The Wrong Season
Winter enshrines the absence
of negotiable color. Trekking
over the Peterborough Hills
of Thoreau's far-off gaze,
I count my steps to a thousand
and then another thousand.
I picture my abandoned carcass
discovered by hikers next summer,
a tatter of wool and bone.
At home in your homogony
of wood heat and dozing cats
and books you can read in sleep,
you count your steps to ten
and then another ten. Distance
doesn't embrace and cuddle you
the way it does me when thinking
of Li Bai wandering China's
dusty roads and serious rivers.
He never earned a living
despite some favor at court
because he never held his tongue,
even with his life at stake.
I could have been as reckless
if I'd had the steady hand
of the expert calligrapher.
Then even you would admire me
for a moment or two of bliss.
Instead, my clumsy holograph
scrawls behind me in the snow.
Some people might confuse it
with boot-prints. But seeing it
raw on paper they'd realize
that I've tracked myself all over
landscapes and pages equally
illegible, leaving only one
useless but indelible clue.
From Whitman's Notebooks
Whitman noted that "strong coarse talk
of men" fosters the "great grammar"
that empowers America.
In the diner I listen to men
talk over greasy food and deploy
the smallest words with vigor
but mostly in the service of lies.
A Kenyan won the Peace Prize today,
his vision simple as a handshake,
his name unknown here, his face,
if it should appear on TV,
an object of racist derision.
The grill hisses, splotches of egg
and leathery strops of bacon
smoking in a puddle of fat.
Coffee fumes in stainless urns
big enough to drown in. Primal
notions of digestion dominate.
Despite Whitman's "great engrafting"
the talk gets so rough the waitress
reddens like heated metal
and one hulking fellow orders the rest
to keep it clean. I stir my coffee
and read the menu again and
again, finding at least a few words
of which no one has to be ashamed,
the kind of words we all deserve,
the grill cook wiping both hands
on his apron, absolving himself
of the unhealthy food he serves.
Bulbous bug-eyed sneers and scowls
of totem poles frighten toddlers
but get older children giggling.
Adults dangling cameras congeal
in laughing couples lined up
at a visitor's center adorned
with a slightly cubist thunderbird
and paintings of animals adrift
in two-dimensional spirit worlds.
We've arrived by ferry, leaving
a wake that persists almost halfway
across Puget Sound. Windless,
the water's too placid to quickly
forget our slow-forged passage.
Looking back, we locate the city
by the thrust of the Space Needle,
the other skyscrapers appearing
waist-deep in West Seattle's hills.
I'd like to walk along the beach
all the way around Blake Island
so I can gasp its entirety
in both hands and give it a squeeze.
But you fear we'll miss the ferry,
miss concluding the afternoon
at the hotel bar where fellow
academics perch like swallows
on a wire. Let's walk far enough
to shed the crowd. All those cameras:
I don't want to lose my soul
to perspective gone askew—
caught as collateral damage
in a bad photo. What does the tide
have to say to this island?
Let's walk far enough to taste
the rotting seaweed, broken shells
clattering under our city shoes.
The Sound's too blue to earn our trust,
so we have to explore its hemline,
a slurry of sand and foliage.
Driftwood lounges in massive chunks.
A few pieces look big enough
to carve into totem poles.
They tempt me to express myself
in grimaces blue as the water,
arbitrary as the island itself.
William Doreski has published three critical studies and several collections of poetry. His poetry, essays, reviews, and fiction have appeared in many print and online journals. He has taught writing and literature at Emerson, Goddard, Boston University, and Keene State College. His most recent books are A Black River, A Dark Fall, a poetry collection, and Train to Providence, a collaboration with photographer Rodger Kingston.