Friday, February 20, 2009


I’ve been in love, forever, with the sight and sound of Canada geese as they fly over my house, skimming the roof or at high altitude, at dusk or dawn, season-round. Here near Lake Ontario – just about as close to Canada as we can get – most geese leave in the fall and return in the spring, but quite a few over-winter. These stragglers wake me in the morning – sometimes a whole crew of them, sometimes just a pair squawking as they wing toward the lake. Later they signal when the day is done, heading back to some swampy night-time grove or maybe just taking a spin for exercise. Their calls fill me with longing and devotion; their calls, for me, might be the equivalent of gospel songs to others. They incite wanderlust, they make me want to belong to a tribe, to leave and return…

I don’t know what their calls mean, but I believe they mean something. Whether they signal direction, (veer north!), or they’re cranking about position, (get out of my way!), or whether they’re phrases in an avian vocabulary about difficulty – how much effort is required to fly, the precision needed to create that giant V in the sky – I can’t guess. Maybe it’s a language of pleasure, maybe the geese are exhilarated and so they sing out. Could be those honks are laughter, or orgasmic utterances. Or maybe the mechanics of vocalization are connected to the wing in some incomprehensible map of bird physiology or neurology, and so for each wing beat there is a commensurate sound uttered.

I do know this: sometimes the geese are silent as they fly. And that is spooky and lovely, too, like some alphabet unwinding in the sky, and only those lucky enough to look up can hope to ever decipher it.

Photo credit: IAN Image and Video Library

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I’ve been thinking about what’s underneath. Mid-February in Oswego generally means that everything is covered with snow or, in the case of the lake, submerged beneath ice. This year has been no exception, but we’ve had a grace period for the last few days that can’t be called a thaw, quite, but offered up enough sunshine to melt most of the snow off the roof. (Okay, there’s still about 8 inches of ice capped with another 8 or more of snow up there, but that’s better than the three to four feet we had.) The driveway’s reasonably passable, and there are patches of ice all over the yard, places where it’s easy to see what’s below. Mostly rocks and grass, but in spots the ice covers puddles, and the bubbles in the water, moving slowly, make patterns that catch the light. The yard’s boundaries are marked with rock walls, and those rocks retain enough heat that they melt through. Here and there plants have found their way up – shrubs shrug off the weight of snow, hydrangea branches, bare now, poke like asparagus up from the drifts. It’s almost like the snow is the earth’s winter skin, and I can wander about the yard seeing what’s hidden beneath that skin. Almost like peeling back to muscle, and then to bone, and then to the pulsing heart. The yard’s a casual mess, but when studied through the lens – I roam around with my camera when the sun’s out – it begins to appear composed, designed, almost neat. Maybe it’s just my tendency to impose order… I don’t know. The patterns in the branches settle me; the graceful sprawl of ivy, green as emeralds; the bubbles beneath the ice… I’m dreaming of spring, but already suspecting that I’ll mourn the loss of winter.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Monday, February 9, 2009

Rats with Wings

My father built a pigeon coop in the backyard. It was a mysterious place to my brother and I, an outbuilding that seemed like it would make the perfect fort if only we were allowed to commandeer it away from the birds. It was the definition of ramshackle: plywood nailed together, rectangular windows covered with chicken wire, a clattering door hung on secondhand hinges. The door had just one flimsy lock, but he’d screwed it in high enough that it would have taken more determination or defiance to sneak in than either of us apparently held. The structure rested, at its corners, on uneven concrete blocks so that the whole thing looked like it could buckle at any minute, or tip off its foundation and tilt like some kind of half-assed raft at sea. The inside, which felt more stable than the outside would have indicated, was lined with shelves that held what seemed, at the time, like hundreds of pigeons. My father had painted the outside red, just like the picnic table that he’d also built and which suffered from similar endearing flaws. He liked to build things in the same way my mother liked to cook and sew – there was no artistry involved, per se, but they were sincere and seemed to enjoy their endeavors. Everything in and outside our home was always a little off, a bit askew, and there’s no doubt that my enduring need for orderliness was born of some reaction to the off-kilter nature of my day-to-day existence back then.

My father was part of some kind of pigeon club, a bird fraternity for neighborhood men. They were just a bunch of area guys who had their own birds and would get together on weekends and shoot the breeze and drink beer, looking up at the sky once in a while to see whose birds made it home first. Between races, there were daily feedings, medicines to administer, and once in a while a bird had to be put down. I’d tag along after my father when he fed the pigeons, sticking close to his legs, half curious and half timid, half wanting to hold a bird, half afraid one would peck my eyes out. I was 5 or 6, my eye level at about my father’s hand level if they were relaxed at his sides. That’s how I came to see a quick flick of the wrist, then a bird body held casually, the way a guy might carry a baseball. I could tell that the bird wasn’t right, was off kilter in its own way; I could see, as I shadowed my father, its head lolling loosely from its body. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked. “Had to put it down,” he answered. “Why?” I persisted, puzzled by the phrase, sensing “put it down” had nothing to do with placement but rather with something final and still. “It was sick,” my father said, never stopping in his ministrations to the cooing, nervous birds. “If I didn’t take care of it, all the other birds might get sick and die.”

This seemed reasonable to me, both noble and practical, and I think that explanation, coupled with my father’s cool demeanor, informed my earliest ideas of what a man was, what death was. A man could put a bird down if he had to, could snap its neck and keep on working. Death was awful and simple, a practical thing, a remedy. All the gravity and weight behind his words lent subtext I didn’t fully understand and may, in fact, have imposed years later, thinking back on the moment, crafting it, teasing the edges of old images in search of meaning. My father’s care, his attention, his tenderness and brutality towards those birds incited a love of pigeons in me, has allowed me to maintain great affection for them despite decades of hearing them called rats with wings, flying rats, filthy birds, useless birds.

I came across a sidewalk once, newly poured concrete, the tangible proof of other good men’s labor. The surface was pristine, the borders straight; had I been more mischievous it would have been a perfect canvas for handprints. But a pigeon beat me to it. All up an edge of the sidewalk was a trail of pigeon tracks. The tracks looked like climbing ivy, created a decorative, off-kilter border. I snapped a picture and moved on. Kept working.

pigeon photo courtesy

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Shoveling the Roof

It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I've spent the last hour watching my neighbors shovel about four feet of snow off the roof of their house. If you're reading this in the south or southwest, you might be saying "huh?" For that matter, if you're reading from downstate it might sound peculiar, but yes, at least once every winter we have to shovel the snow off the rooftops of our houses. Right now, for instance, I should be outside planted in the snow on the roof. I can't, because I'm under doctor's orders to "take it easy." I have conveniently managed to take it easy NOT AT ALL, except for the roof situation. I don't want to shovel snow off the roof. I don't want to get dressed in layers -- I'm sick of layers -- climb over a snowbank to get the ladder, drag the ladder through snow up to my shoulders, awkwardly haul myself onto the roof which would really, to be accurate, be more like hauling myself into the snow on the roof, and then endure several hours of physical labor in order to make a mere dent in the accumulation.

I'm thinking maybe it'll melt. The sun's out, it's almost 40 degrees, some of it is melting. If I had to estimate, I'd guess that the snow's mass has decreased, throughout the day, by about 1/10 of one percent. So if we have -- what? -- ninety nine? nine hundred and ninety nine? -- more days of mild weather, it might all melt. (Do not, under any circumstances, do the math. I'm a poet. Poets can't count.)

Meanwhile, I'm worrying that if it all DID melt, quickly, there'd be so much runoff that our house might slide down the ridge. It'd be like those California landslides, only worse, because it would be me.

And then I'm thinking wow, if all the snow melted and the ground was so saturated that the house slid down the ridge and I SURVIVED, that would make a really good essay.

Sometimes I kind of wish I had my feet up, the t.v. on; I wish I had a six pack of something intoxicating and was getting ready to watch the Superbowl. No worries. No pretend conversations in my head where I say something stupid or something charming or something profound or, in short, something I'd never actually say. No daydreams where a nurse takes my pulse and flirts with me and, I suspect, earlier, as I emerged from a faint, leaned over and kissed me on the forehead.

But then I think nah... Nothing's better than spying on the neighbors and watching the afternoon pass by -- drip by cold, melting drip -- daydreaming and thinking, however lazily, about the next essay, the next poem. The next sweet kiss on a cold winter day.