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Three Poems

Dear Life,

the tree of which my son sleeps beneath
or sometimes doesn’t, depending
on the vicissitudes of the day before the night,
&, too, the blackness of the night itself,
though let’s put aside questions of time
& time’s vagaries & begin instead
with the Atlantic sturgeon, a specimen
of which I observed yesterday
from the waters of the St. Lawrence
leaping. Yes, leaping. Six or seven feet
of bony-plated, cartilaginous fish unmoored
a moment in raw air—then crashing
back into the river. Such leaping
has often been observed but is, Dear Life,
unaccounted for, as are the tonal
qualities of the wood of the California laurel,
also known as spicebush & balm
of heaven, a rendering of which sprouts
from a green shoot on the glossy poster
above my nine-year-old son’s bed,
while the sturgeon swims from a blue branch,
neighboring the whitetip shark & inscrutable
coelacanth, though two hands’ span
from the nautilus, nudibranch, & extinct
ammonite, whose whorls my son traces
with his outstretched finger as before bed
I read to him, & he listens, but also, Dear Life,
here in the twilight studies the tree of life.

+++++++++++++++++++++++Dear Life,
when I was a boy I pulled ammonites
from the prairie earth & beneath a dry sky
held them in my hands, with my own spit
shined the mother-of-pearl, stone-slick evidence
of oceans & estuaries, of warm, fecund waters,
in which swam, alongside the ridged ammonite,
the earliest sturgeon, bending even then
up the river’s dark throat, & this, of course,
brings us back to time, which the tree is,
among other things, a metaphor for,
a way of understanding, though we don’t,
though the eras & epochs are largely
unplumbable, the gaps in the fossil record
wider than our wildest imaginings, not
to mention the chasms, the lacks, all that is
yet unaccounted for, which might well be
the better part of everything—do sturgeon leap
to loose parasites? To with a watery slap
communicate? Or for a quick, bright break
from the benthic dark?

+++++++++++++++++++++++Dear Life,
it’s bedtime. Dear Life, as if he has all the time
in the world—world & time—my son traces
once more the lines of the black rhinoceros,
then lies back in bed, laces his fingers
behind the universe of his head. I, too,
am unmoored, here in the raw & altering
air. Life, I know, will find a way, but this exact one
I love? & this one? Please, this one too? Now—
& like a fish, I want to say, like a song
from the body of a laurelwood violin—my son
leaps cleanly to his pajamaed knees & touches,
Dear Life, the tree of life: Do you remember, he says,
when we caught newts in the pond? I remember
with my hands, holding them.



++…most often seen on juvenile plants and may disappear as the tree matures.
~ wikipedia

In his two hands he holds
a black-capped chickadee my son
in his two hands feather & eye
& mad hot heart each north country night
slowing into what looks like but is not
death is torpor is a chill in the bones rare
in birds as is such spatial recall
a single seed if you can believe it
tucked & winter weeks later
remembered but the thing is he’s broken
the bird in the boy’s hands & the cat
slinks into the trees maple sumac
a few spindly American beech
this late in the season yet holding
& no one on earth knows the reason
the evolutionary advantage I mean
to hold so long the pale bright lanterns
of their leaves.


Landscape with Child, Late Winter

Alder shadows lean east
& ever east, while the river,
green & swollen god,

runs west. A warm wind
brittles leaves, bends
to breaking the drained hands

of bracken. Though the ridge—
fir-dark, vertiginous—
is yet laced with snow. Child,

you’ve known in every weather
& from long before the genesis
of memory, these woods,

this river’s intricacies. Still,
you leaped today from stone
to slick stone, unfolded

a bright blade & marked
drift-sticks with your rune—
& I held you

in my throat. How many
melt- & else-wise
lost in our last, lovely

river-hour? I held them too,
as we knelt to watch kingfishers
wing above the water,

though all I held was you.

Joe Wilkins is the author of a novel, Fall Back Down When I Die; a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers; and four poetry collections, including Thieve and When We Were Birds. He lives with his family in Oregon.