We are as much as we see.
Henry David Thoreau
1/ The North Wall
At its center sits a massive stone fireplace
And chimney dotted with anomalies: rounds
Of opalized wood, crystal-lined geodes cracked
In half, porous lava pebbles ringing polished
Black basalt, banded beach agates clustered
About a clam shell the size of a man's hand
Spread wide, set in fine-grained gray sandstone
From an Eocene seabed . . . and, beauty of beauties,
A broad mantel sculpted by the same mad mind
Of flat, oblong river cobbles laid end to end.
On both sides of the chimney, windows blink
Like beacons from floor to ceiling bookcases . . .
Skinny little leaded windows, one shelf high,
Three feet wide, eight panes of beveled glass
Apiece, focus of the wizard's face I conjure
On pouring-down, blown-about nights like this,
When headlights blazon the wildly waving limbs
Of leafless trees against the hollow shades.
Filled with my books, my best old friends,
The shelves call my name. An oak fire crackles
On the grate, beeswax candles dazzle the crystal
Geodes, the pale ghosts of flames lick the lips
Of deep recesses, marble caverns carved smooth
As skin, where oil lamps loiter. I shall read
Far into the night by this most mysterious glow,
The little lights dancing on the page, scattered
As by mirrors on a ballroom globe, the tongues
Of torches flickering in the mouths of caves,
The liquid brilliance pitched from the lustrous
Cat's-eyes of owls disguised as brass andirons,
The molten spill into space where every speck
Of dust identifies itself. Unlike the moon's
Dark side, mine shows: my silhouette springs
To the far wall when I turn, sways like a djinn
Rudely jarred from its dreams. I learn secrets
From the fire, the origins of life, the rise
And fall of empires. Coals burst with tales
Of alien creatures locked in brief eternities,
Their dramas no less fierce than those a man
Might boast about, no less meaningful, or real.
Overhead, Boston ferns chained to the hand-hewn
Ceiling beams reach down like seaweed to a diver,
Green fingers opening and closing in the eddies
As wind lifts, then settles, the cedar shingles
Overlapped like thick leaves on the pitched roof.
A cable spool for a coffee table, a Persian rug
Yanked from under a second-hand dealer's nose
At an estate sale (for a song!), bushel baskets
Filled with dried weeds from neighboring fields—
Furnishings enough for anyone who lives alone
With hopes and aspirations, mine when I glance
About and count my good fortune, piece by piece.
2/ The South Wall
At its center sits an ordinary forced air oil stove,
A source of heat to one sailing smoother straits . . .
But here, a space eater, its tank as empty as my life
Before this house, when I would wake to wonder how
This day would differ from the last, and work loomed
Like black clouds churned stiff above a dreary grey
Horizon. The varnished pine opens left to bedroom,
Right to kitchen. Halfway between, off a narrow hall,
Sits the tiny bathroom, its tin shower stall peeling
Creamy latex paint. On this wall the hidden image
Of a stairway hovers, gone when I look for signs, nail
Holes, a difference in the wood. A wall with eyes,
Watching. A plane to sail through to other places.
Up through the dark-tinged beams, tongue-in-groove
Boards block a room not there, an alien space where
Bed, armchair and mirrored dresser rest under dust
That gleams silver in late light stealing inside
Panes of grimy glass, reached by scaling the peaked
Roof of the breezeway between house and garage.
When stepped beneath, this wall chills the bones
Like breath from an arctic ice cave, or a shroud
Of thick, ominous fog, quick frozen. It is a wall
Of passage, of no moment in this most magic house
Where time narrows to a point, and space opens wide.
3/ The West Wall
At its center sits my writing table, and through
The windows where I spend my days, the seasons pass.
Here, the sunsets and the stars are mine, patterned
By live oak limbs and leaves. Here, gray squirrels
Leap between cedar trees whose branch tips touch,
One launching itself wildly and hanging on for dear
Life while the limb whips up and down, the other
Warily pacing off the steps and making false starts.
Here, the tiffany mist is mine, the teardrop rain,
The blackberry blossoms bursting like the parasols
Of belles at the first hot sun, the brown polkadot
Puffballs falling like balloons to the forest floor
To nest in moss and decorate fern fronds. Here,
Bands of dive-bombing bluejays crack acorns against
The concrete slab beneath the wire line where I dry
My clothes when stone broke, admitting to a weakness
For quick-and-dirty laundromats in place of washtubs,
Hand wringers, clothespins . . . though the smell brings
A trip through time to my third year on Earth, where
I stand at my mother's feet as she pins up the wash,
Its colors bright against the sun, the sun hot behind
Her back, her flaxen hair flying in a breeze, her face
A silhouette, the cool brush of the sheets, the drips
From the tips of shirt collars, caught on the tongue.
It is here that I reach deep inside, here that I trace
My reasons for acting and reacting as I have, faced
With fear, and joy, and loneliness, and deep desires.
It is here, at last, that my feet are held to the fire.
It is here that I stop for the first time to stretch,
Stand back from the path I have followed aimlessly,
Make my peace unilaterally, erect monuments of epic
Proportion, and break down and bury obsolete weapons.
It is here that I shed my feathers and strut naked
In the eyes of nature, feeling like the bird who walks
To Tennessee wearing his dirty underwear, a refrain
From some dumb cartoon song stuck to my mind like glue.
It is here that I float the Lake Oswego of my teens,
Drinking up the sun, aware of the goddess who bends
As in prayer, exposing bronze breasts to the light
Bounced from her teak and mahogany inboard runabout.
It is here that I laugh and cry, and sometimes shake
Hands overhead, and rant and rave, and learn to love
One who remains just out of reach beyond my fingertips,
And groan against the work undone, and piss and moan.
It is here that the people in my life become at last
Real enough to touch, and I, real enough to let them in,
Become at last the person I have always glimpsed in me,
The one no longer on the white horse, proving things.
4/The East Wall
At its center sits an oak door, its wrought iron latch
Hard beside the dying stereo where Cat Stevens makes
My theme song, Sitting, come alive, Jim Croce strokes
Me with his Alabama Rain, Roberta Flack lullabies me
To dreamland with The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,
And Don McLean's Vincent lifts me to the feet of God.
At night, headlights pass like lanterns in the hands
Of monks, swinging this way and that, striking walls
And beams with crosses, feints, jabs, and uppercuts.
Once a week I venture forth to gather in my needs:
Limbs and wood scraps scavenged from forest and mill,
Fresh fruit and vegetables liberated from hillside
Orchards and bottomland truck farms, berries picked
From thick vines in clearings, away from road dust . . .
And if the mail has brought a check, tons of granola
For the slow times, a nice piece of lean beef, a loaf
Of French bread, mushrooms, a bottle of vintage red
Bought at the little shop a mile's walk from the foot
Of the hill, a mound of clean and folded clothes fresh
From the laundromat, and a long-distance call or two.
At its center sits a director's chair, the Persian rug
Beneath, the cable spool perfect for a pair of bare feet
Pointed toward the fire. I roll the vintage red around
The goblet's rim, nod my approval to the wealth of beads,
The crystal clarity, the deep ruby hue, the rich bouquet
Blossoming beneath my nose, the tannin bite at the back
Of my tongue, the altogether perfect aftertaste, the glow.
Here, beauty reigns from the rafters, permeates the air,
Gives rise to a joy beyond the reach of emperor or king.
I lay claim to the diamond dew adorning emerald blades
Of grass at the first blush, ruby fingertips in the rush
Of ripe berries to a bowl, old gold littering the forest
Floor after a cloudburst, the silver sun splitting like
Fine hair fanned from behind a rollicking thunderhead.
I subscribe to nature with a passion, knowing my renewal
Is as bound to be as the dawn, the spring, the aftermath
Of rain, the crescent moon, the sea floor pushing apart
Whole continents, the cosmic brush dusting bright minds
With radical thoughts, bringing our species closer than
It cares to know, owing to our having turned our backs
On commonality. I dwell as one at home with all I see,
Party to the grandest ruse of all, being what one seems
To be, and fooling all the fools who rush to rise above.
If I am a fool, I am no ordinary fool, and this house
No ordinary house. I live my dream of a perfect world
Where every lofty word rings true, the air is clear,
The water pure, the land about unfenced, and I am free . . .
Alone in Salem, Oregon, in the glorious autumn of 1973.
[First published in Talus and Scree: An International Journal]
We are as much as we see.