the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night




Quitman Marshall


One mean, deep-rutted road,
its shaggy, root-knotted crown
clawing at the low bottom of my car—
aerodynamically sound for sure
on roads flat as this world once was
and fast between the known places,
but here a lot like me behind the wheel,
hurting with certain kinds of motions—
it leads past well-meant mounds,
signs of what made the money of the place
that are simply earth now, where trees volunteer.

A reversion, this turn might be called,
and I should drive an SUV, they'd say,
those who, like Vespucci, need to believe
they're going elsewhere than they'll go.
I know my trip today is a search back
in time. That's okay, since space, for all
useful purposes, is known and maybe done for.
I read a ruin's down this disused road, so try.
It used to host fancy balls in the mansion it was,
made of oyster shells, lime, and slaves
for a signer of a certain claim to independence.

And I keep going, sure it's there, without a map.
His oaks, I think between bumps, want to welcome me.
Though something in a book describes what might
have been, I've taken it to really be. Vespucci
might have thought our continent was Asia,
but, at the time, it wasn't. Then it got named
for him, his first name, what his mother
might have called him until she had another.

But no, with the light far west becoming east,
I have to stop the motion of this family car,
turn back from the scraping uncertainty
of my little life, bounded by what
I think I know or, by a book, was told.
Amerigo saw things as they were,
he thought, though the edge of the world
was folding on itself. So, because I can't
go on, I'll use his last name, not his first,
for my small, late, and unfinished journey.



The blue pluff mud of low tide
ought to tell those who have the view
of and damn well paid for it
that their grip on everything is weak.
Let's blame the mud for our stupidity
metastasizing as real estate,
the thousands of squares
for each pair of feet on the floors.
Poor houses that must always look
in a mirror for themselves
and ceaselessly speculate.
So it's the mud's fault, grooved by the sea,
that it's not properly covered by water
about half the time. We won't talk
about low tide in the marketing,
or the way, when the deep water's gone,
that stuff glistens with impassable soul.



The crazy robins are back again
in gangs swinging through the trees.
Their ownership is one I think
I know, a noisy group
doing the place so swiftly.
And the way they stand like fetishes,
chests out, feeling undercurrents
that feed them, only them,
in our life-and-death-crammed earth,
with the one and only worm: I know
what bothers me about these birds,
so I'm not counting. Anyway,
I prefer them solo, drunk-stuck
on hubcap reflections of themselves,
or out along the highway, just moving on.

Fifty crows float from a fat man's head
as he crosses the street ahead of me.
It's like they're laughing at themselves
as they go, at the very idea of flying
or of being crows.

The cardinal's liquid song is fine,
and I wish his splendid redness well
in mating. That warbler with the lime-
smeared rump can come out of hiding.
I'm not cutting the tree until after
it falls on my house.

A mockingbird like that one
pinned my brother to the ground
fifty years ago, that one
that sings, despite the terror of a child,
like anything it wants to now
from the billed parabola of wire
that brings me power, light, and warmth.

Like you, I didn't ask to be born
after Edison, nor for these wrens
to nest so close, in bicycle helmets
and hanging ferns, and to cry
out so loudly, like Piaf, for others
as if they knew me, and were welcome.

Overhead each morning
are the Canada geese, fickle
about their water features,
a keening that used to make me shiver.
Now I know that better than that.

I know roseate spoonbills better
and those ibis by the score
that flank the gates of gated
neighborhoods. From the corner
of my eye I've spied bald eagles,
caught ospreys, raptors that we savor
having saved, and watched
a blameless great blue heron,
still and hieratic,
shed its third dimension.

But, look, my lifetime count
is of those who can't look up,
or pay the price, for the time it's worth,
seven billion women, children, and men,
most nice to each other most of the time,
who walk their small patch of earth
and die in the notion that birds,
unlike themselves, are free.



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