Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 86 (October 1998): 20,27,29.
New England comes to flower dying.
Leaves like new-blown blossoms trail
in fluttered rage from tainted trees.
The year grows willful. Stagnant ponds
strain to clamber quarry walls.
Time slips indenture, backing age
on fuddled age, confusing fall
with summer—snow with hawthorn flurries,
apple flakes along black boughs.
North of Boston, fire falls
from tree to tree, and leaf by leaf
perverse New England springs to bloom.
The world is kindling for the Lord.
Sour births and welcome slaughters,
gravid fathers getting sons,
eastern sunsets, maddened mothers,
brazen midnights, talking dogs
expounding blood and mongerings of war:
I woke to see New England burning,
woke to see September’s flames
streaming like the blood of martyrs
guttered in the towns of Maine.
I watched the woods of Concord catch,
the flash of Canaan, Bethel, Keene,
the raging hills of Holyoke.
The forests of Vermont have gained
for Boston not a single day
and all the trees of Plymouth rise
like smoke of children passed through fire—
for every falling leaf’s a spit
of flame that wants New England’s death
and every leaf’s a burning tongue
that cries for vengeance from our wrongs.
The twisted roots begin to stir.
Now mulched with new-born children’s soft
unsuckled greenstick bones, they pry
among the topsoiled Irish graves.
The daughters of dead chambermaids
skip Mass to flirt on Salem’s greens.
New England’s gravemuck clogs their feet.
Down, down, the fat roots reach
for bankers’ nieces, shy white-bodied
girls who giggled once out loud
and blushed and fled the bright cotillion;
for Amherst boys, their new mustaches
wet with ice, who laughed and steamed
and tugged off mittens with their teeth.
Rolled on surging roots, the dead
Atlantic sailors rise and fall,
the Gloucestermen come safe to shore.
A button on a bright gray shroud,
a patch of blue, love clasped with grief—
there was a time such things survived
but now all death is drained of life.
The cold divines who preached from Kings,
the stone-fence farmers, Mohawk hunters,
pewtersmiths, Green Mountain boys,
harpooners, poets, pinned-sleeve bluecoats:
Netted roots have wrapped them round,
sapped them, and plunged deeper down
toward ancient gulfs where first blood flowed.
At the world’s core lies a lake
where slaughters stream and pale roots drink.
The thick remains of sin are coursing
through October trees to splatter
red New England’s sky with leaves.
Off Winter Harbor, Christmas Cove,
Fairhaven, Wellfleet—now the cold
gray sea turns back against the shore.
Hard combers rake between the rocks
for bottles, paper, bits of glass.
Angry whitecaps scour the beach
and foam among the driftwood dams.
The signs were there but who believed?
The long cold grass along the hill
stiff with scripts of morning frost,
the ragged geese-Vs pointing south,
the rains that splayed the yellow leaves
like opened wounds along the path:
Still the forecast winter stalled
and we forgot what follows fall.
New England’s cold November sets
bare ruined oaks against gray skies.
A thousand leafless crosses weave
among the trees. No hue remains.
This is the killing time between
the crime and judgment, act and pain,
the pregnant days when we pretend
that consequences will miscarry—
witness perjured, time suborned—
until at last the winter breaks,
sweeping down the western hills
across Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine
to fill the valleys, close the woods,
entomb the cities, still the seas.
Deep in snow New England holds
lovely, silent, finished, clean.
What mercy after such forgiveness?
What resurrection waits on spring?
At church, the man touches his lover’s
hand: two crisscrossed
in the cross, signing
symbols in unison. They are unhappy
with Worship, the servings up
of Christ: too scattered
to soothe their weekly palates. At the potluck
afterwards, they steam,
recite the Last Supper like apostles
replaying the night. In the church
kitchen, incandescent lights
halo their greying heads. The eldest sputters
how the last "place" vacuumed up
their savior from the rug; his voice
vrooms the story; casserole crumbs flutter
from his lips. I, too, am hungry
for more, the pierced flesh
corrupting beneath tongue
each week we forget
to remember. What else
we forget wavers between air
and faith: words tossed out
with the wafer. Here, confession clears
sooner than incense. Oh, Christ,
what lives we have chosen to live:
we come still to the fodder of your flesh
needing figleaves, licking our gaping sores
as if we were clean
Listen, God, I need
You, hear me.
In this darkness.
Give me back
(My soul is ready
Now to leave me)
I don’t question
You believe me.
Teach me trust
In the returning
In public, enter
My heart in your
Book of splendors.