Note to My Readers
Maybe you don't read poetry.
Maybe this clear singing on paper
is a sound you have heard
only dimly, if ever,
muffled in the dull thuds of rhythm,
singsonged into a rhyming trance.
But my songs are more pennywhistle than opera,
more slow drum than symphony.
And if you've ever breathed in
the gray mist of a wet November
and thought it a fine day,
if you've ever wondered
what the mice must think,
or dreamt of speeches from the dead,
if you would swear
by all things holy
that stones hum to themselves
on hot, still days,
if beauty to you is
the cracked calluses of gnarled hands
and love, the sweetness of silence,
then you already know
what I do.
At the Aquarium
The otters, all brothers,
curve and glide through the pool,
pushing off against the thick glass
and diving long and deep.
One plays a game with a sinking stone,
nosing it, batting it to keep it off the bottom,
as one might blow on a falling leaf.
The trainer finishes her talk and
calls for questions.
Little girl in the audience:
Why do they play with rocks?
Two answers come to mind--the scientific first,
describing how such a game would keep their skills honed,
thus helping them catch more fish, live longer, reproduce,
pass on their genes, ensure the species' survival.
But the second answer feels more like truth:
that there is joy, however simple, in the feeling
of every muscle working in turn, rudder of tail,
dexterous webbed paws, all responding perfectly
in the sweet resistance of water.
No purpose served but in the act itself--
the satisfaction of the well-played game,
the image in sand, the completed poem.
Why do they play with rocks?
The trainer fumbles for an answer,
then admits she doesn't know.
It is said that Emily Dickinson once pressed
a white lily into a stranger's hands
by way of an introduction.
How wonderful if we should
give flowers instead of names
and titles and occupations--instead,
a tiger lily, a crimson rosebud,
a daisy, a lotus, or sprigs
of rosemary, sprays
of apple blossoms. I think
I would be one of the little
wildflowers that grows unnoticed
by the roadside, a tiny bloom
of purple, perhaps, in a tangle
of weeds and discarded cans,
the kind that simply shows up
on the edges of lawns and corners
of fields, the kind children pluck
by handfuls at recess to give
to their teachers, the kind
that has no societies or greenhouses
or famous paintings--only those who stop
on an otherwise ordinary day
and notice, and look a moment,
and walk on feeling that one square inch,
at least, of the world
is new and bright,
at least today.
Here by the pool, the women
untie their neon string bikini tops
so they won't get tan lines on their backs.
Every so often, at some appointed time,
they step into the pool and walk a bit,
gliding their fingertips across the water's surface,
cooling skin heated by sun and lustful glances.
The water never splashes,
barely ripples around them.
Everything poses for the camera of the eye.
I can't swim here. My body won't fit
into such artificial surroundings. I need
a lagoon warm and dim as a womb,
a place to duck under, splash and stroke
and lie on my back like an otter.
There I would bare myself
not to darken my skin but to rejoice in my body,
how it exists in spite of so many ideals,
as gently full as the moon that rises,
heavy and perfect with light, over the sea.
Why I Am Sometimes Jealous of the Cat
She is so
without even trying--
she can nap
three-quarters of the day
no one asks her
what she does,
she has no career,
no enforced purpose
other than being
she needs so little,
wants so little,
a toy of crumpled paper,
a piece of ice to bat across the kitchen floor--
and she can purr.
I had thought it dead,
curled dry in the cage,
naked beside its shell,
crisp bundle of claws and segmented legs.
But when I turned the shell over,
movement startled me--
the red claw, the wavering antennae,
and the eyes looking back, innocently,
at my foolish surprise.
It hadn't died, but molted:
gone back, new and soft, into its shell,
leaving the perfect husk behind,
and all I could think
was how easy, how wonderful
to shed and become something
both grown and unchanged.
If only I could slough off
how things used to be,
and walk away,
and still be myself.
The caller asks if we have
any guinea pigs
that are brown and black
with a white stripe,
because his daughter is six,
and hers just died,
and she's still at school,
and he was hoping...
All of our guinea pigs
are mostly white.
As I apologize and hang up,
if her grandfather dies
will this man be wandering
the streets with a recent photograph,
searching for someone
with his face, his voice,
before she comes home
in the afternoon?
Why I Had to Have the Grill
Because all it takes is the scent of charcoal
smoky and stinging in humid air,
and I'm ten again, Saturday night, Hee Haw
on TV, and Mom's got potatoes baking
in the oven, each one wrapped in foil like a present,
waiting for butter or Cheez Whiz and bacon bits,
and she's slicing cucumber into little pieces
for my salad, no tomatoes, and Dad's
at the grill, tending the fire like ancient people must have
when fire was something to be guarded, even worshipped,
and I'm waiting, hungry, thinking how good it feels
to be hungry when a steak is almost ready
and will soon be medium, still pink inside,
on your plate, just the way you like it,
and nearly fifteen years later, I am keeping an eye
on the hot dogs that are plumping and blackening in the heat,
gaining confidence to move soon to hamburger, chicken, steak--
and I know the charcoal scent will linger
in my hair, in the house, and I close
my eyes against the stinging smoke,
and it is summer, and there is no year in the date.
Characters in Unfinished Stories
The room they wait in is as white as the blank page.
Their futures, their faces, their very lives are vague.
Many have no names, only a line, an empty space.
They leaf through magazines so old
the words have faded.
Lovers sit half-undressed, desire waning.
Fantasy heroines finger ancient amulets,
their noble steeds standing, patient, nearby.
In one corner, three dragons sleep
in a tumbled rainbow of scales.
They dream in glimpses of landscapes,
sketches blurred at the edges:
a tavern, a meadow, a cave, a village.
Some try to talk to each other, but most
have only been given a few lines of dialogue,
and when their voices give out they sit
and try to comfort each other with their eyes.
They have heard stories about characters disappearing,
finally used, finally complete.
Each of them knows someone
who knows someone
who saw it happen, once--
so they hope;
I flip through old notebooks.
I promise them.
Losing the Moon
The moon is moving away from us, they say--
an inch and a half every year,
receding into the cold infinity of space.
I think of the rose-silver moonlight
we have loved under:
catching perfect fireflies,
kissing barefoot in grass embroidered with dew,
admiring winter stars.
All those days, it was moving,
farther each year we'll spend together.
Love, a daily assumption now,
moonlight giving way
to the everyday patterns of sun:
morning breakfasts, evening television.
It's true, no one stays in love forever--
rather, it's a falling in and out, like the tides
or the slow ellipse of orbit. In this way, we will
discover each other again, our shared footsteps
imprinted in memory. In time,
we will pull each other in once more,
and so begin anew.
There is rice in my pantry: two boxes of it,
the uncooked kind to bake with chicken
and instant to steam full and tender in minutes,
a white bed for vegetables, pork and shrimp.
The boxes sit next to the pancake mix, four types
of pasta, condensed soups, chocolate snack cakes,
barbecue potato chips. Nothing here I feel like eating for lunch.
Maybe a frozen dinner... I turn on the news.
In the devastated capital
men fight each other for sacks of rice,
the only aid that has reached them so far.
A man bends to pick one up--
another sets his foot upon it;
a little curly-haired boy crouches on it,
shouting something--one man shoulders a sack
and strides out of the frame. I wonder
how long he'll keep it.
I turn the TV off;
going back to the pantry,
I open a box and pour some
into my palm.
White grains slip through my fingers
and scatter onto the floor.
I sweep them up;
I throw them away.
Prayer to the Mysterious
you of the wolf's shape
and tiger's stripes,
you appear to us
in flashes of roadside headlights,
creature of the unconfirmed moment
like the rising head, the rippled wake
of the loch, reminding us
that extinction may neither be permanent
You call to us
from the edges of possibility,
urging us to seek, to question, to find
a way to live in a teasing world.
You reassure us
that no matter how much we build,
how many primeval forests we cut,
we cannot clear every inch,
cannot rid the world
of all the unknown.
Help us understand, O Sasquatch,
that not all theories exist to be proven.
Let every close encounter, every blurry half-glimpsed disk
bring us closer to accepting that worlds
may shimmer beyond our own,
and that they may forever stay unseen.
Help us see, all you unexplained,
that in every question, every uncertainty,
there is something of the sacred.
In the Beginning
Even as a child,
Eve had a fondness for reptiles--
running races through primeval forests,
child's body bare in laughing dappled sun,
her footprints mingled in swampy mud
with the gallimimus' three-toed stride.
Yahweh saw, and smiled.
So many friends in those earliest days:
the maiasaur trusted her at the nest,
allowed her to hold an egg to her cheek,
to feel the life that stirred and waited.
Yahweh saw all with quiet pride,
and his gifts grew more extravagant:
the brachiosaur's long neck to lift her
into the canopy, the pterosaur's leathery wings to send
her young heart racing in flight.
Long days and nights he spent to craft
the patient triceratops who bore her
seated behind his bony frill,
who guarded her as she slept
under the shelter of giant ferns.
But climates cooled;
Eternity fades into
the sad wisdom of time--
and Eve pulls graying hair back
from her weathered face,
then kneels at the dry riverbed
to chip rock from fossilized bone,
with callused fingertips
under a silent blue sky.
All of the horses are gone.
They are in the lush meadows
reserved for them,
rewarded for dutiful lives.
They move again, their wooden joints
flowing one step into another.
They buck and leap, snorting,
tossing their heads until
the cracked saddles splinter,
until the bridles break off and fall
to the ground. Peeled paint
gives way to glossy flanks.
Those who have stood for endless summer days,
forelegs raised in a posing prance,
now jump joyfully over anything, over nothing.
Old jumpers, their haunches forever tensed,
stand with hooves planted squarely,
savoring the feel and firmness of earth.
All of them roll in dust and mud,
chasing each other like colts,
sparring like eager yearlings,
each breath hot with freedom.
And yet sometimes,
as they graze in midsummer twilight,
a calliope, as if from some other world.
They cannot help themselves; they walk
in a slow, steady circle, hooves rising,
hooves falling, until the sound fades,
and they stand in the sudden moonlight
and try to remember what they are.
All poems above are © Renee Carter Hall and may not be reprinted,
reposted, or otherwise redistributed without written permission.