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[New Year’s Eve, poems by Mary Oliver and Jane Mead]

“Are spirits’ lives so short?” asked Scrooge.
“My life upon this globe is very brief,” replied the Ghost. “It ends to-night.”

The worm Ouroboros eats its tail, every day renewed, ever renewing. Cycles unending. The Neuse River snakes to New Bern, clouds lift inland, each little feeder stream is filled. Rain, ice, lichen eat the stone, phosphate creeps its migration through generations: rock to soil, leaf to masticator, herbivore to predator and all decomposing back to soil. I breathe out what the tree breathes in and breathes out for me to breathe. And the cycle we mark today: the dying Year gives birth to the New.

So many cycles. One enormous round. Every thing connected, interconnected, and we sense ourselves as spokes of the wheel or sometimes the never-ceasing motion of its rim that grinds along the path that is our life. As daylight diminishes it grows harder to hold onto our imagining of that wheel, its endless turning, that path it pursues still stretching on beyond the horizon. Harder to hold onto hope that the path’s end is indeterminate and out of sight.

Yes, it grows harder in these years of death’s overwhelming harvest to push aside imagining our own death. Too many deaths, COVID and otherwise, to pay attention; too many deaths to ignore a single one. In a few minutes I’ll set this page aside when my son arrives. He’ll leave Amelia here while the rest of the family attends their next-door neighbor’s funeral. A sudden death – our friend M was not old or ill. A shock to the fragile wall we build around our own mortality. Linda and I find ourselves tallying all the deaths that have touched us this month. The man who fixes our cars. A friend’s best friend. Names and faces more than we ever expect, doesn’t it seem? Death hunches at our shoulder, sometimes intrusive, sometimes silently lingering, sometimes perched like a moth that’s invisible until it flies into our face.

Tonight at midnight we will celebrate the Newborn Year but perhaps with even more enthusiasm we’ll celebrate a moment’s permission to ignore its haggard, dissipated forebear. The Old Year dies in winter darkness; death, the ultimate consuming dark. But notice – twelve days enfold the span of solstice to new year’s morning. The Ghost of Christmas Present senescent and dying yet retains some presence within us. Twelve days already lengthening, light seeping in even before the old year succumbs. Perhaps endings and beginnings are false markings along the ever-flowing course. Perhaps encircled by death it is possible, vital even, to engage with life. Perhaps death itself is not darkness but enfolding light.

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White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field

Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —

as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.

Mary Oliver  — 1935-2019
this poem first appeared in The New Yorker, January 2, 1989

 


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I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss

I wonder if I will miss the moss
after I fly off as much as I miss it now
just thinking about leaving.

There were stones of many colors.
There were sticks holding both
lichen and moss.
There were red gates with old
hand-forged hardware.
There were fields of dry grass
smelling of first rain
then of new mud. There was mud,
and there was the walking,
all the beautiful walking,
and it alone filled me –
the smells, the scratchy grass heads.
All the sleeping under bushes,
once waking to vultures above, peering down
with their bent heads they way they do,
caricatures of interest and curiosity.
Once too a lizard.
Once too a kangaroo rat.
Once too a rat.
They did not say I belonged to them,
but I did.

Whenever the experiment on and of
my life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
and be held. It’s O.K. I think
I did what I could. I think
I sang some, I think I held my hand out.

Jane Mead — 1958-2019
this poem first appeared in The New Yorker, September 20, 2021

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Mary Oliver was a guide to the intersection between human life and the natural world; her voice affirms the expression of person in nature in person and affirms that no voice can fully express that oneness. Jane Mead, who for years was Poet-in-Residence at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, expected poetry to move people to preserve the earth; at the end of her life she was a guide to the landscape and ecology of dying.

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Doughton Park Tree 2021-10-23

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[with poems by Dannye Romine Powell]

When we lower her pack from the tree where it has swung all night like a bell mocking the bear, the skunk, she opens it and screams: a fairy crown atop her sweatshirt and socks, a perfect round nest and four perfect hairless mouse pups like squirming blind grubs. We peer in awe, shepherds at the manger.

Mother mouse has hidden herself, not in the pack with her babies. We lift the nest intact, hide it in a bush beside the tree, nestle leaves around. Mother will sniff out her precious ones, reclaim her treasure. But we have other lambs to tend.

We eat, stow gear, shoulder our packs, face the trail, and consider: the pack was in the tree just one night; the nest is woven from meadow grass where we slept; the mother who climbed – how many trips up and back? – was heavy with her brood.

Miles before us, a new year before us – how heavy will each day’s burdens become before night brings rest?

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A new book by Dannye Romine Powell arrived in the mail this week: In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver from Press 53 in Winston-Salem. I meant to read one or two poems this morning but I have read them all. A central persona that weaves through the collection is Longing: she visits rooms in old houses, unfolds memories into the light, shares the pain that others might lock in closets. Grief shared conceives within us hope to rekindle joy. Sharing grief, sharing joy, we become more human.

 

 

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The Secret

Light glazes the near-empty streets
as I drive. Beside me, my grown son asks
if a secret I thought I’d kept buried
is true. A secret
that can still catch fire.
We stop on red. A bird flies
by the windshield. My father’s words:
Easier to stand on the ground
and tell the truth than climb a tree
and tell a lie. Now, I think. Tell him.
I stare at my son’s profile,
straight nose, thick lashes.
I remember, at about his age,
how a family secret fell
into my lap, unbidden.
That secret still ransacks a past
I thought I knew, rearranging its bricks,
exposing rot and cracks,
changing the locks on trust.

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In the Night, the Wind in the Leaves

swirled and rustled
out our open window as if
for the first time,
as if we never were,
the earth newborn, sweet.

And what of us – asleep
on the too-soft bed
in the old mountain house?

Gone.

Also our children.
the ones who lived, the ones who died
before they grew whole. All night

the breeze swirled and rustled
through the leaves as if it played
a secret game, swirling
and rustling all night

as if we never were.

from In the Sunroom with Raymond Carver, Dannye Romine Powell, © 2020 Press 53

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Dannye Romine Powell has won fellowships in poetry from the NEA, the North Carolina Arts Council, and Yaddo. Her poems have appeared over the years in The Paris Review, Poetry, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, Harvard Review Online, Beloit, 32 Poems, and many others. She is also the author of Parting the Curtains: Interviews with Southern Writers. For many years, she was the book editor of the Charlotte Observer. In 2020 she won the Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition for her poem “Argument.”

 

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