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Posts Tagged ‘Outer Banks’

I thought I saw a Merlin. Facing into the stiff onshore breeze, harrying above the dunes: fierce raptor profile, fleet spitfire, wings cocked at the wrist – falcon.

I wanted to think it was a Merlin I saw, last week at Bogue Banks for Thanksgiving, as it veered away from me, slipped sideways and rolled, master of current and draft. I still wanted it to be a Merlin when it arced back overhead, whirled into a perfect stall, snatched a perch at the tip of the spar where the surf warning flag flies.

It drank some water trapped in a crease of the wood. Tawny waistcoat, single-barred tail, face tattoos – this hunter was not a Merlin. Just its much more common little cousin.

Why did my heart skip when I first spotted it? Why did I want so much for it to be a Merlin? I haven’t seen one in years; I’ve only ever seen a very few. The last time I saw a Merlin, Linda and I were alone together on a rare vacation, January in Nags Head, doing what we love: hiking the dunes and maritime forest and half-freezing ourselves in the salt rime. Driving to Hatteras next day we spotted a Merlin perched above the salt marsh, watchful in regal disdain. Merlin – rare visitor from the mysterious north. Merlin, power and magic. Merlin mythic. Merlin romantic.

Is it just its name that makes it so? Falco columbarius per Linnaeus, Esmerejón in Spain and Mexico, Dværgfalk in Denmark and Norway, 55 names listed in Cornell Ornithology. Learning its name accompanies learning its field marks, habitat, range. But what do I really know about Merlin? How to read shifting wind while stalking the wood rat a hundred yards below? Folded wings, little rocket, full velocity strike , blood and hair? What name, Dream Hunter, do you give yourself?

We see the Merlin’s little cousins all the time here in the NC foothills, especially in winter perched on wires above the mouse-gleaned fields. I saw one driving home from the beach. Actually, four. And last week my brain knew what I was seeing above the strand even before my eye would admit it, even before it swooped in for me to take closer look . . .

. . . and turned upon the current of air. Watchful for movement in the sand, ultraviolet signature of mouse urine, it raised its wings, their sharp fast flutter, fixed, motionless on high. Only one little falcon can do that. And I know its name.

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The Windhover
Gerard Manley Hopkins – 1844-1889

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
++ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
++ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
++ As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
++ Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
++ Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

++ No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
++ Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

[This poem is in the public domain.]

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Windhover is a British name for the European Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, a dead ringer for its close relative the American Kestrel, Falco sparverius. They are the smallest of the falcons and one of the very few birds that can hover motionless in still air, in this case watching for its usual prey, the field mouse.

The Windhover has long been one of my favorite poems. Oh my, where does this magical and mysterious language come from?! What hidden realm is revealed in these lines? Read it aloud to hear Hopkins’s incantatory music. How does he do it?

One of my most striking memories is the Saturday morning Tony Abbott recited The Windhover at Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities to call to order a meeting of the North Carolina Poetry Society. As he approached its last line Tony slowed , each word deliberate, and upon gash gold-vermilion there was one unified sharp intake of breath among the entire congregation before we erupted in applause.

Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest; he dedicated The Windhover To Christ our Lord. The poem, like the fierce undaunted Kestrel, breaks open the blue-bleak embers of our dull, unreflective spirits to reveal the fire, the power, and the glorious mystery of creation which surrounds us.

[more Gerard Manley Hopkins at The Poetry Foundation]

 

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2019-02-09 Doughton Park Tree

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A ten minute walk from Buxton Woods there are a hundred people milling around at the base of the lighthouse waiting to climb or just spraining their necks. A ten minute walk into Buxton Woods it’s just the three of us. The trail rises, ancient dune now eternal with live oak and yaupon. Surf crash can’t reach us here but the hum is constant, cicadas, mosquitoes, something swift in peripheral vision. We descend to a slough, marsh slowly becoming meadow then woodland. Looks ancient. Smells ancient.

Even in deep shade the trail is not cool but our grandson thinks it’s cool to be here. We’ve never seen this many different colors of dragonflies. Along one stretch a platoon of thumb-sized toads is invisible until one hops across the trail. It’s not a dinosaur, this trail, not yet extinct but endangered. Not only because every other scrap of maritime forest along the outer banks is scrutinized greedily by developers with bulldozers, but because this is the Outer Banks. The dune ridges are a timeline of shoreline creeping ever west, the bank rolling over itself for millennia, now faster and faster. Thousand year old clam and oyster middens are still uncovered, evidence of the human beings that have visited and resided here. How much longer?

This little trail is an insect in amber. Engrave it in memory. From the gallery rail on Hatteras Lighthouse they can’t see us here.

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This poem is from Susan Meyer’s My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass. I return to this book when the world smells like asphalt and I need a whiff of spartina. I mean, when my own ideas are pedestrian and my inspiration is muckbound and I need something with clear veined wings to chase me back into sunlight. Or a chiseled head and slender neck. How can writing be at once so rooted and so lofty? Oh Susan, how few words we need.

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Two Friends Hiking at Old Santee Canal

Ahead of me, he balances his feet, left then right,
on the first of two planks – an unsteady bridge of sorts –
laid down for hikers to cross
what, on most days,
would be bog,
but on this one, after weeks of rain, is flooded.

We are learning the look and feel of swamp.

Waiting my turn, I can see his every step.
He pauses halfway across, standing sweaty
in the midst of the ordinary.
An inch or so beneath his heels,
under the seam of the two boards,
I see the loops and curves
of a thick brown snake.
The chiseled head, the slender neck. Above them,
his bare ankles.
How few, the words we need.
Snake, I say, unable to utter where
or put sense to it.
Which way should I go? He is a statue,
his arms frozen in air.
I tell him to come back, and he does.
We watch the snake uncurl
and disappear, but in the thrill of fear just past,
our bodies, all breath and jitters, now belong
to someone we don’t recognize.
Forward is the direction we want to choose
but neither of us can step onto the board.
We know what we must do:
stumble through ferns and mud,
clotted roots, the thick
of mosquitoes, a limestone bluff –
backtrack in the safety of a path already taken.

Susan Laughter Meyers
from My Dear, Dear Stagger Grass, Cider Press Review, 2013

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Waiting for you is full of everything except you.

It didn’t start out to be Valentine’s Day. You and I prefer Hatteras and Pea Island in the off season. I wanted to see the winter migrant visitors again and you don’t mind long walks in freezing spray. How amazing you are. You began telling our friends, “He wants to see the snow geese,” in a tone that sounded like you looked forward to them, too. Amazing.

When we pulled into the First Colony Inn there were big pink and red plywood hearts under the pine trees. Who knew! Godiva on the pillows and champagne in the mini-fridge. Each afternoon we explored another iced-over marsh, the entirely vacant Elizabethan Gardens, narrow lines of threatened dunes; each night we made a small supper in our room, wore caps & jackets while the wind discovered new cracks around the windows. Not really roughing it, not so self-sufficient – but sufficient as two selves. Us. Being each other’s present. Chocolate optional.

Snow Geese 2015-02_72

Chen caerulescens, Pea Island Wildlife Refuge

 

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I’ve read most of Mark Smith-Soto’s previous books and I always pause and savor when I discover him again in The Sun. I carefully packed his newest, Time Pieces, for the February trip to the Outer banks. Waited for the stillness of sunset across Roanoke Sound, drew another blanket around my shoulders. How does he do it? How capture the small moment that stretches wide the reader’s heart? Not because the poem has cast searchlights into the grand gnostic meaningfulness of the universe, but because the poem is just itself, the poet is himself, the moment is this moment. And we always have been and are still becoming ourselves.

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Present

Waiting for you at our favorite table by
the window decorated with a rough decal
of a giant coffee cup, I stare at the long,
gray, rain-washed, car-clotted street, the tip

of my tongue fretting against a cracked
tooth. You’re half an your late. You wouldn’t wait.
The coffee is so dark and smooth it lingers like
a song. There are clouds and telephone poles

and two tattooed youngsters smoking outside
the window; inside, all is chatter and clatter,
French pastries in the toaster oven, giggly laughter.
Waiting for you is full of everything except you.

And for this gift, at least, I must thank you:
this moment so completely mine.

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Linda_2015-02_Pea Island_resize-1

Present first appeared in Sounds of Poets Cooking, Jacar Press

Time Pieces is available from Main Street Rag Publishing

Read more selections of Mark’s poetry from The Sun.  In fact, subscribe.  Now!

Mark Smith-Soto’s bio is available at the Poetry Foundation.

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