It was not the gift I wanted, that someone would stand stroking the shaggy face as the drug did its work and the brown eyes closed for the last time. But it was my niece Jenny’s gift, nonetheless, to spare me the grief of watching my dog Heidi “go to sleep.”
Normally I eschew euphemisms as dishonest but this one I gladly swallowed. There is simply no way to comprehend death, not in men nor beasts. That my dog was old and crippled and panted with pain, that it was an act of kindness to put her down does not touch on the fact that she is entirely gone from the world, a small, unextraordinary but beloved presence. She will never park herself near my chair again or poke her nose in the neighbor’s shrub or bark with delicious hatred at the two yip-yappers on the corner. She will not fill up a room with an old dog smell (my daughter used to call her a mildewed rug) or foil my cleverness by meticulously eating all the food surrounding her arthritis pill.
On the counter
a drop of blood
from one that had suffered
under God’s eye,
a curio, fragile as blown glass,
plucked from the shore
on a glittering day
but now, purpled to dark
of thorns I hadn’t known
were shivering spines.
(in A! Magazine)
I have witnessed olive shell, starfish, and sea anenome days. Today was clear jellyfish day, with the small, diamond-bright blobs strewn like mirrors along the sand. Another was horseshoe crab day. The beach was a junkyard of their helmets, and I stooped to examine one still wet from the wave that had delivered it downside up. The creature—-part of whose scientific name is limulus, which aptly means “odd”—-was still alive, but barely. More spider than crab, it weakly waved an appendage or two from the jumble of legs at its center, and I turned it over out of respect for its being and its dying..
Some poems of mine arise from questions about my own self-contradictions as a human being. “Before We Heard Sirens,” explores this tension, one which Dante observed: (Canto 21, the Inferno):
I turned like one who cannot wait to see
the thing he dreads, and who, in sudden fright,
runs while he looks, his curiosity
competing with his terror.
BEFORE WE HEARD SIRENS
His hands were holding her head, a broken bowl,
and he was saying, “Don’t move,” as I gave our blanket,
burning to look deeper into the car
because of the blood,
but steeling myself not to,
but to hand over the reckless, sea-stained scrap
that only moments before I had gathered
like water shaken out in a sky
throbbing with pelicans
and children’s voices drowning
in immensity and here I was standing
at an altar of the dying with the scared
black men from the truck in the outer circle
and in the center, darkness and blood crouching,
curls and glass, the father cupping the head
as through the crack I passed my blanket
with sand in the inmost grain.
from What a Light Thing, This Stone
I was recently invited to participate in a conversation about the role of poetry in the modern world, following an interview with Garrison Keillor. Cathy Lewis hosts this lively noonday radio program on an NPR affiliate, WHRO-FM in Norfolk. Tim Seibles of Old Dominion University was a featured poet as well. Listen to the entire hour if you wish or, if you want to hear my segment only, you can find it at 40 minutes, 55 seconds.