Assessing the Situation: Breath, Spirit, and Chickadees
Breath, blown into the mouth
and nostrils of a swimmer carried limp
from the sea nearly lost, can find,
touch, and waken his heart to life.
Some believe god blew into the nostrils
of the first man created, and he then became
a living soul. (This was once known
as the first resurrection.)
Blown through the lips, blown
through a wooden pipe, a reed,
or the horn of a conch shell… breath
can make music just like god
makes a living soul.
Living breath can flutter the down
of a chickadee feather held close
to the face of a sick child sleeping.
But those who sleep in death have
no breath to stir a reed to song
or a heart to life, no breath to raise
a soul, to lift a feather like a poor
birdless wing to flight, to make
music, to sing like god.
If living breath is the holy spirit
of the spoken word (some say twice holy
in prayer), then this invisible spirit
is made visible tonight, an icy wraith,
by the breath of carolers singing
of the Christ in a freezing snow.
Whatever draws breath in a flowering
garden must immediately become one
with the invisible spirit of the fragrant
lily, become one with the fragrant
living soul of the sweet briar rose.
Some believe the breath from a flock
of chickadees settled in a locust tree
can cause the languid leaves to flicker
microscopically. This spirit is visible
to anyone watching closely enough,
standing still enough, barely breathing.
Do We Love Trees or Rivers More?
Some might think rivers (constantly washing
as they do all day and night) are cleaner than trees,
the way trees are always dropping their seeds and shells,
the dead parts of themselves to the ground, creating
a roughage all around in plain sight.
But rivers are somewhat bland, rarely possessing
a distinct color of their own, primarily reflecting
the tints and shades of others. In summer they look
like the summer skies at noon above them, later
assuming the fiery, scarlet-russets of evening
as if believing all along they were the times
and skies themselves. Yet rivers, unlike trees,
multiply the beauties around them, reflecting
and doubling the blossoms of sweet flag, hempweed,
indigobush, mimosa blooming along their shores
and borders, at night transforming the one full moon
into thousands of itself riding on wavering ripples.
One doesn’t often hear a tree calling in the distance.
Although once, in a windy hardwood forest, I thought
I heard “oak” slowly being sung in the deepest, fullest,
bass voices rising up from the earth to surround me,
and a whistling soprano “suuuumac” coming
from the open foothills, accompanied by a whispering
“ceeceecedar” in the background for rhythm. (My blind
friend told me that he’d heard these trees long before
I heard them. I do trust my blind friend.)
In contrast, rivers are nearly always easy to hear,
rowdy, roaring and racing without pause, rising up,
crashing over boulders, slamming down the other side,
slapping and slopping the shore. Rivers can rage
against their banks, shaking trembling tents
beneath trembling trees during midnight lightning,
thunder and relentless rain.
Yet these same rivers flowing slowly, repeat over
and over the same comforting phrases of the ancient
lullabies everyone knows. Rivers are often saviors
declaring clearly and definitively to anyone wandering
lost in the forest, “follow me, follow.”
During sub-zero winters, however, rivers and trees both
are almost totally silent, except for sounding an explosive
crack, a sudden and painful breaking of ice or branch,
echoing through the frigid forest, near and far away.
Because they swim and feed in rivers, most water
turtles, cooters, musks, don’t like trees so much, unless
a large poplar has fallen into the river and become
a perfect sunning bed. But birds, nearly all of them,
love trees, even tom turkeys. I wonder whether geese,
swans, and ducks might love rivers and the lakes
they create better than trees. Maybe most birds,
overall, love the sky even more than they love
either rivers or trees.
Rivers and trees seem equally self-confident,
forging their own paths through life, establishing trails
over the earth or spreading in patterns across the sky.
A kind of predestination…they both seem to know
from the beginning where it is they must go.
And lo, they go that way until the end.
The Best of Bones
They have always taught us about scaffolds,
the importance of inner framework, balance
and movable levers, by demonstration have borne
testimony to knobs, joints, sockets, and junctions.
Dauntingly beautiful in their functions, bones
are massive in the shield-like breastbones
and branching ribs of grizzly bears, blue whales,
bowhead whales, in the reassembled bones
of woolly mammoths and the bony frills
of three-horned dinosaurs; crucially steadfast,
the backbone, the braincase, human shoulders
shouldering a sack of grain or a child’s sleeping body.
Bones are legion, scattered everywhere earth-wide—
whether the scorched, dried, burnt bones of rat snakes
or rosy boas lying on desert sands, their rib bones
arranged in order like ripples on the dunes; whether
bison bones or coyote bones half-hidden on high,
grassy plains; or in gardens and fields, the thumb-sized
skulls of voles and anoles rattled by the slightest
breeze, their minutely hinged jaws hanging open,
each spine a string of ribs thin as pine-needles;
or a gray fluff of feathers near the splintered bones
of a bird’s wing cast aside on a forest floor.
Remember the stories skeletons carry—bones
of pre-human ancestors turned to rock; a migrant
lost and murdered millennia ago on a mountain top,
frozen and mummified by icy winds; countless
bones of condemned criminals thrown into the solid
darkness of peat bogs; kings and chiefs placed carefully
in narrow caverns and graveyard caves; the battered
remains of warriors abandoned with their useless
weapons in the overgrown meadows of deserted
battlefields; skeletons alone in the starless night
of a sea bottom, hulls themselves among the board-
broken hulls and crumbled eaves of sunken ships,
covered with silt and uprooted seaweed, torn kelp
swaying slowly in a careless current; a mother’s
skeleton lying in the open soil, an infant’s skeleton
at her side, both unearthed by flooding weather
from their shallow grave along the trail.
The bones endure, fossilized stone, neither body
nor soul, though once, in life, they were the keepers
of both. Why a pity? Why a promise?
Pattiann Rogers has published 14 books of poetry, most recentlyHoly Heathen Rhapsody(Penguin, 2013) and Quickening Fields (Penguin, 2017). In 2018 she received a special John Burroughs Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Nature Poetry.