GEORGIC: ON LIVING FENCES
The deer wend their paths amid the woods,
plotting a narrow, single-file path
among the brambles, blockading trees, barbs
of wire, blackberry, and wild rose.
You take their lead, placing your inarticulate
feet over the quotes their hooves have printed:
paired half-moons some other, earlier nation
had scrawled to tell its travels to the future.
With chainsaw, mower, and leather gloves you clear
a wider swath, so you can walk erect
and without ducking, without mangling yourself
among the rampant multiflora roses
that are no more native to this place than you,
a virulent hybrid merchandized to farmers
fifty years ago as living fences,
feckless spires of predacious thorns
to keep the deer from the crops, the livestock from harm.
But now they do not border your fallow acres;
they have become them: within, without, wanted,
unwanted, are one and the same.
Mornings as you trace these paths you've added
to your maintenance list, you place your waffled soles
among the deer's notations: Fear, the pheromones
of the dogs that always accompany you
as if they served more than your childlessness,
the practice rounds—year-round—of neighbors' guns—
these haven't changed their common story a jot.
Perhaps they know no other ending; hapless
as this sounds to you, some season far,
or not so far from now (not that deer
can sense the difference), you could find yourself
following their worn and silent example.
When there is nowhere to escape
all the paths will lead there.
GEORGIC: ON BLOOD
Try: you might find consolation
by citing "law of nature,"
an obligatory course
of study you'd undertaken in your youth
and merely forgotten like so many
foreign tongues you longed to master.
Likewise, you may be inclined
to see this mole, the cat's first catch
(first, that is, you chanced to see),
as beneficial, considering
the minions whose tunnels monogrammed
your lawn in scorched, browning loops.
Yet this baby robin splayed
upon the welcome mat, maimed
but not yet dead, is harder to dismiss:
both cat and bird are fledglings
in their different elements,
as you are when it comes to blood.
Friends will urge you to see these victims
as tributes the cat is offering you.
Try that as well. Think all you like
about the eggs pilfered from nests,
nests flung from swaying boughs,
hatchlings swallowed by snakes, starved
by siblings, snatched in flight by hawks—
causes you deem natural, beyond
the confines of your yard and conscience.
But this one that your housecat wounds,
that she delivers into your field
of vision, must this one be your charge,
sanctioned within your heart just like
its killer, the once-stray cat?
You wrap the bird in a paper bag
and end its suffering, not yours,
with the stomp of your heel—which summons the cat,
and, instantly, your anger rises
as you lunge toward this beast you shelter,
allow to curl against your shoulder
at night as if she were your dreams'
familiar, and yet, you understand,
the moment you seize the scruff of her neck,
you have no lesson to teach. Or learn.
Is it harder knowing there's nothing
you can do, or that this death
is nothing, nothing more or less
than your own cat's blank stare:
green with a core of darkness
where you, too, must be reflected.
On Living Fences:
The cloven feet of deer make perfect quotations in the soil; their right and left feet often provide the right slant to suggest both the opening and closing double quotes. These are most visible in the paths that I've cleared in the woods—quotations of the lines I've made through the fallen trees, brambles, and leaves.
Both of these poems are from a long series inspired by Vergil's Georgics, and are meant to carry on the idea of pastoral instruction. In my case, having moved to rural Ohio more than seven years ago, I'm both the one delivering and receiving the lessons. Perhaps Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino's brilliant and mathematically artful collection of stories, was the greater inspiration, in that this series seems to dwell in (but I hope not on) ambivalence. I wanted to chart the course of an argument, plot the points and the counterpoints as if they occupied separate dimensions on the same graph, the graph that is, of course, this swatch of land to which I hold the mortgage, this overcrowding clump of dirt to which we claim stewardship.
I meant the georgics to be mediations rather than meditations: what Auden called for when he said that poetry was "clear thinking about mixed feelings." (See his collection, The Dyer's Hand.)