Sunday, November 30, 2008

Turtle, Swan

Because the road to our house
is a back road, meadowlands punctuated
by gravel quarry and lumberyard,
there are unexpected travelers
some nights on our way home from work.
Once, on the lawn of the Tool

and Die Company, a swan;
the word doesn't convey the shock
of the thing, white architecture
rippling like a pond's rain-pocked skin,
beak lifting to hiss at my approach.
Magisterial, set down in elegant authority,

he let us know exactly how close we might come.
After a week of long rains
that filled the marsh until it poured
across the road to make in low woods
a new heaven for toads,
a snapping turtle lumbered down the center

of the asphalt like an ambulatory helmet.
His long tail dragged, blunt head jutting out
of the lapidary prehistoric sleep of shell.
We'd have lifted him from the road
but thought he might bend his long neck back
to snap. I tried herding him; he rushed,

though we didn't think those blocky legs
could hurry-- then ambled back
to the center of the road, a target
for kids who'd delight in the crush
of something slow with the look
of primeval invulnerability. He turned

the blunt spear point of his jaws,
puffing his undermouth like a bullfrog,
and snapped at your shoe,
vising a beakful of-- thank God--
leather. You had to shake him loose. We left him
to his own devices, talked on the way home

of what must lead him to new marsh
or old home ground. The next day you saw,
one town over, remains of shell
in front of the little liquor store. I argued
it was too far from where we'd seen him,
too small to be his... though who could tell

what the day's heat might have taken
from his body. For days he became a stain,
a blotch that could have been merely
oil. I did not want to believe that
was what we saw alive in the firm center
of his authority and right

to walk the center of the road,
head up like a missionary moving certainly
into the country of his hopes.
In the movies in this small town
I stopped for popcorn while you went ahead
to claim seats. When I entered the cool dark

I saw straight couples everywhere,
no single silhouette who might be you.
I walked those two aisles too small
to lose anyone and thought of a book
I read in seventh grade, "Stranger Than Science,"
in which a man simply walked away,

at a picnic, and was,in the act of striding forward
to examine a flower, gone.
By the time the previews ended
I was nearly in tears-- then realized
the head of one-half the couple in the first row

was only your leather jacket propped in the seat
that would be mine. I don't think I remember
anything of the first half of the movie.
I don't know what happened to the swan. I read
every week of some man's lover showing
the first symptoms, the night sweat

or casual flu, and then the wasting begins
and the disappearance a day at a time.
I don't know what happened to the swan;
I don't know if the stain on the street
was our turtle or some other. I don't know
where these things we meet and know briefly,

as well as we can or they will let us,
go. I only know that I do not want you--
you with your white and muscular wings
that rise and ripple beneath or above me,
your magnificent neck, eyes the deep mottled autumnal colors
of polished tortoise-- I do not want you ever to die.

-Mark Doty

This is my favorite poem ever. It might be because I met Mark Doty once at a reading (and the preceding reception), and I heard him personally read it with the explanation that is was what it so obviously is - a poem about his lover dying of AIDS. It might be that I was so immediately impressed by him on a personal level: the fact that we shared the same affection for Tolstoy, but above that the simple fact that he was so approachable and interesting and fun.

Anyway, as for why I'm posting it: Despite the fact that I have a degree in Lit, I've never been a big poetry guy. I appreciate poetry, and I have read several poems that I've liked, but poetry hardly ever made its way into my daily life the way that straight up prose fiction did. Outside of the select few poems that have implanted themselves into the modern subconscious (Two roads diverged...yeah, see? Try and judge me now), what poems I liked were quickly forgotten. This poem is really the sole exception to that. Lines from it randomly pop into my head all the time. So Reason #1 was the fact that it's a fantastic poem. So read it.

"This is the worst kind of discrimination. The kind against me."
--Bender Bending Rodriguez

Reason #2 is like that quote: more depressing because it involves my life. I was watching some of "The Two Towers" on TV last night (aren't marathons great?) and I got to thinking about a friend of mine who used to LOVE the Lord of the Rings. We worked together and I don't know how many hours we must have spent talking about those books and movies. He eventually moved to another house, and eventually left the Center altogether. We lost touch, but I'd always hoped to run into him again. I still had a book he loaned me for one, but I missed the guy too. A couple months ago I heard an unconfirmed rumor that he'd suffered a massive stroke (he was, I think, 53 or 54) and they were going to take him off life support. I tried in vain to find out if this were true until I saw his obituary in the paper two days later. After my initial acceptance, I figured that at least I would be able to go see him one last time. I scanned to the bottom of the article to find where and when the funeral and/or showing would be when I happened upon the line, "burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the family" and then it had somebody's home address. Classy.

So Lord of the Rings brought me to my friend, which brought me to Turtle, Swan, which brought me to you.

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