I dreamed of mudslides shrinking Lincoln Park. A crumbled cottage made of stones. Two eagles — too proud to scavenge spawned-out salmon choking in the foam. Dogs tore meat from a beachbound seal. A Jamestown Chief spit on a car – The next best thing he squeezed through sour teeth to wishing on a star. What’s history to the mud, anyway? What’s tradition to the sea? An upturned trash can on the beach – another homeless camp along the street. The Cascades turned their back on me and hid thunder from the skies. Olympic floods just like that choked to runnels. Tribal rage gone saturnine.
Who out there might I have saved and who am I to say that if I had gone and fought along they'd be happier today? Which among them would have marched before adoring mortars and towards their final chance to Meddle with the Honor of their chore? Who out there might I have saved and what would that have done but reinforce the enemy on the ever-growing front? Which among them would have marched until their soles knew every grain of every dune and cratered ruin that compelled the inward aim? Who out there might I have saved and who am I to say that the lives I would have handed out were better than the graves?
Captain, do not curse the fog. It is the lullaby of the Blackfish. It is the glint eddy at the wing of the Sbaqwah. God-blue, long as a Black River canoe. Captain, your horn is heavy like blood in a ghost. What can it do? The fog is a child squat over a snake in the longhouse. It never knew you. It does not hear you. The osprey tear herring over a broken cedar. The salmon scowl at the ladder and die. Your boats are wrapped in ancient names. Kittitas and Chimacum. Issaquah and Wenatchee. Only the words are quiet on the water. The engines scare an owl from the head of a bear. The bear scares crows from a picnic table. It watches you bleed cars into the hills. All head and no flukes, you pilot the ghost without much rudder. You think you pilot the ghost. Captain, do not curse the fog. It is the white noise of the Salish Sea. You are the brother of the Chinook. You are the white throat of the Blue Heron. Trade pilothouse for smokehouse. Dance the deck from wheel to wheel. The lullaby of the Blackfish will be your song.
The easy part is the digging – snowsilver spade slicing steamsoil. Dirt hardly parts – but sighs! Eucharine breath, epicene oil. The lissome lisp of shovel slipped into winesoftened silt. The easy part is the digging – straight-grained shaft stung by stone, bonequiver knock on bone and out the crown emptied unto Heaven with every chuck and throw. The easy part is the digging – brute-sunk shovel in soil. Psalm-sung singing of sinew. Instrument to sentiment. Lie-less rhythm without end. Monument to sediment. Lie-less rhythm without end
The flame in our gas fireplace doesn’t get very high. For a couple of years it also took a long time to light. We’d flip the switch and wait, and step back a little bit, and watch with that jack-in-the-box tension building until it suddenly blasted on with a force that rattled the glass. It was a situation that hinted not very subtly at eventual disaster, and I did the usual thing: Searched the internet for quick fixes to my problem, and found none. Then I searched around for local gas fireplace services, found a few but balked at the probable price tag, combined with the (at the time) possibility that they wouldn’t even come into our house anyway. I eventually figured out what the problem was and what needed to be fixed (that internet again. If you don’t have one yet…), ordered a couple of parts that arrived in 2 days, installed them and got our fire turning on in a way that can probably be best described with a clever British turn of phrase that begins with “right as” and invokes biscuits, the Queen’s ankles, or something seaworthy. Or a combination of the three. “Right as eating biscuits off the Queen’s ankles in a cuddy boat.” Something. Like. That.
So now we don’t have to run out of the house when we turn the fire on and wait for it to ignite, but the flame isn’t any bigger. I assume that with more flame there would be more heat, but it rarely gets anything like cold here in Seattle, so It isn’t a real concern. As it is, the low flame makes for a really nice morning mood. Any hotter and I wouldn’t want the blanket. Any brighter and I wouldn’t be quite so relaxed. As much as I would love a real fire, part of what I love about the dark winter mornings is the quiet and solitude. If I had to rattle irons and logs, and wrestle with a flue catch, and kick up a burning wood smell in the house, it would probably just wake everyone up.
Robert Hayden knew about waking up with fire:
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
I wrote a paper about that poem a few years ago. Organized it into three sections, each one focused on one word in the title. It was one of those papers that was more fun than work.
I love forgetting about something until it shows up in the mail. You don’t really get to do that much in this blissful epoch of two-day and even sometimes same-day deliveries. But a while back I was offered a thing and I – wisely – accepted. I chided the sender once, then left off, and yesterday it arrived. “That’s odd handwriting.” I knew it wasn’t my mom’s, thought it could have been my dad’s, if he was in a hurry, then I looked at the return address and remembered that Miss Dickinson had been on her way, as she says in #324, Some Keep the Sabbath, “all along.” Thanks go out to Gerard for the best of gifts: a book with a personalized inscription:
It’s a gambit of sorts, because I gain more from it than this book. It means that I, like Gerard before he sent it, now have two copies and can send one off to anyone who wants it. Raise your hand in the comments and we can work it out.
There’s a lot going on, to be sure, but I don’t want to talk about it. I want to do this: Sanding the deck (it’s done, BTW, we’ll stain this weekend) inevitably, finally, reminded me of this poem:
Cut There are days you learn things like — the real feel of sawdust, downy in plush piles No trace of the pain of its bellicose birthing Days you learn that things you don’t long look at — things made when two mean pieces meet and one must give — are too quickly swept away The first time you smelled it — a tidy slice that bled all freshness from the dying whine of the chopsaw (hard named thing!) was in the garage, probably, or a cobwebbed shed or even in the bright back woods, under a stiff wind that moved whole seasons and could not help but carry the fruit of hewn history straight into you That first time it was only looking — A place to live A home forever We know it now not as the smell of the jobs of our fathers — jobs that didn’t seem enough We know it now as the smell instead of the work they did that we silent saw (and they more silent did) Work that was rough, that was mean, that mother sometimes seemed to think wasn’t good for much That it was only the work — just that, merely the work — that made them, merely, men But now we know that Mama knew and nothing good was left unseen. We know that she knew that Papa had to be the silent thing to clear a little holy space for a little violent shepherding Now we KNOW that Mama knew what rough cuts made the dust, and how she must not just sweep it up but that she must (hard fought stuff!) form piles — neat peaks to bear up the brutes, the boys, the noise-born boys! whose shouts we shussshhhh — stamp right out. Believing — we can polish the mean teeth of the saw, pad the menacing head of the hammer, quench the fires blasting in the bellies, And still have a house to live in Mama — who made us know Who made us whole — sees us act as if we could make all the hard things soft and the loud things quiet and the mean things nice and never once put tooth to tree. As if we could have the (yes, messy) blessing of the dust without the saw We never saw that mama cuts things, too She lifts her blade while papa (who always mutely knew) swings his, severing, down We stand between, above — smelling home with every swipe and hack
“A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it?”
– The Elder Zosima, The Brothers K.
Here’s a reprint for a day that’s simply one too many:
Soft Armor Guard against the joylessness - the shout the sloganed cry. Guard against the chanted curse and truthful-seeming lie. Guard against the joylessness - against the sheepish fright. Guard against the mirthless marches that wilt without the light (a truly righteous Army thrives even out of sight). Guard against the joylessness - the hunt the blue bird’s noose. Guard against the flashing placards that turn a lynching loose. Guard against the joylessness - against the textbook heart. Guard against the low momentum of the classroom’s faded arts (the ivory’s crumbling fastest at the over-polished parts). Guard against the joylessness my son, my girl child, by suiting up in Mother’s grace and by wielding Father’s smile