as if they were still chiseling stone until
at last in minuscules they fixed a wedge
of space between the words and a hush fell
upon the page as if light filtered through
trees to a forest floor. It is the space
inside the vessel, said Lao-tzu,
that is its usefulness. It is the space
inside the u that gives it life. And where
the leaflets of the white ash meet the stalk,
not sessile but set a space apart, the air
moves in between them in the give and take
of interpenetration, as now nearing
the end, the poem itself comes to a clearing.
With their heads
jutting like gargoyles from the trees, the snakes
lie still as statues where the monkeys caper
until for one too young there is no escape or
even tearing those mosaic coils; it takes
the cawing the macaw in gaudy splendor makes
from its towering tree to warn the tapir
that the scent it has not sensed, that weight and shape are
the jaguar. Terror-struck the tapir stakes
its life on racing for the river, where
the scarlet ibis with its eyes this dark—
two specks of coal to fuel a feathered flare—
full now and fleetingly released from slaughter,
unbends its wings and neck from that double arc,
becoming air as the fish fits into water.
Ear Training for Poets
As the owl in darkness zeroes in
on the world’s small sounds, so must you. But which?
The deepest comes from any quiet room
where you can lie down undisturbed. So wait
and listen. Do waves wash a distant shore
over and over? What ocean? What land? Too low
for anyone but you, your heart beats and
repeats its proof that you are musical.
Wait until you hear this; then go on.
And if you can, leave your room at the start
of spring and linger by the maples as
their leaves push out fully formed but folded:
accordion-pleated along the veins.
There is a song here for the catching when
the leaflets spread—a murmur but half heard,
a melody where April and maple meld.
Then on your city streets, be keen, for words
are always floating through the air like seeds.
Listen as two friends part and one calls back,
“I meant to mention…”: how the sounds seem
to grow by mitosis, taking their function
from position as at first in embryos
the cells do, this one becoming heart, that brain.
Compare this with the past. Have these principles
always been at play, as when Lesbia’s sparrow
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
is pulled along the line’s dark corridor
and swallowed up? So may you be
swallowed up in tenderness for your tongue.
(There is no need for you to listen for love
since your ear naturally magnifies
its slightest sound: as just one molecule
of scent diffused in air will draw the moth
from miles away to meet a mate, so just
three syllables can draw you half way
around the world—who knows for what?)
Now this is the hard part: to hear your life
slipping away. Listen at odd moments
while waiting on line, catching a bus,
washing your clothes, or paying bills, and try
to hear it go as softly as a needle
moving through cloth. Now you are closing in
on silence, whose beats you must at last learn
to count evenly as in music or
as when love bids goodbye for good.
Elegy for Whom
They spoke my native tongue. I felt at home
despite the oceans I had crossed to come.
“Who do you wish to see?” I sighed for whom.
They led me down a corridor to meet
the lotus sage, disciples at his feet.
So many weeks we chanted the mystic om.
“Who will you travel with?” Now it was time
to go. He vouched for him and they for them,
but who was there to say a word for whom?
The flight attendant handed out a list
titled “Who To Call,” and someone hissed,
“Shouldn’t that be whom?” She sputtered, “Um . . .”
How clear it was that throat and mouth could frame
om and him and um and them with vim,
but when it came to whom, the word was mum.
Brain branches that had been the habitat
where whom could flit had all been leveled flat.
I raised a cry. My seatmate murmured, “Hmmm.”
At home I climbed up to my windowed room,
fearing our warbler word was now but dream.
All day I sat and sang a hymn to whom.
Botanical Sketch of You
Saguaro I’d say if I had to
compare you with a plant:
you are that tall and straight and apt to
stand apart in silhouette.
And prickly! I’ve seen your cactus
spines in action as a string
of words almost tactile
in the way they sting.
To brave them is to find a home
in you, my own deep wish,
as the woodpecker carves a room
in saguaro flesh.
And you have known how to store up love
in memory’s net
and been able to stay alive
through years of drought,
not withering but with the strength
to splurge and draw
on those reserves of succulence
you use to flower now.
Poems © Suzanne Noguere