Say What You Can

Page 1

Say What You Can Elizabeth Tibbetts

deer bro ok edit ions

p u bl ishe d b y

Deerbrook Editions P.O. Box 542 Cumberland, ME 04021

f ir s t e di t ion

© 2 019 by Elizabeth Tibbetts All rights reserved ISBN: 978-0-9600293-1-0 Cover painting: Norma and Gil’s by Jon Muench Book design by Jeffrey Haste

Contents 1 T he Saint of Returnables 13 Green 14 Still Here 15 T he Bear 16 Extravagant 17 Egg 18 June World 19 Swimming 20 Head Out 21 Indian Falls 22 Song of the Entomologist 23 Two Slugs 24 Angel of Repose 25 Among the Chosen 26 Revelations 27 It is Time 28 Matter 29 Bird Woman 30 Cuts of Cloth 31 Meat Loaf 32 Everything Looks Perfect 33 Changing Blue 34 Sea of Words a Painting by May Stevens 35 Easy to Believe 37 Sonnet for a Nurse 38 2 Winter Simple 41 Seeing the Fields 42 Winter of 2003 43 Details 44 Energy 45

Six-thirty, Six Below 47 Open Season on Blue 48 Bus Ride to Boston 49 Lessons 51 T he Creator Looses the Messengers 52 14 Penobscot Street 53 T he Tide 55 Valerian 57 Near Dark 58 Always and Forever 59 Ghazal for the Winter Solstice 60 T he Screen 61 In the Event 62 Gutting 63 Bananas 64 Never Mind 65 Lullaby 66 Reading Time 67 Little Charms 69 T his is the Bed 70 Winter Solstice 71 3 All the Words 75 Guatemala City 76 Far from Home 77 1967 78 Waking in Rio Dulce 79 For Money 80 T he Past 81 Canopy Walk 82 Sleep 83 Tethered 84 Specific 85

It Rains 86 El Pulpo 87 Mayan Blue 88 Antigua 89 Fear 91 Travel 93 Homeland Security 94 Return 95 Nothing Lost 96 Acknowledgments 98

For Jim and in memory of my brother, Larry (1950-2018)


T he Saint of Returnables Our saint of returnables is back, riding, slow mile after mile, along the spring roadside, baskets strapped to his old bike, plastic bags hung from the handlebars. His gaze averts to the ditch as he watches for what glitters, each bottle and can he picks a nickel towards sustenance. He pedals March through November, through good and god-awful weather, claiming what’s been tossed out or lost until his bike is as packed as a mule. When he glances up we see his face full-on, a face expression has been erased from, so he looks as though he lost his own story somewhere down the road. What looks simple could be a twisting path that would lead to the man’s heart. Not the tough muscle pumping spring air to his thighs, but that imagined space of the soul, where he stores everything and watches and waits for what’s to come. But we’re already done, have driven fast past him—past wood frogs’ muttering talk and blackbirds’ red-winged flashes in alders. Past swatches of witch grass and day lilies, leaves so fierce they push up green inches every day.


Green Day upon day of rain. Every rivulet and trickle, every stream comes into its own. Water falls everywhere. And now the wet fields suck up the sun and grow lush as the pelts of healthy animals. In ditch and bog, skunk cabbages unfurl. Willows phosphoresce. Wood frogs talk. One long day after another spills into each waiting dusk. Leaves become the size of squirrel ears. Now fish begin to bite. Everything sprouts on the tip of the tongue.


Still Here Softened by a glass or two of Cabernet, I left my neighbors’ crowded table, our bursts of laughter and dour conversation about man and his dangerous antics in our only world, and went to the kitchen for more bread. T here, through the window, a sweep of damp air and wild spring calls of peepers and wood frogs rushed in like the Holy Ghost and made me pause. T heir piercing chorus of voices mixed into such a deep soup of sound that one frog was indistinguishable from another. And for one long moment I was held there in the world’s big hands. Everything that mattered was evening with its early, scattered stars, the fragile smell of daffodils and boggy water, and the mating calls of a population of those finely-tuned, permeable animals (indicators of the Earth’s well-being) so much older than we are, that have survived ice ages and the shifting of continental plates, but are now disappearing. T hough they’re still here thriving in woods beyond my neighbor’s lawn in this hollow where we are all clinging to the slippery edge of wildness. And I was allowed a rush of sweetness and grief, those fraternal twins who are born in us again and again, though perhaps not forever, singing whether or not we listen.


The Bear It’s a hot May day at the graveyard: enough breeze to keep black flies away, leaves sunning their green naked selves, an unseen brook’s no beginning/no end, and the dead shelved beneath the mown lawn. My mother, her cane in one hand and a pot of marigolds for her brother in the other, wanders back through family names. I see clearer than ever the neat lines of bones— all the careful suits, shoes and dresses now gone. All around us common purple lilacs bloom. She sets the flowers on the ground, straightens her back and my uncle’s flag. Bear tracks engrave the earth by his stone. T he bird feeder she put up is gone. He must have ambled in beneath a spoonful of moonlight, stood upright as a man in his black, shaggy coat, grabbed the feeder between his clawed paws, and shook the gritty seed as though it were sugar into his coming-into-summer-hungry mouth.


Extravagant Outside the window it begins. T hrough vacant light a hen turkey trots across the lawn. T hen a tom, swinging his beard, emerges from the tangled patch of woods that lurks behind the waking neighborhood. T he hen waits. T he big tom inflates, ruffles feathers, fans his tail in an extravagant hand of cards. His red head turns blue to woo her, but the plain, brown hen appears to disregard his array. And he, all puff, strut, and fancy as paint, can’t show enough display, so turns and sways. When his circle tightens, convinced or caught, she drops. T he tom mounts. His talons seeking balance, he begins to dance, lifts one foot, then the other, in march and tap. T he hen wears him as casually as a hat. He prances down to squat and thrust, and when he’s done, steps off, and that is that. T he hen stands, disheveled and feather sprung, shakes herself back together, then runs.


Egg Someday I’m going to break the law. Walking through summer woods I’ll flush the turkey off her leaf nest tucked beneath a hackmatack—I’ll take one speckled, still-warm egg, and prick the pointed shell, blow out the yolk (not yet chick) and white to cook, and save the empty shell for evidence.


June World When the butternut tree is an umbrella woven of leaves and honey bees, the workers humming a high—unbelievable but true—B as they gather pollen from fringed flowers, until their baskets are stuffed and they fly off to feed their brood, when it’s two weeks shy of summer solstice, and evenings stretch past nine, and the sky, the mood of a cut peach, casts itself onto the river and mountain beyond, which basks like a giant’s yellow cat, when the June world is suffused with light, and in the woods, withdrawn behind leaves, solomon’s seal bends beneath the weight of bells, and jack-in-the-pulpits make their proclamations, then, in the fullness of it all, rain beats irises to the ground, and the heavy bouquets drip wine on every table, and we remember to “keep death before your eyes daily,” as St. Benedict said, advice we can’t help but heed, as each ravishing day rolls by and vanishes.


Swimming “Do you skinny dip?” he asks, this man caught behind plate glass while the green, late-summer world beckons and glitters outside. We’ve been talking about swimming— the draw of quarry, ocean, lake, and stream. I don’t answer, but describe my morning immersions with my dog in the silken pond. I don’t say how I go daily for water’s caress, to find my own pulse and breath, listen for God, learn my length and breadth. I don’t mention that I carry my basket of troubles down to be washed. Sometimes this job (this life) breaks my heart with its losses and riches. Why not say “Yes,” crack the old professional code (it’s only love that sustains us) and give, along with his morphine, a glimpse again of a body swimming unencumbered. Instead, I place my hands on his frail back and press my fingers along the muscles and bones of his shoulders and spine where he still knows every stroke, everything that’s touched him.


Head Out T hough I don’t understand how soon you’ll die, your leaving floats like daylight’s moon as you talk yourself back into a past, fold your light kayak onto your back, board the train to some wild river, where you put in, wrap your wide, stone-worked hands around the paddle, and head out, traveling churn and current until you reach a stretch of quiet water, then bank your boat, strip, and slip in fish-naked, all muscle and glimmer.


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