These sonnets were written during a trip I took from the Yorkshire Dales to Edinburgh with my friend Pat Maples in June of 2009. A few more were finished in July in the South Mountain in Pennsylvania. These sonnets are for Pat Maples. Enjoy
As the Labradors black as night splash in
the morning light and swim in the current
up to their necks going for the mallards
that fly away before they get to them
it is about to rain and a chilly
cold rain it will be, clouds in clouds coming
over the hill and stone fence darkening
the baaing of the sheep, the many sheep
who stop and look at me curiously
waiting for what? For me? A nettle stings
and midges fly around my feet. England
must be many things but it is surely
this. To find my pen I had to retrace
my steps. Burnsall is the name of this place.
I do not know the flowers in the moor.
Some are blue, and some are yellow, and those
long and bending purple—Foxtails? Foxgloves?
There is so much I do not know. I know
the sky is huge. In it the clouds don’t seem
to move although the wind around me moves
everything including me or moves
my hair at least, the grass, the limbs of trees
the rolling hills going up and down the
dale where the stone houses are moving too
mixed in the clouds that now begin to move
the day sunny and blue but cold. From the
grass paws click claws on the path, Spaniels
come running fast before their master calls.
“If precious stones weren’t hidden, would we think
very much of them?” I think about words
before I say them stuttering afterwards
never witty like the English. English
is what I speak, but I’m not English. “This
egg is not cooked.” “The egg isn’t cooked?” “No,
it hasn’t been cooked.” “It looks cooked enough.”
“Well, it won’t come apart.” “Shall you send it
back then or pretend that it’s poached?” “Young man
young man, yes you, young man, you took my bags
up the stairs yesterday. Would you be as
kind as then and bring them back down again
today? Oh yes, it is a bit of luck.
Down I should think is easier than up.”
I sit among the buttercups and sheep
shit—How beautiful the world is even
if you’re sick—O wonderful sun come down
come all the way down and make me strong. Sleep
or the lack of it, dreams where the demons
grapple—perhaps they’re taunting angels—
have exhausted me and left me mangled
but the stone is warm that I sit on
and in the boughs above the doves have filled
their coos with waking roses opening up
for the new day, all ready to go but
me. The omens are good sit where I will
full of woe. On dandelions dark bees
hover in my mind and cover poor me.
So here I am another place again.
Yesterday was full of trials and errors
beautiful sights and accidents. Terrors
gave way to a serene lake and looming
clouds impossible for the sun to come
through. Here we are about to. You’re almost
the moon beyond those clouds, Cyclops
of Ullswater. I see you, you me. One
moment changes things. Sheep we wear and eat
eat up the mountain baaing as they go
up the slopes between the creek and the stone
walls ages old hands formed and let go. We
must let the stones go, let go of them all
or there will be nothing not even a wall.
The little sparrows on the rocky wall
are taller than I am or the castle
is—In fact, they’re the tallest of the tall.
Then off they go with little care at all
I write about them—They have better things
to do while I am left without a wing
full of feathers to help me soar and sing
like the sparrows. Poetry must have wings!
There they are again on the highest cliff
with light and the wind preening their amber
limbs perched I know with ready mates after
a night of gathered sleep. What would I give
to see what they see? Almost anything.
What would they give for a thought for a wing?
I lost my pen that I had lost and found
again in the grass by the River Wharfe.
Not any pen will do. Pat understood
and gave me one of hers, a choice of two.
I chose the better one—At least to my
mind it was—It’s with what I’m writing now
a fine black line—I had had blue—But it
isn’t so much the color as the weight
in the comfortable flow of the ink
easing the words that it creates going
on to the next. What would they be without
an understanding friend who had a pen?
They’d be unsaid, and I’d be going on too
not the way I wanted to, but had to.
Open the window and let in the air.
This room is close and dark and dim and bare.
The curtain drawn shows there’s a world out there—
Scottish morning—The sky cloudy and clear
and like a clock three ravens on a peak
say that it’s nine, and twelve, and three if peaks
were clocks and ravens on them time. Even
from bed there is a lot to see. Moss and
grass like it up here living off the tiles
and gutters. How many hours of miles
until the Isle of Skye? Morning like me
cloudy and clear and hurrying slowly
only the nine o’clock raven remains
reminding me it’s time to start the day.
Behind is a sky of blue, in front of
that a cloud comes softly apart. A patch
of blue appears through that. At
the very top of the roof it forms a
peak on whose left edge a raven sits
abandoned by its mates. Why does it wait
letting me sketch it, no Dorian Gray
but immortal in its way doing what it’s
always done perched above a city where
many battles have been fought? It’s looking
for the end to fly down and start pecking
out the eyes of unfortunate men. Where
you will be eating, Raven of Stirling
is Iran if you fly there this morning.
Flowers have feelings. Top-heavy foxgloves
are proud—although they’re not—their bottom was
once their top—growing highest in the bunch
petal after petal full of itself
white, purple in dotted circles inside
and out inviting bees to come in them
and buzz. Quivering like lovers they hum.
You do not have to move to move the bee.
The highest bud above opens and sees
that it has come from those below and bends
humbly to bow to the blossoms at home
with birds and an old tree still bearing nuts
like me who has to go wake his friend up
more like the bee I suppose than the foxglove.
Foxglove, how did you get here among the
rocks? Tell me as best as you can. Speak the
language of flowers. I want to know why you
are here alone next to the sea, why you
aren’t in a garden with your family
somewhere near the dock. On this slippery
hill of rocks that can’t hurt you like it can
me, I have scaled them all unharmed drawn
to your beautiful bowing to the dawn.
I was worried you weren’t happy but see
here comes the bee and in she goes. Mmmm
that must feel good. It does. Our destinies
change minute to minute. Today, let’s see:
the sky, the land is clear and so’s the sea.
It’s the end of the day. Play, fiddler, play!
The girl by the wall is pretty after
all, and the boys are fine and fair. The sun
has gone behind the clouds so I can see
the mountains and the sea, the Chinese and
Bengali lasses snapping their fingers
and shaking their asses. A gold earring
flashes the peeking sun that catches and
illuminates their fun stretching across
the bay like an elongated hourglass
with dim boats coming in. He smiles. Shall I?
The music stops; its silence fills the place
with voices where they have already been—
It’s when the music stops you notice them.
In fact like all of human kind the rocks
along the narrow beach are all somewhat
alike yet each entirely different.
We pick them up, Pat and I, searching
for the ones that really touch us, the ones
we want: perhaps they are somewhat like us
love at first sight, bending our bodies down
examining delight or finally
not delighted letting them drop but oh
the ones we want, spots or lines throughout
touching them them touching us. Does the cloud
want to touch the mountain or the mountain
the cloud? Does the stream go down the rocks
or the rocks up? Do rocks pick friends, friends rocks?
Some sounds you can stand and some sounds you can’t.
That clanging of something metal hitting
the iron mast I could go to sleep with
—But not now of course. Right now I want
to write having woken up, not a soul
around but me before the dawn. Time for
thought before a thought becomes a doubt
—Just write it. The sea becomes so bright
it’s hard to see the castle collapsed in
to a grassy mound gape wide in ruin
dark hole a hollow eye inside the light.
No bloody Vikings now, only the Scots.
The world is so beautiful—A silly
thought I think—Why can’t we live in peace?
Although I want to sleep I must get up
to write this. The past is many places
bringing us to the present. On the Isle
of Skye the fishermen come in from sea
drank their tall ales listening to John Lee
Hooker still standing in their Wellingtons.
“Aye, he’s wailin’!” Here I am: a window
open to a garden: flowers and trees
each with a bird singing perfectly in
Inverness. Am I here? Here I am!
The same three words are slightly different
depending where you place them. Lochness is
just down the road. I don’t believe in dragons
but I’d believe my eyes if I saw one.
I haven’t an idea in my head
except the morning sun behind the roof
has risen high enough to come and soothe
my aching neck. Michael Jackson is dead.
Life is one surprise after another
One could never say shock—We know
something is always coming down the road
eggs and salmon then a flat tire later
on—Whatever might happen on the moor
soon’s yesterday. Dark clouds chill the garden
and wind stirring the pine overwhelms and
blows Americans back to their room.
Farrah Fawcett’s dead too no longer now
on her way out stopping to smell the flowers.
At Clava Cairns the hands have come and gone
arranged the stones to their rhyme and reason.
We can only guess the song, the text, the poem
where the calendar sun comes pouring down
on us, what’s next, a walk into a mound.
What are seconds to a stone? O moments
big as years! There is wind, a bird that sings
silence but for our footsteps making sound.
Culloden’s down the road. There on a day
two hundred sixty three years ago six
hundred Scots were slaughtered by the British
in a matter of minutes. Someday
the Scots will rule, someday the stones will talk
someday we’ll know it all and if not not.
Packed again and about to go over
the river and through the moor a wee bit
more—Just Edinburgh. They say that it
is beautiful. We’ll see, discover.
I’m ready and not dreary like today
reflecting yellow trees in a dull door
where curtains with branches have made it more
like a room with a view of yesterday.
The mighty hills of Skye come back to me
unpacked by memory—Castles, foxgloves
—A gull passes through the reflection now.
Foot on knee, my writing desk has gone to sleep.
Foot on floor, I have to start to move it so
slowly a raven caws, “Come on, let’s go!”
It seems the fog is rising from the stones
like very chilly smoke without a flame.
Edinburgh’s been waiting centuries
to catch fire. Every chimney is the same
standing in a row, gull on one master
of all. The cries from its great throat cover
the men below who’ve made a mob and shout
about a game they’ve lost, but what is worse
an enemy has won. The sky is a
wide dank overwhelming sheet some goddess
has hung and might grab at any moment
to wring out. What’s behind or happens next?
Who knows? There is a gull above us all
on the cobblestones of Edinburgh.
Out of the drizzle and the fog boys dressed
up like soldiers come although they’re more the
hands that wind around a clock changing the
guards. In the cry of gulls and a Scotch mist
outside the castle’s walls they stop and
click their heels turning as if they’re on
a wheel as they take off and put back on
bayonets. I feel no more protected than
when I hadn’t seen them, yesterday’s children
becoming men with a wife at home or
a girlfriend or a boyfriend—Who knows? Love
brings us all together and makes us want
to kiss. And then a bullet stops the rest.
The tomb of the unknown is up ahead.
I am walking between two narrow walls
a place I’d get stuck if I were fatter.
On the way you can’t meander. If not
in retreat you can only go forward
no other choice but to walk directly straight
ahead as monarchs must have walked condemned
to put their heads on the chopping block though
this passage leads to life, grows wide into
a field and other fields divided by
the winding stone fences that have been piled
carefully for centuries keeping
in the sheep grazing there above. Here one
sheep is baaing by itself. It wants out.
I’d like to help but only see the rocks.
I’m a feather for you, Honey. Don saw
me and thought of you. There’s nothing quite like
being interrupted by a nice surprise—
Not with a banjo though or stars that fall
on Alabama—Just a slim feather
with an edge of blue tinier than small
but pretty you have to admit, special
with my tip of white fallen from a bird
you probably know because you do know
birds. Don only knows that I’m not a leaf
from a tree or a stone whose destiny
was the ground, but a kin to wind I’ve flown
from Pennsylvania hoping to please
when you open the letter and see me.
Most of our fears are very silly. Last
year the state trimmed along the mountain roads
and then no milkweed grew and it was so
because everywhere I looked it looked as
if there never had been any milkweed.
My mother was dead, that was the present.
But back from Scotland now in the present
I see more milkweed than I’ve ever seen.
Virtual fields of it nod in the wind
and the weight of the sucking bees hanging
from them humming in the sunny beams
on every purple limb beginning
to give this morning fragrance not sadly
for a flowery funeral but for me.
Balanced on a sharp huge cold mossy rock
I’ll dedicate this poem to you and
everyone back to 181
and a few more yet to come because they’re
because of you inviting me along
for mornings of leisure at hotels, dales
and moors, seasides where I could sit writing
sonnets forgetting problems in New York
refreshed by the sights and sounds traveling
listening to Keats, Baudelaire and you of course
inspiration in inspiration’s
overflow when you have the time to think
and feel though you feel you don’t feel at all
you keep writing and it’s good after all.
I brought Jenny a handsome brown teddy
from Scotland in a box that she quickly
opened, took the bear out, and squeezed his cheeks
kissing him on the lips immediately.
Hello!” Jenny says. “I’ll call you Scotty.
You are out of that damn box forever.
You’ll never be lonely again.” With her
finger Jen bends his head Yes. “Oh!” Scotty
says, “I will never be lonely again!
Jenny is going to be my friend.” And then
Scotty nods his head again and again.
And everything he says is Yes Yes Yes.
That said, “I’ll never grow up,” Jenny grins
at Dad: “It’s too much fun being a kid.”
Every snake I saw today turned out
to be a stick, the first one this morning
was big, its head and upper part rearing
off the ground provoked as a besotted
Scotsman ready for a fight; it was a
branch broken from a pine that had impaled
the ground. Another came along the road
twisting itself into what it was
a stick that took its own good time to form.
Right now I see that that could be a snake
down there where my ankle dangles naked
from a rock coiling half hidden in thorns
and shadows but do you know what? That mouth’s
only a stick when I figure it out.
This is what I love about my brother
He didn’t kill the rattlesnake that struck
at him when he was walking in the woods
but pushed the ferns aside afterwards with
his walking stick to see it twist aimed at
him a yard in length and thick flickering
triangular head that hadn’t bit him
and let the venom out because venom
is to be spent paralyzing a bird—
It couldn’t swallow Scott worrying it
with the stick a little bit to hear it
rattle. But that was it. My brother is
a hunter who knows where he is. A guest
doesn’t murder. He’ll never crush that head.
I’d rather watch fireflies than fireworks
pressing against the dark. “They’re vicious beasts,”
Dad says: “All they do is have sex and eat
their prey by the light they make. There’s the first
one now!” I look watching it glowing go
out quickly back into the dusk again
flickering up the wood going off and on.
It disappears then shows the arbor’s post.
The sky has its stars, the earth its fireflies
that come to give us light as the light dies.
On Judgement Day they say that souls will rise
—Stories I’ve heard around a campfire—Eyes
opening with a familiar regard
knowing who I am knowing who they are.
I learned that Michael Jackson died from the
newspaper left at my hotel door in
Inverness though on first seeing his face
I thought it was about the concert soon
to take place in London. Back in New York
I teach a class next to the Apollo
and have to push my way through crowds that come
to pay their respects writing on the wall
there. I see not only Americans
but Chinese holding pens, French, Arabic
and Spanish that’s been written. All drawn here
hear a universal chord, a boy who jumped
for joy. Some say he wasn’t a poet
but it wasn’t about the words, was it?
So far this morning there’ve been lesbians
saddling up their horses, a gold tiny
feather that had fallen, and a sunny
bunny close enough to see the dark veins
run thin and red through its pearlescent ears
before it hopped away. The lesbians
are coming through the trees. I imagine
them bare-breasted about to appear
in a chorus of birds. I am so glad
I’m here. This mountainside is freeing
me from ambition’s leash and worrying.
It’s the milkweed I think. Last year, a sad
year I thought it was no longer here
but I see bees and blossoms everywhere.