The Answer to Your Question is Yes, but Not as Some Unremitting Paradise
Once you get entranced by what birds can do in winter—
stark murmurations against a grey sky,
seed pods scavenged in a landscape that looks blank
and nearly dead—you forget that the stone statues
on the parish lawn have some meaning too,
bloodless as they are, weathered and cracked as they are.
Anselm of Canterbury shouldering snow,
hapless against the drifts, his head lopped off
by bored teenagers out driving around one weekend night,
their stomachs full of fried food and beer.
The priest of the little parish can only laugh
as he shovels snow the next morning.
He is still trying to believe that what’s broken is
redeemed by opening itself to the wind’s bitter speech.
Take the skin of a drunk, pale and thin
as a bible page, how it scurfs and fissures into sores;
the starlings, credited with no miracle
but that of the commonplace, floating in the northwest gusts
of an Alberta clipper; Anselm, who once prayed
for illness so he might enter the cloistered life,
subject to the laughter of wind and birds alike.
It is Saturday. Our priest has time to pace
with his plastic shovel, halfheartedly shifting snow
and mulling a homily on grace and time and mercy
that he has delivered far too many times.
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow
nor reap nor gather into barns. And which of you
by being anxious can add a single hour to his life?
Not the foraging birds whose only faith is instinct,
not these congregants who only pray for comfort.
He thinks of spring and his neighbors’
horse shoes clanging against the stakes.
He’s been reading about the world’s
oldest backgammon set found in the Burnt City
in Southern Iran. The archeologist who discovered it
wondered that a civilization concerned
primarily with daily existence could find time
to fashion such an artful diversion:
dice cut from goat talus, game pieces carved
from agate and turquoise, an engraved serpent
coiled twenty times around itself in the middle
of the board.
Kayla Mueller died this week
in “a bombing that we don’t know
the provenance of,” or so the State Department
claims, though it quickly becomes clear
that it was one of our own raids. Her captor,
Baghdadi, tore out her fingernails
before making her his wife, her nail beds
pustuled like pomegranate berries, seeping
through the bandages as he fed her words
for homebound letters: “I am healthy,
remaining strong, and being treated kindly.
Do not worry for me.” The dice decide
what God in his sanguine thirst defers:
We will not barter with the underworld
for this or any girl. The fallow ground,
accordioned by last year’s furrows, cratered
in and swallowed her. Our priest dreams
of hyacinth and crocus, but she will not
return with spring. Beaten to the floor
of a weapons warehouse in Syria,
her front and canine teeth clubbed out
days before we flattened the place,
we who othered the abduction long ago
and called it winter.
We live in what people on the coasts
call “flyover country,” where outmoded
industrial workers drink cheap beer
and play backyard games to kill
the time. It’s a Sunday in April.
I spend the morning on the back porch,
reading and re-reading a paragraph in Edward Said’s
Orientalism while Jerry, my retired truck driver
neighbor, periodically shouts over the fence
about the impossibility of properly tensioning
a new Honda’s serpentine belt,
“Because them Japs got everything jammed in there
between the quarter panel and engine block
so you can’t get to it with the wrench.”
I hear the car in question squealing in his driveway
like a shoat. A few men are throwing horse shoes
at the next door neighbor’s house.
Someone is shouting for me to look
at his kissing sisters on that pole.
We say, “Salt of the earth,” as if our people are good.
We say, “backbone of the country,”
as though we haven’t destroyed the body.
I call my dog over and scratch the scruff around his collar.
I wonder if dogs really know their names,
or if the recognition is like reading an enigmatic
line whose cadence sounds familiar,
whose meaning never quite descends.
Jerry’s grandson feeds my dog biscuits
through the chain-link fence.
Jerry passes me a bottle of Budweiser
and says, “If it aint Bud it aint beer,
and if it aint country, it aint music.”
I address myself like a puzzled friend:
With all of the atrocities taking place,
why are you concerned with the plight
of a washed-up union trucker on a fixed income?
There are far greater indignities
than fixing your neighbors’ foreign
cars in exchange for beer.
Winter Sundays are for football. Our priest
knows this. He scraps the stuff about grace
and mercy and begins to really
preach: Subtract desired yardage
from the time you have been given; hang
that number like a guidepost. Stretch
the chains of yourself before
this sphere of flesh. Time runs off
when we keep the ball on the ground.
Air it out. This only seems like a game.
I hear him through the windows of the church
as I walk the dog to the creek.
Nobody who commits to the singular
compulsion of an act rests easy,
which is why despite all
evidence we suspect the dead
have returned as birds to offer omens.
Cowbirds mob the red-tailed hawk
that has been hunting in our neighborhood
A rat swims like a mallard until it eyes me
in the riparian muck then dives below
the surface before scurrying up the high bank.
Somebody has called off the spring. This is not spring
but undivided time in the guise of brown-green water.
South Dearborn Heights is swollen like a spleen
or blessing, and I am not me when I come here
each afternoon, the last observer of a forgotten ritual,
a hierophant rattling old bones at Lupercal,
digging up burdock for the tincture,
tossing the burs into the water where
they float for a moment before
the dumb fish rise to swallow them.