EXCERPTS : : Sunday Afternoon
Walking down to the trees,
Virginia joins him. She is already cold.
Clods stick to their soles.
They see the nuts.
They do not speak.
They are waiting too.
They see snow coming
each with his eye inside
his eye inside his eye.
Fallen among leaves,
they buried themselves in furrows
against a whole winter on empty limbs.
They fall all around all round;
they mix with snow gliding down tick a tick
on leaves bound in a mulch by frost.
Zipping his jacket,
he wonders why all walnuts do not change
like thousands of sparrows frightened
to sudden wings by their approaching thud.
But they all lie shut and stolid,
the eyes of old chiefs scattered over dirt.
He asks Virginia about the cold
eating at her thin white shoes and socks
crawling through her white sweater--
swarms of bees leaving her stung with shivering.
She stays quiet, bent double
as snow zeros in on her bones.
Her fingers squeeze off black slush of hulls,
then drop brown nuts whump and click
into the box she drags along.
If a hull slips loose,
she takes the nut.
If the green hull holds,
she leaves it.
And as she works, she hums a song
only roots can hear.
When he dropped to his knees,
cold frost soaked quickly
through jeans to kneecaps and bones.
He forgot them. His hands began
to move carefully over the ground,
every inch of walnut leaves and dirt
a potential hard rosary of brown eyes,
of ancient pollen from some monstrous bee
once flying the bottom of this lake.
Taking the fallen nuts, he feels clay marbles
he used to play for in a smaller dirt circle
in grade school. Someone always brought them
in a marble bag with glass cat eyes.
Someone always brought steelies too,
cracking old clay to chips. He moves now
in a careful hands-out-and-gather crawl
like a blind man searching for a woman
in his cold reasonable bed.
Do the trees see him taking?
Will roots rise like tentacles,
wrapping salt around his wrists if he picks
Would he be caught there,
guilty before a whole orchard a whole winter?
Would trees punish his greed?
Could Grande Ronde open and swallow him?
What would the trees' judgment be?
What would he have to say before they let him go?
Gathering, gathering, he hears always the rattle
of green meat inside the shells.
Looking up, he expects some Cornwall overlord
striding up in high black boots, red jacket,
quirt in hand, making him stay on his knees.
He's not working otherwise.
But there is only Virginia bending double,
love freezing her gathering hands.
Watching her, wind blears his eyes
under those walnut limbs the gray of whitetail,
the silver of tarnished chalice.
Overhead, thick branches just bare and wild
as sacred antlers against the black sky.
He has not kneeled so long indoors for years.
His knees go numb, his pants tear,
his coat falls open, skin smears with mud,
but he is warm, alive.
He hears Virginia gather, feels her shiver;
she rises to go now.
She asks him to come, eat,
but he will not yet.
First read at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, May 6, 1976, for “In the American Grain: The Long Poem and Authority in America—a series of readings and discussions” sponsored by The Portland Poetry Festival. Excerpt reprinted in The Pacific (Summer 1975): 19.