It’d been a long winter, rags of snow hanging on; then, at the end of April, an icy nor’easter, powerful as a hurricane. But now I’ve landed on the coast of Maine, visiting a friend who lives two blocks from the ocean, and I can’t believe my luck, out this mild morning, race-walking along the strand. Every dog within fifty miles is off-leash, running for the sheer dopey joy of it. No one’s in the water, but walkers and shellers leave their tracks on the hardpack. The flat sand shines as if varnished in a painting. Underfoot, strewn, are broken bits and pieces, deep indigo mussels, whorls of whelk, chips of purple and white wampum, hinges of quahog, fragments of flat gray sand dollars. Nothing whole, everything broken, washed up here, stranded. Light pours down, a rinse of lemon on a cold plate of oysters. All of us, broken, some way or other. All of us dazzling in the brilliant slanting light.
The bag I drag is solid as earth, clods I couldn’t shake off roots reeking of rocks and blackness, the kind of dirt they’ll use to bury us. As in Iraq, where the body count climbed so fast mortuaries posted Help Wanted beside the highway.
And let me mention my own complicity with darkness, buying a jade jacket sewn by a hungry child in Singapore. And the way I say darkness, a skin tone not my own. Even the calibrations of a poem, tricky, the justice of lines, evil wrestling with good in the miniature Madison Square Garden of a page.
As I weed, I listen to the sweet cacophony of neighbor kids on scooters, the argument of work, its ache in my arms.
When the lawn bag rips, dandelions tumble out, eager to spread their seed. You know how gullible evil is, sure of itself, always believing the worst. Are dandelions weeds or flowers? Maybe I’ll tear the bag, send seeds flying, encourage a suspicious universe to bloom.
That here in the deepest water, beyond even rags of light, nearly transparent creatures glitter and flash like neon signs floating down the Las Vegas strip;
That as recently as seven years ago liquid water flowed down an arroyo on Mars, shifting sands and turning small rocks, a pattern like a palm print on a rusting door;
That on a cold night water vapor makes visible the breath of small children, who laugh to see themselves breathe,
and makes visible the broken breath of old men forgetting their children in refugee camps, and the drying breath of prisoners in stone cells, whose mothers and sisters believe they’re long dead;
That in the beginning the Spirit moved over the waters like a mighty wind; that the spirit moves through water even now, even now through the straw held to a sick man’s lips, blessed from basin to scallop shell to the forehead of a crying child; That we are from conception almost entirely water.
The way Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist, summoning him from his cell for private chats but could make no sense of what he said; the way Festus kept the apostle Paul locked up for two years because he enjoyed hearing him talk, although his words made him afraid; the way the German guards, terrified by night bombings, sought out Pastor Bonhoeffer, even though he was, by his own account, a provider of cold comfort, writing to a friend, “I can listen all right, but hardly ever find anything to say. Yet perhaps the way one asks about some things and is silent about others helps suggest what really matters”—did not stop the sharp rap on the prison door or the words “get ready to come with us” as if for one more quiet conversation about what really matters.