A Stand of Cottonwood
I'm glad to be here, amid these cottonwood trees,
Feeling the wind from the lake on my face,
Sniffing the marsh smells and lake smells
As I listen to the calls of unseen shorebirds.
And I'm glad as well to acknowledge my civic coordinates:
To be standing fifty yards from the Coast Guard station
Barely half a mile from downtown Buffalo,
At the western edge of the Empire State,
Which might have taken more care of its shoreline
Had it been ruled, now and then, by an emperor.
Self-seeding cottonwood that began to root
Some forty years back, I've read in a pamphlet,
After the beach shacks were torn down and dredges
Stopped dumping the sludge from the channel here.
Trees that like their feet to stay wet while I
Am thankful for the boardwalk path
Lifted a yard above the cattails.
Of the dozen birds named on the sign
Beside their outlines, I can barely claim to know one
By sight or sound. But that doesn't mean
I'm too old to learn. Already I can distinguish
Their calls from the traffic noise blowing in,
Now and then, from the Skyway, and the ship horns,
And the lunchtime bells from the Cathedral.
Maybe when I learn to listen, I'll hear
The tree toads scratching, or the tree roots
Gripping the stone-rich soil and drinking,
Or the termites tunneling in the logs-
All oblivious to how close they are
To what used to be numbered among the top three
Grain ports of the Western world.
So what if the grain is stored elsewhere now.
It's time to focus on the life at hand,
Which explains why I've donned my safari hat
And brought my binoculars:
Because it's now or never if I want to become
Familiar with the residents of my neighborhood,
Including these pioneer cottonwood
Rising above the boardwalk
And the birds unseen at rest in the canopy.
And why not include the three fellow pedestrians
Now approaching at a leisurely pace,
Who nod when I nod, as if they knew me
Or knew my kind. "Look, here's another
Late-blooming, cottonwood-loving creature
With a northerly range." Or, "Here's another
Self-appointed surveyor of urban wetlands
Who hopes to learn on the job
All he needs to know."
I'd like to believe that the middle-aged woman
Eating her dinner alone at the picnic table
Provided by Ernie's Red Hots, just off Route 5,
Between Woodlawn and Silver Creek,
Hasn't made a wrong turn in life that's deprived her
Of friends and family. I'd like to believe that the words
She was writing a moment ago weren't part of a letter
Accusing someone of betrayal or indifference
But were notes to herself, perhaps for an article
She's been asked to write by the magazine she works for
On fast-food providers on the eastern shore of Lake Erie.
Which of them take pride in their work-that's the question
She may have committed herself to investigate.
Here's a woman who's always found work in an office
Too confining, who loves exploring the hinterlands.
Thirty years ago she might have joined her brother
In the study of law if lawyers still rode circuits
As they did in the era of her father's granddad.
How sad to her the thought of being stuck forever
Inside one courthouse, though she'd like to believe
That some of the clerks at work in her brother's office
May find, as they browse a magazine on their break,
The very article she's now doing the research for
And be gladdened to learn they needn't be rich
To afford a meal that will leave them feeling
They've received, for once, far more than they expected.
The rolls at Ernie's, they'll learn, whether white
Or whole grain, are fresh, and the mustard
Offers an artful blend of piquant spices.
Before she gathers her notes and goes,
She may copy Ernie's address from her place mat
So she can send her review when it's published.
His own conviction of being true to his standards,
She realizes, may be all that matters. Still,
It's also true that a stranger's endorsement
May prove of use when he asks himself
If he's doing the work he was meant to do,
Or some of the work, at least, if not all.
Bad Days, Good Days
On good days as well as bad the odds
Against my birth seem overwhelming.
But on my bad days they imply that my claim
To existence is tenuous, barely more real
Than the claim of the billions of others
Who missed the cut, while on my good days
My presence seems like a miracle.
It hurts my pride on my bad days to recall
The story my mother told about her parents:
How they wouldn't have met if the train
That carried her father to the ship waiting at Hamburg
Hadn't broken down in a field near Brest-Litovsk
So he had to leave for America seven days later
On the ship that carried my grandma-to-be.
It hurts my pride to feel my destiny
Bound up with a broken axle or gasket,
But on my good days the wonder I feel
Is a smaller version of the wonder
Felt by cosmologists when they consider
How close the cosmos itself came to missing
The boat into being, to losing its chance
For passengers, ports, and oceans,
For stars as plentiful as grains of beach sand.
The difference between my wonder and theirs
Is that mine is infused, on my good days,
With gratitude. Of course, they're pleased
That everything managed to clamber aboard
In the nick of time, but the alternative,
Nothing at all, is too wispy for them to grasp,
Whereas for me the story of Grandpa's train
Grinding to a halt on a snowy plateau
Is a gift I never grow tired of opening.
What a privilege it is for me to join him
While he paces beside the track as night comes on.
What a privilege to share his brooding
On the difference between his life
If he makes his ship and his life if he doesn't.
On my bad days choice seems denied him.
He's no more free than the train is free to stop
Or start when it pleases, or to leave the track.
On my good days he's free to interpret the accident
As one last chance to cancel his plan to emigrate
And return to his friends and family, who want him to stay.
And now I conceive him as free to set the question
Aside awhile to note that the scene before him
Would merit a painter's close attention.
There he is, letting the lantern light absorb him
As it falls on the workmen kneeling in the shadows
Beside the engine while the snowy fields
Stretch away behind them into the framing dark.
And now above them a display of stars
Appears to be just in time, after a journey
Of many eons, to complete a picture
He isn't likely to see again.
Know yourself, says the oracle at Delphi,
Confirming my doubts about oracles,
Their assumption the self is a book
Waiting for someone like me to read it,
Not a coat I stitch together each day
From dreams and wishes, habits and moods.
If you know, says the oracle, that the portion
Of courage you've been allotted is small,
Better avoid a career in fighting fires.
If you know that you're short on patience,
Think twice about a career in teaching.
But who's to say you couldn't acquire the courage
To enter a burning house if you served a long
Apprenticeship in dousing porch fires?
Who's to say you couldn't learn patience
By waiting a minute longer each day
For a student to follow the steps of your argument?
Not long ago I would fret when waiting in line
On the day of a concert to buy a ticket,
Thinking about the music I could be hearing
At home on the stereo, though I knew the concert
Might make me feel part of a ritual
That ushered beauty into the world.
But now I welcome the urge to join the audience.
Yesterday I would have felt extra lucky
To learn, when I reached the window,
That my ticket was the last one available.
But today I feel sorry that the woman behind me,
Who's been willing to chat with me
For close to an hour, will miss the music.
Am I really disturbed by the thought
She deserves to go far more than I do,
Having bought her ticket weeks back
Just to be sure she'd have one
Only to lose it yesterday evening
When she left her purse untended for just a moment?
Who will I be today, I wonder: a person willing
To right a wrong by offering her my ticket,
Or a person content with hoping she's found
Our talk so agreeable she's glad the last seat
Has gone to someone who seems a kindred spirit,
Not just to anyone?
He's done his work well for many decades,
Overseeing the produce at the market
His brothers own, where I've had a chance
To benefit from his careful diligence
In maintaining quality in the bins,
The same virtue displayed on a larger scale
By the Joseph his parents were thinking of
In naming him, the favorite son of Jacob,
Who ended up as the overseer
Of all the Egyptian granaries.
Like the brothers of Joseph in the Bible,
His brothers, he's implied in a few asides
Over the years, haven't behaved as brothers should,
Though they never threw him into a pit,
Angry their father loved him the most.
It was more a case of everyday bullying
That his father noticed but didn't stop.
As for forgiving them all as Jacob's son
Forgives his brothers-weeping with joy
When they come from Canaan in a time of famine
To buy grain-there the Joseph I know
Admits that he's fallen short,
Though he's tried to resist resentment
By avoiding their company evenings and weekends.
And now and then on Sunday, when the weather's good,
I've passed him as he's sat on a bench
In our local graveyard. Maybe it eases him
To wonder how many of the dead around him
Might have been happier if they'd managed
To put away thoughts of blame,
How many, if they couldn't manage to wish
Their brothers well, managed at least
Not to wish them ill.
And the next day he's back at work,
Making distinctions between plums
Fit to be served at a banquet and plums
Fit to be served at a potluck supper at home,
Marked by more than the usual lumps and bruises
But still to be savored, not too tart or sweet.
I want to believe in him, the blind man
Who makes the other guests at the dinner table
Forget his blindness as he launches himself
Into the talk around him. I want to believe
He's moved by the lively exchange of opinions,
Not by the fear he won't be asked to dinner
Again if he sits all evening in silence
And the silence is read as suggesting
That luck alone has spared the others his hardship,
That by rights his days should be sunny too.
If I can believe he isn't looking for sympathy,
That he doesn't expect me to share his burden,
I'll feel so grateful that I may be willing
To do what I can to share it. Though I can't
Loan him my eyes once a week
For an hour or two, I can try to dwell
On the good it might do him to escape
The pervading dark for even a moment,
To visit the world only light reveals.
And I can try to picture how reluctant he'd be
To return the loan when the hour was out,
How unfair it would seem to him that I
Would be the lender always and he the borrower.
In my other life the B-17 my father is piloting
Is shot down over Normandy
And my mother raises her sons alone
On her widow's pension and on what she earns
As a nurse at the local hospital, a sum
That pays for a third-floor walk-up
In a neighborhood that's seen better days.
I play stickball after school in the lot
Behind the laundry. I come home bruised
From fistfights and snowball fights
With boys who live in the tenement on the corner.
Not once do I play with the boy I am
In this life, whose father, too old for the draft,
Starts a paint company in a rented basement
That almost goes under after a year
And then is saved, as the war continues,
By a steady flow of government contracts
That allows my mother to retire from nursing
And devote herself to work with the poor.
I find our quiet neighborhood of handsome houses
And shady streets crushingly uneventful.
No surprise I spend hours each day turning the pages
Of stories about trolls, wizards, giants,
Wandering knights, and captive princesses.
In my other life, I have to leave high school
To bolster the family income as lab boy
In the building attached to the factory that in this life
My father owns. I clean test tubes and beakers,
With a break for stacking cans on the loading dock
Or driving the truck to make deliveries.
In this life it takes only one summer of work
At my father's office, addressing announcements
Of a coating tougher than any made by competitors,
To decide that the real world, so called,
Is overrated, compared to the world of novels,
Where every incident is freighted with implications
For distinguishing apparent success from actual.
No wonder I'm leaning toward a profession
Where people can earn a living by talking
In class about books they love. Meanwhile,
In my other life, after helping to bring the union
To a non-union shop, I rise in the ranks
To become shop steward, and then,
Helped by a union scholarship,
I earn a degree in labor law.
I bring home casebooks on weekends
To the very block where I happen to live
Ensconced in this life, here in a gray-green house
With dark-brown trim. If I don't answer the bell
On weekends in summer, I'm in the garden,
Strolling the shady path beneath the maples,
Musing on the difference between a life
Deficient in incident and a life uncluttered.
Seated at my patio table, I write a letter
Asking a friend what book has he read
In the last few months that has opened his eyes
On a subject that's likely to interest me.
Meanwhile, across the street, in the garden
Of my other life, I can often be found
Hoeing the rutabaga and beans and cabbage
I plan to share with neighbors in the hope they're moved
To consider planting a garden where many
Copyright © 2018 by Carl Dennis. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.