Vertumnal [excerpt]

Stephen Yenser

Close call, close call, close call: this early in the morning
The raucous crows' raw caws are ricochets off rock.
Afloat on wire from a dead tree's branch a piece of charred limb
Repeats a finch that perched on it in its last life.
Here under the pergola, loaded with green wistaria,
Misty air wistful with a few late lavender clusters,
Light falling in petal-sized spots across the notebook page
(Falling just now for instance on the phrase Light falling),
And under the feeder where the thumb-sized Calliope hummer
Hovers like a promising word on wings thrumming
To slip her bill-straw past the busy sugar ants
Through the red flower's grill into the sweetened red water,
And over there in your "office" under the lean-to under the crabapple,
Its fruit (like tiny ottomans) rotting sweetly on the branch
(Bouquet of Calvados and fresh tobacco),
Where in the midst of spades and pruners, hatchets, hoes, and shears,
Trowels, dibbles, rakes, and sickles you ground your axes,
Sharpened your wits, filed your notes and journals,
Moving through the garden, through all you made of where you lived--
You catch your ex-son-in-law, taking photos, figs, and notes on notes.
All round the garden are ghosts of what we called your "sculptures":
Pruned limbs, and broken, dried out to dove-gray, steel-gray,
Balanced, cantilevered, interlocked like skeletons
Of lovers, wrestlers, lovers; dried vines dangling
From a high branch and snaking up a makeshift bench;
A lonely felloe with its Vs of spokes against a wall;
A lithe gnarl of live oak, grain rainwashed,
Sundrawn into shape, head cocked, curious,
Wedged in its hanging basket--as though in some square nest?
Whimsical, estranged, you left it all up in the air.
The ancient plum tree, its chief remaining limb become its trunk,
Leans on a forked crutch stuck in the earth.
Disfigured, splendid in its beads of resin,
It has been dying twenty years. Go slow, you'd say,
On any occasion of stress or lift: Go slow--
Unhurried as the date palm, your family around you nervous as finches.
Weeding, staking, mulching, always with some startled kerchief
Or boxers remnant or paisley necktie binding your brow.
Things ripened. Rounded out. Entered new lives by smidgins.
By pulses. You went slow. And suddenly were gone.
You cut the thorny lemon, and it cut back. Your fingers,
Cross-hatched, were thick as roots, with eyes of their own,
In queer places, like potatoes' eyes, and noses of their own,
Used as moles to breaking earth--
Densely wrinkled, blunt, penile. Well, Raymond V. Bomba,
The V for Valentine, whose day you were born on, we miss you,
Old Vertumnus. The V for verto and all its furcations.
And for the Virgin in the birdbath's center in the garden's
Who sees you still, the blanket hung to screen a rift in greenery,
Taking your sunbath--hunkered naked, or standing naked, a little bent.
V for the forked wand and "the poor bare forked animal."
Sorting your "effects," your wife and daughter found a clutch
Of photos clipped and cropped and pasted into thoughtful paginal
Compositions or left loose to be shuffled. A fingered muff
Matches a bearded mouth, a pinkish cock and a stiff tongue rhyme.
The edges have been tenderly rounded. (For once you cut some corners).
Hankering, reverent, you left them there to tell the family--what?
There in the old goat shed across from guava and kumquat . . .
Kumquat. Who would not succumb to such a word, its verjuice
And blown kiss? V also for all that's venial, vernacular.
In the new Romance Philology, a title you'd have savored:
"Vegetal-Genital Onomastics in the Libro de Buen Amor."
Wonderful mouthful, its palatals, its labials!
V for its g's as soft as August's livid purple figs,
So swollen in the fondling sun they have a frosty glaze.
Under the fig tree, an old pot's full of drying cardone,
Pappus coarse as pubic hair, with a fresh, fierce pungency,
Burst buds gone oily brown, starseeds forming in death.
Ray, you could have told us that the same root shoots
Its milky sap through work and orgy too.
You dug pits for your rakings, grounds, rinds,
Wormy peppers, tomatoes simmered on the summer vines,
And apricots galore--windfallen, slug-gnawed, earwig-bored,
Daintily painted with snailglister and bird droppings,
Or chucked by squirrels who'd take a cheeky bite
From just-ripe fruit and drop the ruin at your feet.
Fruit ripe and rife, fire-dipped, as the poet put it,
And proved upon the earth. And it is still a law
That all goes in, serpentine, vatic, dreaming on the hills--
Lavender, vespid, vibrant--this evening's hills of heaven.
A pair of wild parrots startle
Up overhead and squabble off together wholeheartedly.
Here where your family had their gin and tonic talks,
And I took issue and drinks with twists on mazy walks,
African lindens flourish--exactly where I wed your daughter.
Coaxing them from cuttings, I didn't see that she lacked sun and water.
The year turned round each year with cantaloupe and plum,
Eggplant and olive, and the vowel-dark grapes of autumn
Tied to the arbor. And as it happens, the ball of twine
Has just run out you gave us with our first vine . . .
So where am I? Twine . . . Mona's word, who gave us tarragon--
And gave us too, too late, a poem . . . Its purple aura gone
To ground around it, a pointilliste's shadow, mystical,
The jacaranda dangles pods like desiccated testicles.
The grackle, the early bird--"the oily one"--will get the worm
Even as it turns. The marriage went full term,
Went unpicked, then fell like you. Marriage, from mari,
Young woman, bride . . . tried . . . tied . . . as though to mara,
Bitter. The olive's argentine, then argentine. Twine, twine . . .
Terms mean, demean . . . Ray, you'd cure the bitter fruit in brine.
A squeaking cupboard--no, the hummingbird, eking out a song,
Looking it might be for material for his nest, a matrix
Woven of hair, saliva threads, plant down, spider web, and lichen,
Lichen itself already complex, alga, fungus . . .
You tried to weave it all together too--in verse, in prose--
And get it straight as well. But how could you compose
In stanzas, who wrote among the ferns, and feverfew in flower,
Where fennel alone could hold elaborate candelabra up?
And what could you have had to do with argument,
Who hardly threw a thing away and even made blue plastic
Bottle caps, immortal rubbish, seem to grow on trees?
"Beyond Words" you entitled the last draft
Of your ever denser, ever more desperate manuscript.
Beyond palaver, you meant, and academic poppycock.
Folderol and flourish, terms that squelch and fix--
Like chokecherry corymbs and spikes of heather.
And chickweed cyme, jack-in-the-pulpit's spadix,
and the calla lily's, milkweed umbel,
Panicle of wild oat grass, thyrse of lilac . . .
All that malarkey, flashy as the Texas meadowlark's.
The house you built will go, wall by wall, to Encinada's sand.
Your garden will give way to filters, pumps, floodlights.
Where will the squirrels go to stir up their old quarrels?
Where will the gopher go, who loves a life among fig roots?
This early morning's mockingbird's a rusty screw
Coming out a half turn at a time.
With such an effort you'd twist your thoughts free.
Or on your Adler bang them deeper into mystery.
Trying to write your hard time down,
You found time writing you down first, with your own pencils,
Always growing stubbier, shavings fragrant as cumin,
Fragrant as made love, erasing their own erasers.
How you loathed "realities sustained too long--
As with the saint, who can't do anything but pray . . .
Are we not always part of something else
That also needs to live, to die, to change?"
--That from your journals with their words of orchards,
Orchards of words, their round redundance, while the breeze
Sweeps the albizzia, its easy dance redone of light and shade,
Beside the wild firetop that's suddenly abuzz with bees.
From The Fire in All Things, published by Louisiana State University Press, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by Stephen Yenser. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Further Reading

Poems for Summer
Tempest, Act V, Scene I [Where the bee sucks, there suck I]
by William Shakespeare
A Boat, Beneath a Sunny Sky
by Lewis Carroll
A Boy and His Dad
by Edgar Guest
A Green Crab's Shell
by Mark Doty
A Lesson for This Sunday
by Derek Walcott
A Path Between Houses
by Greg Rappleye
After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard
by Charles Wright
by Tony Connor
Alice at Seventeen: Like a Blind Child
by Darcy Cummings
Anastasia & Sandman
by Larry Levis
And You Thought You Were the Only One
by Mark Bibbins
by Richard Tayson
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Back Yard
by Carl Sandburg
Bed in Summer
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Daffy Duck In Hollywood
by John Ashbery
Fall Parties
by Becca Klaver
Fat Southern Men in Summer Suits
by Liam Rector
Fishing on the Susquehanna in July
by Billy Collins
For Once, Then, Something
by Robert Frost
Ground Swell
by Mark Jarman
I know I am but summer to your heart (Sonnet XXVII)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
I see the boys of summer
by Dylan Thomas
I, Up they soar
by Inger Christensen
by Siegfried Sassoon
If You Get There Before I Do
by Dick Allen
In Summer
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
In Summer Time
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
In the Mountains on a Summer Day
by Li Po
by Maxine Kumin
by Tony Hoagland
June Light
by Richard Wilbur
Let Birds
by Linda Gregg
Long Island Sound
by Emma Lazarus
Making the Bed
by Burt Kimmelman
by William Cullen Bryant
by Elaine Terranova
by Walt Whitman
Muffin of Sunsets
by Elaine Equi
My Mother on an Evening in Late Summer
by Mark Strand
On 52nd Street
by Philip Levine
On Summer
by George Moses Horton
On the Grasshopper and the Cricket
by John Keats
Poem at Thirty
by Michael Ryan
Poem for Adlai Stevenson and Yellow Jackets
by David Young
Psychoanalysis: An Elegy
by Jack Spicer
Rhode Island
by William Meredith
Sally's Hair
by John Koethe
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? (Sonnet 18)
by William Shakespeare
by Ellen Dudley
Sonnet 7 [The soote season, that bud and bloom forth brings]
by Petrarch
by Jack Gilbert
by Amy Lowell
Summer at Blue Creek, North Carolina
by Jack Gilbert
Summer Holiday
by Robinson Jeffers
Summer Images
by John Clare
Summer in the South
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Summer Night, Riverside
by Sara Teasdale
Summer Nights and Days
by Rachel Hadas
Summer Past
by John Gray
Summer Song
by William Carlos Williams
Summer Stars
by Carl Sandburg
Summer X-Rays
by Nina Cassian
Swimming in the Presence of Lurid Opposition
by Sawako Nakayasu
The Abduction
by Stanley Kunitz
The Family Photograph
by Vona Groarke
The Fishermen at Guasti Park
by Maurya Simon
The Fly
by William Blake
The Idea of Order at Key West
by Wallace Stevens
The Last Slow Days of Summer
by Phillip Lopate
The Magpie's Shadow
by Yvor Winters
The Philosopher in Florida
by C. Dale Young
The Summer House
by Tony Connor
The White Room
by Charles Simic
They'll spend the summer
by Joshua Beckman
This Lime Tree Bower My Prison
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Songs at the End of Summer
by Jane Kenyon
by Rita Dove
by Louise Glück
Warm Summer Sun
by Mark Twain
by Stanley Plumly