In the long months of listening to reports of war
I grew more and more attached to the Douglas Fir
we planted in the northwest corner of the garden
one winter my children were young. Mornings and evenings
I went out waiting for something to come to me
from between the branches, watching juncos and towhees
alight and leave, wanting to be bird or tree, solid or flickering,
weightless or rooted.
Tell me about the life cycle of trees, how far
under the earth their roots dig, how broadly
beneath the neighborhood they range, a whole world
below us probing and grasping, settling and holding fast.
I dreamed someone had split it in half.
Its savaged trunk was red at the core, overnight
beetles and ants had made it their home
How did you survive, the woman is asked
whose legs were blown off in a bombing. How did you survive
the child is asked who fled
his burning village. How did you survive the soldier
asks the brown and white dog
who came to him one day in Kabul and never
afterward left his side. How? how did you? did you?
Some trees owe their lives to fire. Fire
opens the seedcone, generative. Others
perish. Still others persist, grow taller, sprout
new green growth, live on
bearing the memory
of inexorable heat, the charred
How we are saved
and lost and saved again. I read
a book to Ciel when she was small
about a water horse, a horse
who carries a girl afraid of water
on his back
down into a lake, slowly, hoof
after hoof, under the surface,
to its deepest depths.
It’s raining again,
more rain than we can collect, flowing
in rivulets down steep streets. Lost
to us, unusable. So much
has been lost to us. The rain
heavier now, running along
the veins of the leaves. Bending them, bowing
them. Ciel rapt, turning
the pages, the water horse
stepping deeper and deeper, withers
gleaming, hoof after hoof, tenderly
so as not to frighten
the child. His long
mane. And the water horse
loved the child — the book’s
last page — and the child
loved the water horse, and he taught
her to swim and there
Listening for the owls who live in the ravine
behind this house. Several? A pair?
I lie awake in the dark of the early year. Call
and response? I am here. So am I. The way my children
when they were small would call from their beds,
the way someone might call out to God and wait
for an answer.. All these years
and I have not seen them, the owls.
The deer and raccoons climb every day
up the edges of the ravine, through bramble, tangle of
manzanita, madrone. They come to my garden,
eat. And somewhere a horse
lowers himself into water, the child
on his back gripping the coarse dark
hairs of his mane, murmuring fear fear fear.
A friend tells me she walked
in the hills the day after someone died
whom she’d loved, and felt the trees – Monterey Pine,
Eucalyptus – bending over her, witnessing. As though
they could feel it, themselves bowed
with grief. World layered with memory
like leafmulch on the trails in the hills, last
year’s or the years before
to soil, what’s under our feet
holding traces of others’
walking, a history
held by wet dark dirt. Yesterday a letter arrived
from the son of a man I loved
when I was nineteen, an old
poem of mine I didn’t
folded inside. All
his life he kept it? by intention
or simply because it was stuck between the pages
of some book he’d never afterward
opened? I remember his thick hair,
the way he poured coffee from a red metal pot.
I remember the night he told me how,
a high school kid with a new license,
he’d driven too fast down an unlit road
and hit a woman who died. Layers of years
mulching down to this moment, I standing
here in my sunny kitchen
reading this letter
from his son announcing
his death, reading my own
old poem, soil
covering blood, skid marks, memory.
Two mourning doves on the deck rail
outside my kitchen window, eating seed
I spread there yesterday. I’m trying to listen
to the radio news and write quickly,
before driving to work.
A reporter is interviewing a man
detained at the airport.
How many children do you have? she asks.
He has been deported, she is speaking to him
on the phone from an airport in the country
he was sent back to. Three, he
is saying. Three daughters.
The doves remain, eating. And how long
since you’ve seen them?
They rise, wings making that
muffled sound, into the air. Months, the man
says. Nearly a year.
What are their names? the reporter
asks. He tells her. The interview isn’t
done but it’s time
I left the house. He is telling the reporter
the questions he had been asked
at the airport: What do you keep
in your pockets? Do you own a weapon? What
are your childrens’ names? How many
times a day do you pray?
Hold in this sunlit morning the man
unable to get into the country
unable to see the daughters
waiting for him, wearing
the dresses they put on
only for him. Hold the doves.
Hold the named
and the unnamed, the grass, the blossoms
paler now among leaves emerging.
A red metal coffee pot. A book, borrowed?
A poem that says this is the name
I would call you by, a name in another tongue
that means beloved.
A rainy night, a pickup skidding
on an unlit road: forever, two
lives bound to each other, one
in this world and one in the next.
A young man reading a poem
stuck between the pages
of a book he was going to give away,
from a woman who loved his father
when they were younger than he is now. The world
so changed: much
has been lost to us. What is it
for him, that his father
loved and was loved
like that? (How we are saved
and lost. Saved again?
Imagine the horse can stride across seas.
Across boulevards, stepping
between fast-moving buses, taxis. Easily. Gracefully.
Imagine three children on his back. Daughters.
They are wearing the dresses they put on
to see their father. Now they are leaving
the hem of the continent; they can’t
hear the city. Their dresses are pink,
yellow. The water horse carries them
easily – they are so slender and
light! – and the clouds and the sea birds
pass over them. Now they are under
the waves, they can see
what’s been impossible to see. They are
in a country with no
names. Their hair floats behind them
in the water and the horse’s mane
floats too and their strong small
legs grip his body and they stay
on his back. The horse breathes
and magically breathes
under the water and they cross
world after world until they can see
a grieving man standing still at the end
of the ocean, waiting, it seems, for something
to come to him.
Anita Barrows has won numerous national awards for her poetry, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Quarterly Review Award, and a Riverstone Press Award. Her work has appeared in the Nation, Prairie Schooner, Bridges, and many other journals. She is also a translator from French, Italian, and German; her most recent translations (with Joanna Macy) have been three volumes of the poetry and prose of Rainer Maria Rilke. She has written four books of her own poetry, her latest being Exile Aldrich Press, 2015 .Barrows lives in Berkeley, California, where she works as a clinical psychologist in private practice and as a professor of psychology at The Wright Institute. She has two grown daughters and 2 grandchildren and she shares her house with dogs, cats, and birds. The first poet whose reading she ever attended was Muriel Rukeyser.
Featured image: Photo by Melina Piccolo