Lee,
everything from his small off-kilter mannerisms
to his most feral outbursts—but even then
he'd be smiling, unable to hide his delight;
and how, every Christmas, he brought the video
to our parents' house in Ohio, and our parents
would groan when they walked through the room,
and sigh, "Not this again," or call it
"the most unChristmassy movie ever made."
Which is probably true. But for us—him and me,
our other brother and our sister, but especially him—
you'd have to say it was our It's a Wonderful Life.
And I have to tell him how Andy used to cue the tape up
and ask, "Can we just watch this one scene before—"
before whatever it was we were about to do,
go out for dinner or visit our demented grandmother,
and we'd watch him, John Malkovich, standing on a chair
shouting pronouncements, or destroying a typewriter
with a golf club, and we'd go off laughing and exhilarated
to our appointed errand, his inflections ringing in our ears. . . .
But now it's something about the way he thoughtfully
considers his purchases, shuffling through them,
then putting one back, reconsidering, his hand
hesitating over the bins, that somehow reminds me
of Andy, and makes me certain Malkovich
would be interested in him, a sympathetic character
if there ever was one: funny, gentle,
a lover of dogs and kids (who had neither),
with an odd sense of humor and some mostly unobtrusive
symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder,
who, like Lee, but to a much lesser degree (or so
we thought), had trouble placing himself in the world—
a part I'm certain Malkovich could play,
all of it coming full circle, Malkovich
playing Andy playing Malkovich playing Lee,
or just Malkovich playing Andy, bringing him
back to life, the way Lee suddenly springs
back up at the end of the movie, alive
after all, menacing as death, the phone cord
still wrapped around his neck. . . .
It turns out that John Malkovich and I
do leave the store together: we check out
at the same time, two registers apart,
then head for the door, the moment coming
to a peak for me as I realize my last chance
is about to slip away. But Malkovich, in front of me,
has to wait there while a stream of people coming in
briefly blocks his exit, and I watch, in profile,
his flurry of impatient blinking—or is it a display
of exaggerated patience?—each blink counting off the seconds
he is forced to wait, or the number of customers
going by him, not recognizing him, it seems to me,
though his hood is down by now. And I think,
this is it, this little fit of blinking is the thing
Andy would delight in most, the one detail
he would rewind the tape to see again.
I just got back from the eye doctor, who told me
I need bifocals. She put those drops in my eyes
that dilate the pupils, so everything has
that vaseline-on-the-lens glow around it,
and the page I'm writing on is blurred
and blinding, even with these sunglasses.
I'm waiting for the "reversing drops" to kick in
(sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland),
but meanwhile I like the way our golden retriever
looks more golden than ever, the way the black-eyed
Susans seem to break out of their contours, dilating
into some semi-visionary version of themselves,
and even the mail truck emanates a white light
as if it might be delivering news so good
I can't even imagine it. Of course it's just bills,
catalogues, and an issue of Time magazine
full of pictures of a flooded New Orleans
that I have to hold at arm's length to make out:
a twisted old woman sprouting plastic tubes
lies with others on an airport conveyor belt
like unclaimed luggage, and there's a woman feeding
her dog on an overpass as a body floats below.
Maybe we need some kind of bifocals
to take it all in—the darkness and the light,
our own lives and the lives of others, suffering
and joy, if it is out there—or something more
like the compound eyes of these crimson dragonflies
patrolling the yard, each lens focused on some
different facet of reality, and linked to a separate
part of the brain. We would probably go crazy.
In my own eyes with their single, flawed lenses,
the drops have almost worn off now, and my pupils
are narrowing down, adjusting themselves
to their diminished vision of the world.
I had left you at the gate to buy a newspaper
and on my way back stopped at a bank of monitors
to check the status of our flight to London.
That was when you noticed a middle-aged man
in a brown jacket and the green short-brimmed cap
I'd bought for the trip. It wasn't until I turned
and walked toward you that you saw him as me.
What a nice-looking man, you told me you'd thought—
maybe European, with that unusual cap…
somebody, you said, you might want to meet.
We both laughed. And it aroused my vanity
that you had been attracted to me afresh,
with no baggage. A kind of affirmation.
But doubt seeped into that crevice of time
when you had looked upon me as a stranger,
and I wondered if you'd pictured him
as someone more intriguing than I could be
after decades of marriage, all my foibles known.
Did you have one of those under-the-radar daydreams
of meeting him, hitting it off, and getting
on a plane together? In those few moments,
did you imagine a whole life with him?
And were you disappointed, or glad, to find
it was only the life you already had?