Survival in the Northern Woods
In ancient Rome it was considered a sin to eat the flesh of a woodpecker.
How long, O Lord? How long?
This morning on the shoulder of the two-lane, a downy
lay flattened in gravel and dust,
like a wildflower pressed in an old book.
If it's true birds take in a visual field flat-out in total focus,
this one’’s last vision was likely the grille
of a lumber truck--
a steel beast lugging a horizontal forest.
Tonight, wild creatures of the woods will feast
on woodpecker flesh;
by week's end, so swift the erasure, I'll walk
that stained patch of dirt without a thought.
So many spring deaths.
And yet, a few will linger a lifetime; such is the nature
of human vision.
Out on the lake, the twilight stirs with the loons’
I've taken to browsing my grandfather’s shelves--
ledgers kept a century back,
a children's Bible, a Boy Scout Handbook from 1911
with a chapter on Chivalry and Brave Deeds,
another on Endurance.
Under the heading of “Losing One's Way,”
If lost in the woods for a time one can survive
by chewing the leather of one's own shoes.
It's only long after, when I've climbed to the loft,
that I find myself worrying over the phrasing:
If lost for a time?
or survive for a time?
And my own darker question: For how long a time?
I wake after midnight to a quiet still frayed by occasional
tremolos filled with longing.
Or bone-deep misgivings?
Or simple lust?
I've no way of knowing, but if you've heard
their liquid echoes warbling the dark you know
it's not laughter.
I read somewhere if you change a single ion--
magnesium to iron—you'll have changed chlorophyll
Had Jesus come upon this bit of chemistry,
might he have chosen to come to earth,
not incarnate, but in-arborate—embodied
in leafage, root, and limb?
How to know anything? Least of all, what will save us.
Out in the dark on the highway's edge, the feast continues,
a downy's forbidden flesh consumed by a host
of microscopic creatures
burrowed deep in its tissues
and by the beaks and canine teeth of the North--
a ceremony washed
by Northern Lights
spilling their ions onto the earth: an ablution
to ease the long-term taking.
I lie in the loft, wakeful, expectant, but the stillness stretches
Maybe there's time.
Maybe from one of my grandfather's volumes
I still might learn
the skills of discernment--
how to distinguish between a silence that precedes a call
and one that follows it forever--
between an interim and absence.
Marjorie Stelmach's most recent book of poems is Without Angels (Mayapple, 2014). Earlier volumes include Bent upon Light and A History of Disappearance (University of Tampa Press) and Night Drawings (Helicon Nine). Individual poems have recently appeared in Arts & Letters, The Cincinnati Review, Image, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, Tampa Review, and others, as well as twice on Poetry Daily.