I and the Village Marc Chagall
The Leaf Warbler
inspired by Marc Chagall's I and the Village
In the middle of a morning we leave each other
holding only a bouquet of words.
Isn’t every nest temporary?
In the middle of our lives, we lose parents,
surrender the tall trees of our children,
walk away from houses, villages, jobs—
like the dog that becomes faithful to the goat,
we choose the wrong people. Who is born holy?
A man with arms stained the deep jade of a leaf warbler
strums a stranger’s body like a harp.
His fingers travel over her skin. He apologizes
to heaven on a cross around his neck. We can’t
unwrite our histories; we will hurt, and we will heal—
our nests, bowls of moonlight, the years will undo.
There is another world, but it is in this one.
A sparrow mistakes my window for sky, shattering glass
feathers and blood—death builds its house wherever it wants.
Mystics believe sorrow takes seven years to reach the soul
—our histories enter us while we crack an egg into a skillet
or stand on our porch watching leaves disappear inside
the rusty bed of a truck. Our work is to record the flawed
world—I wanted to save this night, our mouths moving
like moth wings, dusting one another’s shoulders, bellies
and thighs, but daylight stole the foreign and familiar lines
we mapped on each other’s skin late in the animal dark.
Earth’s electricity pulses in their bones,
their bodies are fat with knowing.
At dusk they sing and pace—
their slick feathers clock wind,
register shifts in temperature—
terrified and impatient to fly.
Sometimes they misread
the sun’s compass,
the cluttered roadmap of stars,
and land in hostile territory,
or never arrive at all.
Predators anticipate the tired, the slow,
and men make sport of wintering flocks.
The birds face every cruel weather,
waters or deserts too wide to cross,
sharp mountains, wind funnels—
a hundred ways to fall.
Those who survive the journey
struggle across borders,
a cacophony of weary voices,
a sloppy choir of beating wings—
their wide flyways etch the foreign sky
like dark rivers where so many drown.
Definitions of Grace
The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that
it was made by someone capable of believing an angel might
come and sit on it.
Morning travels slowly as a train, south
out of Los Angeles, passing the Wai Sang Meat Company,
where women in hairnets wash their hands at 7a.m.
speaking Mandarin and Cantonese.
We commit to this morning, like oysters in their shells,
resigned to the scratch of sand, the coarse
borders of the world,
because we want this day. We want the trouble
of thousands of tomorrows, the promise
of rooms being built.
Like a caterpillar,
black and spiny, dangling from a Chinese elm leaf,
neither of us knows
we are waiting for wings.
I never learned the definition of grace.
Perhaps it is only beauty, the favor of God
or an angel sitting on a chair.
Perhaps grace is the percentage of an ounce
the body loses after death, a statistic so convincing
to those who already believe. We skeptics know
it is only the final breath exhaling,
rising, rising up to follow
one last imperfect prayer.
The Cries of One Crow
The cries of one crow can destroy a morning—
somewhere in the world there is always a war.
At Arlington National Cemetery the headstones
rise like white birch stumps in a ruined forest,
armed guards protect the Unknown Soldier,
though what human does not go unknown?
In the National Liberation Museum in Groesbeek,
a Dutch sculptor carves clay soldiers climbing
from their graves, smiling figures offer each other
a hand. Cutting down a tree will not kill its roots.
One crow can torment an entire neighborhood—
whose childhood is not scrabbled in violence,
each plastic grenade an education in war?
The tally of the dead rises like snowmelt in a river,
I cannot unwrite their stories, unbury their graves.
I can only hug the tall tree of my daughter, and
imagine the parents who wait for a soldier who will
never come home. Somewhere in the world
a forest recovers, a stump is sprouting new growth—
give one child a branch, he creates a weapon
give another child a branch, he raises his hands
to conduct a symphony only he will hear.
Note: The sculpture at the National Liberation Museum in Groesbeek, the Netherlands,
is by a Dutch woman, Fransje Povel-Speleers, and is called Resurrection
All poems by Valentina Gnup