Would it head for contrail height
or hump and close and streak
crosswise down the atmosphere?
This morning you thought for a moment
you were seeing a swallow
hanging out on the edges of serious
sun-closing autumn clouds, but
that’s a Northern harrier,
a marsh hawk, you said with
pride of certainty, since for years
you’ve recognized them
by the white band at the tail base
as they skim summer dunes.
Another year on an April afternoon
you thought, That has to be
a courtship flight, the male rising
and falling in deep sine waves
along the hillsides, not as zany as
the woodcock’s overture to love,
but bizarre enough.
All you know about the marsh hawk
you might have learned in a book
instead of over years on the hoof,
going shank’s mare, stacking the miles.
Good man yourself. Take that first time
on Corn Hill Road one May
when that male over the marsh
let go of a furry ball you thought
at first he fumbled, until
his partner flying thirty feet
below fielded it—how many
have seen that?—and bore
it off to something she could hear
crying me me in the tall grass.
An Arable Bog
My grandfather knew one
when he saw one, and ditched this plot
so the vernal pools ran to his
tended beds. Fallow now and grown
complex with its two-year
reprieve from my tiller, I study
its weeds. A breeze with
a northern edge to it is lifting
and dropping them into a green chop.
Even their names can contain
barbs, spurs, hooks,
stubborn glues and beaks.
Sticktight and spotted henbit,
for instance, burdock, sandspur,
bristlegrass. There’s catbriar,
veteran of battles, a coil of claws,
and putting out flowers among
this tangle as though they were
slumming, several foxgloves.
Folks’ gloves in my grandmother’s
lexicon, for the hands of the wee folk.
Once in Ballyloskey a parched little man
begged cottage-to-cottage for a ladle
of water, as she told it, and the woman
who wet his thirst became rich thereafter,
as the nay-sayers withered away.
The wise farmer in Ireland still won’t
plow a faery rath under, nor I these
belled foxgloves for similar reasons.
Praise to the story-teller, and to
my grandfather whose strawberries
hung on for years after he’d gone,
and to the resilience of scrappy weeds
that arrived here in ships’ ballast
and wool bales and a breeze like today’s,
and the flops of Bill Hollis’s cows.
Paired in Time
Let’s take to our deck chairs
while we can, and watch
the year come apart as all
years have and will:
the marsh releasing seeds
in floaters and silky stars
rising and falling through the air
lighter than mosquitoes and
uncatchable in our palms,
as if we could impede
their progress anyway. Above,
on the edge of that
autumnal cloud, a single mote,
a raptor hanging like
a hauled anchor, one more
emblem of departure, though
at that height who could say
which kind of hawk? And still
farther above it all,
the occasional silver jet streak.
Whoever can say how deep
that blue is above everything
can also count the number
of Saturday lovers flying into
Logan today, and all
who have met the way we have,
by grace or luck paired in time.
Consider the three-hundred million things
against our ever happening into the Thing
we are, like how far Centerville, Iowa
is from here, and what an elegant
high school majorette you must have been
in your white boots, Muse, while I was
spraying liquid asphalt on the back roads
of New England. Poetry makes nothing
happen? Your poems and mine
made us happen, after you found me
and phoned to say of a garden
I planted in a quarterly
that you’d never look at a toad
in the same way again. Was it chance
on a fall evening coming home from Ciro’s
that you would sing me Edith Piaf
in your perfect French? Are our common
Donegal origins chance? Because
I would appear at age 77 in your mailbox,
on the cover of your daughter’s
alumni magazine, I no longer believe in chance.
When will I be like the swallow?
— Pervergilium Veneris
You will be like the swallow when
you stop noticing the pine warbler’s
lunula, and the fiddleheads
risen and gossiping together
like a tribe of African meerkats.
It could mean turning a deaf ear
to imperfection, to that robin singing
like a rusty whip-poor-will
from a promontory branch,
its livery wasted on these dusks,
its broken thrush music seeming to draw
starbursts out of the sleeping trees,
red dwarfs in the maples,
the constellated petals of wild apple.
It could signal an end to nights of rain
when the earth softens and swells so
you feel it and wonder how anyone
anywhere ever thought it was flat.
You remember eyes that glittered
like ice flowers on a lapel
when you were seven or eight,
the way her perfume began to overrule
the cold and blend with the heater’s
purr, though not her name.
O swallow, is it worth the loss of
such fragments to be unbroken,
to be unaware of the sibilant lettuce
issuing invitations under its own steam
in the cold frame,
and the way asparagus
gasps and aspires in its trenches, its purple
helmets rising again as the forays begin,
the fighting back over lost ground?
Header photo by Montipaiton, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Brendan Galvin by Ellen Galvin.