BENEATH TALL TREES, FIRST OF JULY
Three weeks of 90 plus days
and now a cool morning,
wind stirring pages in the books I have brought,
back patio of Buckhead’s, coffee shop under tall trees.
If you had any sense,
you’d pull up a chair.
You’d wait for reality (remember?), for that moment
the leaf-shadowed blur on the pavers
—undulating, tracing an arpeggio--
What to do then, when when turns to now.
Really, no joke, what to do? Maybe nod to yourself
wherever you turn, you see metaphor?
Or enjoy the multitudinous mysteries of the moment?
Or settle into silence,
slough off an old self?
Well, whatever you choose, you better get to it,
better bide down into your being and get busy,
better “get to getting at it,”
as the woman said
when the tornado carried a neighbor
across a field and placed him gently down
beside a pond,
not a board of his house to be found.
Yeah, something like that where all that you know
gets stripped back down to only foundation,
where you sit a long while
just taking it in.
The poem began, quite simply, with noting the reality of the weather: weeks of hot days giving way to a cool morning (a sort of reprieve) and the stack of books I brought with me. I write with a stack of random books nearby and from time to time open to a page and see a word that connects with a memory or jumpstarts a response. The first stanza makes note of this process but then turns in the last statement to a half-joking, half-confrontational voice: “If you had any sense,/you’d pull up a chair.”
Little did I know that the poem would be about “sense”—that is, about perception, recognition, awareness, even discernment. What should one do when time becomes a moment, now, moving from the hypothetical to the actual? What actually is reality? The use of questions in poems (“What to do then, when when turns into now?”) can sometimes set a tone or simply be offered without expecting an answer. That’s why in the next stanza I say, “Really, no joke, what to do?” Again, that confrontational voice comes back in, interrogating, wanting to move past perception to something more substantial. Of course, mostly what we have is speculation (“maybe”), but at least such speculation brings to mind some interesting possibilities. Maybe we can “enjoy the multitudinous mysteries of the moment,” or maybe we can “slough off an old self.”
The second half of the poem was born from something that actually happened to my mother. A tornado hit her neighborhood and destroyed several houses along her street, including her neighbor’s house, not a board of it remaining, only the foundation. Her neighbor was swept up and dropped, relatively unscathed, near a pond more than a hundred yards away in a field on the other side of the road. As the story goes, my mother met him at the road and in the confusion and turmoil of the tornado’s aftermath said, “I don’t see how, but God has spared your life for a reason. You need to find out what it is and get to getting at it.”
In a book titled Notes for a Praise Book, maybe even praise needs to be “stripped back down to only foundation.” I find that the mind works in strange ways: a poem that began beneath tall trees—in one of my favorite sanctuary places for writing—ends on a street where a tornado strips everything away. Maybe the poem was teaching me that if I had any sense, maybe I would “sit a long while”—not under a comfortable canopy but under the wide, authorial, revisionist rewriting the sky sometimes visits upon this or that street.