Neighborly

So he talked about grass, about mowing with a push mower

and how hard it is to mow under apple trees with their overhanging branches

and the bees, the yellow jackets of July

and how hot the weather had been and if it had rained enough

to keep the gardens growing.

His hat twisting in his hands, feet shifting in black leather work shoes,

his gray shirt and neat green workingman’s pants neatly pressed,

He talked on and on, our coffee getting cold, his food on the diner’s counter

and then we said goodbye and finished our meal. He left before us but came back,

flustered and red, to pay his bill. This man,

our age or older, still uncomfortable in conversation, not knowing

how or if to end it, not knowing what to talk about and so

he spoke of weather and grass and gardens while I remember

his father with his soft felt hat, his bib overalls and sports jacket,

dancing with fast-moving feet, buck-dancing to the bands

at the Fourth of July on the courthouse lawn

just across the street from where our coffee sits cold on the counter

and he forgot to pay for his food.

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Sometimes I Know Why I Live in the Country

Night-driving, late May

a two-lane country road,

the windows down:

blinded by fireflies’ staccato flashes,

breathing honeysuckle sweetness,

the dark so close I can touch it,

your arm warm against mine.

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Green Revolution

The struggle for domination has been joined again:

I, the gardener, wrest the weeds out of flower beds,

piling them in green heaps to be taken to the compost pile

or to the chickens who will scratch and tear at them until

all that remains will be long, thin tendrils that once were hearty

gill-over-the-ground, or stiff stalks of thwarted goldenrod.

It is thus every spring. Determined to be victor, if only temporarily,

I pull, twist, cut and dig the unwanteds from my beds. Every year,

the plants return, their enthusiastic tendrils wrapping iris, weaving

through lily-of-the-valley, hiding beneath the daylilies. I swear

they grow stronger for the challenge, dig their roots in deeper

but I refuse to cede the field to their predations.

And yet I know that when I am no longer able

to fight this fight, the weeds will triumph and in the end

Nature will take back her own. It has always been so,

and I bow my head to the inevitability

while yet casting my eyes sideways

and reaching down to grasp

just one more strand of wild sweet potato vine

and twist it from the soil. For this moment at least

I am winning, or perhaps the only one fooled

is this old gardener, trying to contain what has always been wild

and will always be so, beneath the groomed cover

of blossoming borders.

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Those Who Went Before

The soil is dry, dusty, tan silt that parts easily at the insistence of my hoe.

With each stroke I carve a straight-line row, two inches deep,

that will receive the bean and corn seeds I sow. I am looking,

searching, for something else in this garden, something older

than these seeds, than me, than the trees that cast a thin Spring shade.

Once, thirty years ago, my hoe unearthed an arrowhead here,

black Kanawha flint I later learned, and perfectly formed.

It was not the first to come to the light in this place I call home,

this acreage that once was pasture for sheep, and before that grew wheat

and corn that our neighbors hoed when they were young boys. Now

those men are old, some of them passed on to the promised garden

and I am here with my hoe, digging in this same earth and looking,

as they did, for signs of those who went before.

A piece of sandstone heaves from the soil, a sign, I was told,

that once this land was on fire, scorched by flames so hot

the very stones were seared. Whether this be truth or not

I cannot tell, but I picture the fire and the smoking rocks

as my hoe digs again into the dirt.

I finish, wiping sweat from my face even though

this day is too cool for mid-May and tonight there may be frost

in low-lying regions. Here,

on this hill where only one family before me

was known to have a dwelling, there will be no frost tonight.

We will light a fire on the patio and gaze into its red heart,

and we will feel the eyes, hear the hard-soled feet in soft moccassins

slip by us in the gloaming, and the call of the owl will echo

against hills that remember the song

of those who went before.

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One Thought Leads to Another

An ad on the radio for Louis L’Amour books, leatherbound,

reminded me of my third son who read all of the series when he was younger,

the West, romance and danger and chivalry page after page

and then I recalled how my friend Mark Wilson mailed a package

of western paperbacks with rugged-cowboy covers to Iraq,

to my son who was serving there and who gave the books,

when he finished reading them, to his Iraqi translator

and I wondered where those books ended up

and who else might have been transported to another dry land

where men carried guns and hid in mountains

and danger lurked on every side

and I thought about how the stories might seem

to someone who knew all of this, the desert and guns and danger

and then my granddaughter came to mind

and I worried that she might be deployed to a place like that,

and then how she would have liked Mark Wilson

and his white cowboy hat, bark-rough skin

and soft western voice

reading his poems

on top of his mountain

in his cabin alone

at night

with only the stars to listen.

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Take Off the Gloves and Live

Gloves are not meant for garden work.

How can you feel the plants, the dirt, the wetness of the soil

with glove-protected hands?

Your hands must be stained, laced with tiny cuts from briars,

black with good garden dirt.

You need to feel the softness of a rose’s petals,

the coarse stems of unwanted weeds,

to really know a garden.

You need to feel things,

get dirty, dig in, feel the soil,

know the smell of earthworms

and the damp dark that brings the life.

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Evening Vignette

Sunset gold on lichened stone,

the smell of lilacs, honeysuckle.

A white church on a quiet hill,

a grave with two urns of pink roses:

One man stands alone

with bowed head, hat in hand.

Across the mowed cemetery

his shadow stretches

across years of death.

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