Constructing the Visible World
You can tell there’s ice in patches on the lake
only because the gulls are standing on it,
each on one leg to maintain body-warmth,
each facing into the wind as always.
Knowing it’s there you can see the ice
presenting a different surface to the air
like the skin on your mug of boiled milk
that you blew into wrinkles then hooked out
with a fingertip or a crust to eat like cream.
You can tell what trees and bushes grow here
only if you see their leaves or berries
under them on the frost-hard ground.
Out-of-season furniture, they’ve been
dust-covered by honeysuckle vines,
smothered into uniform hillocks of scribbles
like the Seven Sleepers hidden in their hair,
or Sleeping Beauty’s castle and lands
overgrown with briar roses and brambles.
You can tell what’s happened on this land
only if you can read the signs embedded
in its placid grassy face: the glacier boulders
pushed to its downslope edge by backhoes;
the faded pasture fence marking
boundaries once made stock-proof
by hedges of osage orange; the trail
between the last two mansions to go up,
where fox scat still appears from time to time.
Along the no man’s land beside the rails
and in the woods that border the canal
late April finds old apple trees in bloom
at random, scattered much too thinly
to be the survivors of ancient orchards,
and mostly with no sign of cellar hole
or the abandoned lilacs that might once
have been planted around an outhouse.
No, these rise above nothing noteworthy–
stretches of skunk cabbage, dried-up mud,
or swamp in a wet spring, weedy saplings
that show how high the last floodwaters rose
by clinging to their stoles of twiggy mess,
intertwined with plastic bags, fishing lures,
dead cattails and the sort of rubbishy loot
a large untidy bird might build a nest with.
I like to think of the man who dug the canal
or laid the rails for a pittance, in muck
and shale, through rock and river bottom,
pausing to munch the apple given him
by a farmer’s daughter he’d smiled at
in the last settlement they passed, or else
by the boss to mark a mile achieved
ahead of schedule, and tossing away the core.
Owl pellets our fifth graders teased apart
in the biology lab are like their dreams,
filled with remnants of the day before.
Different owls make different bricolages.
One loved mice–here are the vertebrae
and bent-comb ribcages of three,
with two of their skulls and a skeletal tail,
neatly pasted to the labeled file card.
Another found a young chipmunk;
we can tell it by its teeth, and the length
of its leg bones, laid out on the white
rectangle as though on a mortuary slab
below the wing-cases of a beetle.
This one seems to have dined on baby birds,
coughing up their inch-long yellow legs,
their beaked skulls, their fledgling feathers;
and the next card shows a schematic frog
from an owl who hunted near a pond.
As retold dreams catch only shards
this gluey display lacks the juicy crunch
of each starlit meal, the blood and innards,
the wriggle and squeal and flutter of death,
the warm joy of hunger assuaged again.
The Luxury of Obstacles
Without necessity, no invention.
One-celled animals live the simple life,
no worries, no urges more important
than consuming and dividing, but
when something exerts extraordinary
the inventions are more and more
adaptation. mutation. disease.
not to mention the land adventure,
the taste of plants and other animals,
dance and speech and misunderstanding,
accidental or intentional. religion.
politics. cell phones.
In the end we have to love the stuff
that complicates and lengthens life:
traffic lights, crowded doctors’ waiting rooms,
taking off our shoes in airports, sausage recalls.
And all the machines that need reprogramming
every time the power fails.
Elizabeth (Mimi) Danson was born in India, spent her early childhood in China, and was educated in England. She has lived in Princeton for most of her adult life, teaching at Princeton Day School, working in publishing, and administering an arts center. Her writing has appeared in US 1 Worksheets, The New Review, Fourth Genre, and other publications. Her book, “The Luxury of Obstacles,” was published by The Ragged Sky Press in 2006.