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4 Philosophical Poems About Life and Death by John Grey


Search Goes On

I imagine you in the maidenhair,
the gentle whorls of bipinnate fronds,
vibrant stalks with layers of leaves,
along their scalloped edges.

Then it’s the turn of the orange hawkweed,
filling the field with their dandelion-like flowers,
or the bull-thistle prickly and pink,
embossing the rims of the backroads.

You’re sound
from crickets cavorting,
to the agitated kit-kit-kittery of kingbirds
to twigs cracking underfoot.

And touch,
the feel of scaly brown spruce bark,
the chalky peels of birch.

But mostly it’s vision
that sustains my search.
The house is no help.
But the Virginia rose is in pale pink bloom.
I hold out hope.
 

The Old Man of the Woods

He imagined himself as a bird
pecking at a cone
high on a pine tree.

Or a leaf in fall,
descending its invisible ladder
to the forest floor.

His life was an excuse
to be part of all life,
from moss gripping trunk
to the soil at his feet,
always feeding
from its banquet of mulch.

He knew the songs, the tracks,
the scat.
And he and the breeze
would get together
and identify the smells.

He could sit for hours
and watch bugs dismantling
a squirrel carcass,
devouring the body
but leaving the soul.

He ate the fruit of the vines,
staining his fingers
with the woodland’s blood.

And dreamed that, when he died,
he’d fall on the trail,
not buried someplace distant
but as a willing contributor
to the breakdown of matter,
in aid of the common function
he’d been serving all these years.
 

Summer Storm

The wife is hanging washing on the outside line.
The husband is dead five years.
The boy kicks a football around.
One girl is making imaginary tea for her dolls.
Another is on the phone to her first boyfriend.

The horizon’s black with the usual summer storm.
The sun doesn’t go down in these parts.
It’s sent on its way by lightning and thunder.

Nobody seems to be bothered.
Rain will merely wash the clothes a second time.
The boy will join the girls inside.
The ball will stay behind to take
the brunt of the weather.
And the father, of course, is immovable.

These storms clear the air.
They make night more like night.
The worst that can happen is the power goes out,
a favorite TV show is missed.
The best is the boy with his face at the window,
eyes wide at the wonder of the circus in the sky.
With the husband in the grave,
every passing day feels like
another round of survival,
of making do, even making better from time to time.
The boy is now the man of the family.
He sees off the storm.
More than that, he revels in it.
 

A Family at the Civil War Site

We’re hungry and thankfully
there’s a cafeteria
that serves breakfast sandwiches
until 11.00 a.m.

It overlooks the battlefield.
In the distance,
we can see the play soldiers marching
where real soldiers once fell.

Maybe we’ll buy some souvenirs
at the gift shop, tiny dolls in blue or gray.
The kids can re-fight the Civil War
in the backseat on the way home.

Suitably sated, we go together
to the place where this country
almost pulled apart.
It’s just a green meadow.

The boys are absorbed by the rifle fire,
the clouds of smoke
that puff grey from each barrel.
You wonder what it’s like to live in times of war.

We’re living in one
and yet you still have to wonder.
It’s just grass and weeds, some bare spots,
but no blood, no bodies, no dismembered limbs.

It’s always the way.
History soars for a time and then goes slack.
It shows up in a tattered book.
Or as an exit sign off the highway.

I’m supposed to believe how great it was
that young men killed each other for a cause.
A sign says “No Littering.”
But is skepticism littering?

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