Forty-nine New Hampshire sketches, with author's note
With my famous knife I scrape the rough spots on the underside of a fungus and find tiny white grubs.
Curled inside in a fetal position, there are nine of them. They have round backs, flat, lobster-like bellies, heads like caterpillars and six small feet. They writhe out into the sunlight on the table. I move them into the shade. They are still alive a half hour later, except for their emergence from the broken birth-chambers apparently incapable of purposeful motion. I think of eating them, remembering that some people do eat grubs. But they have been burrowing and probably feeding on a mushroom that I know to be safe only by rumor. I have no idea what kind of insect I have aborted. Yesterday I stunned a dragonfly at the pond to study it. It died. I thought to myself, looking behind me, as if an outsider, how vulnerable I was to an avenging nature, the thought itself making of me a stranger.
Disorganized, a bunch of blackbirds hop through the undergrowth, pausing on branches, making small noises, fly off between trees.
Thinking about words, I look up. One red leaf on a tree between me and the mountain.
Dancing to the music strong legs broad hips small breasts slender short-waisted, or in another guise. She wears a dress or nothing bluejeans or panties. She rises from water and beckons.
The blue jay flies on translucent feathers.
Bearish as I am, I stumble into the brush and gorge on blackberries.
Naked. Beside the pond. Frogs plop in.
Close to frost last night today more flies than before and bolder, as if reprieved.
Naked, unconcerned, watching bees in the goldenrod.
However, because someone might come I don’t flex my muscles or play with myself. Even as I clean the grass particles off my penis I wonder how I would look. Anyone could come here.
Does she come to me now across the waters of the pond like wind or a dragonfly? I imagine her dressed in cirrus clouds, older for once, my age. Even my quietness breeds company, a crowd of women, and a hollow space inside me where they dance.
A tiny spider on my hand. I look away, and it’s gone. Then it’s back.
Hundreds of insects within an inch of the water meeting their reflections and parting, over and over.
There is a leaf on the pond with a drop of water on it, shining.
Shadow of an aster on the page.
Only from certain angles can I see the red leaf, and only when, pleased, I stretch at my desk. So, it becomes a reward.
Last night, talking about graduate school, which I never finished, and the good fortune of an acquaintance there with whom I never made contact and felt spurned by, secretly wanting her and feeling dirty for it, she was so delicate (I remember her ankles and slender feet and her lady-like manner, at the time myself sweaty, needy and married) and when I came back to my studio in the woods I was afraid, and heard noises and carried my knife when I went to check.
And now I find out that her haughtiness was fear, like me unhappy under the mask of felicity. But I also know that danger is the lady’s attribute and that I also want what I can’t have.
At my desk eating lunch I can’t see the red leaf no matter how I stretch.
Who should bound in but Heidi, complete with goats, smiling, ringlets bouncing. Only later do I look for her.
A man dances with his sly-eyed daughter.
I cut birchwood. At the core the smell of apples.
There was a frost last night. Today, no matches, I blow a flame from last night’s embers. Feeling ill, I drink bourbon and tea in bed, soften hash and light my pipe with a brand, like the bedouin. Sweet birchwood warms me.
Close to the fire I spread my ass-cheeks for the warmth.
Wolves and rodents in the fire tonight.
In the library a bust of Dante, backlit, stares inwards.
Gray sky, faint lines of cloud, old panes adding their own lines.
In her mother’s house turquoise carpets before the couch on which we undressed each other in this same light.
A hotdog so fabricated that as one side cooks the skin contracts, turning it.
As you lean forward, the dark valley between your breasts.
After the rain the lead raven calls to the others.
Cows and snowmobiles grazing together.
A terrible dream, in which Carlos is being taken to be killed. He seems grieved that I will allow it, but doesn’t struggle, as if he had given up. We pass an old man, and Carlos tells me, “If I’d had a chance to have a grandfather I wouldn’t mind as much.” We go outside. Carlos is being carried by the killer. A fresh wind takes us, and Carlos begins to struggle and kick, as if the wind were the life that he suddenly didn’t want to lose. I begin to sob, and my sobbing wakes me. I sob for half an hour, terrified. Joan holds me. All day I sob when I think of it.
Boarding the plane. A day like a runny nose.
After days of rain, the pond higher. No one has been here. Blackberries. As evening comes birds and squirrels and bees. Sun reflects on the water, and water on leaves. Trees across the pond yellow and red.
A patch of sunlight on the floor of the pine forest that I can't take home with me.
Behind me on the path sun at eye level, dazzling. I think, like a flying saucer.
I stop to write, kneel down. In front of me a mossy log. In its hollow the mushrooms called fairy-rings.
The sun almost invisible, a point in the forest, a distant angel.
I wake up whistling the Waldstein. Later, in my studio, after hours of writing, the Chopin berceuse, hugging myself, thinking of Joan and Carlos.
In the tarmac a swastika made of tire tracks.
A shy 14 year old brings my soda and glances back as she enters the kitchen. Seeing me watching she slumps, dragging her feet in embarrassment.
The hallway has no wall at one end and opens over a height though from where I stand fifty feet back at the wide place that may be the crossing of another hall. All I can see is blue sky with clouds moving past, as if driven by an autumn wind. Sometimes there is sound, but not now, and the hall is very cold.
I whistle the berceuse again and remember that I was feeling like a child.
There, bathed in color, floating on the organ’s vibrations while the others sing, she looks at you across the crowd and your heart breaks and heals itself over and over.
Suddenly a noise like pebbles. I look up. There are brown hoppers all over the place from the sere leaves of last week’s asters.
I brush a fly away. Fly off, and be a flake of light.
In the night sky a perfect billiard shot.
A BRIEF AUTHOR’S NOTE, AND MORE. I’ve been increasingly writing in extended form composed of distinct units of various lengths, structure indicated distantly but left to the reader to construct. Put another way, it’s my trees, now find the forest. Or find your own. This sequence, written at the MacDowell Colony in the autumn of 1975, seems to me now to be an early move in that direction. For a final fruition, see my A Suite of Dances, Shearsman Books, 2021.
Or here’s a further context, then, to bring it to the present:
Even stances towards one’s imminent death, I’ve learned, occur in stages. Utter calm in the face of it has passed. But at the first phase I found myself experiencing flashes of illumination, often of otherwise unnoticed moments — not a brilliant hike, for instance, but a brief otherwise forgotten glance at the landscape, or the fit of a hiking boot, or in other settings a person glimpsed once and never seen again, or a nondescript moment in my son’s childhood, all as vividly present as a moment in a Book of Hours — that sense of illumination. The sense of the richness of a lived life, and a reassurance that it has been incredibly full, despite the failure to do this or that I’d hoped to do — all sense of loss absent.
In hospital my son thought to read to me. A lovely idea, but it proved to be impractical in a shared room. So he took the books home, except for one — a copy of A Suite of Dances. I had in fact been dreading having it read aloud to me, afraid that I’d want to revise it all, after the eight years I’d already spent on its elusive structure. The book is as described above. The individual units are usually lucid, if brief. Out of boredom I opened the book. Avoiding the inevitably more structured beginnings and endings of sections, I read at random. It was like finding those illuminated moments. Yet another way to read, a way to take delight in.