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.
The Memory of Forests
Was it a maple or an oak tree
that taught you the lesson of seasons,
how each life is an instrument—
winter of stillness and permission to dance,
flirting green music of infant leaves
and the low cello notes of autumn?
Cottonwood and white alders silenced,
will their ghosts return to sing us
the memory of forests?
O California, wild pioneer,
our final symphony,
burning backbone of this riven country,
rising through dark palaces of smoke,
can you hear our tall, thin prayers—
Western sycamore, boxelder, willow,
California buckeye, gray pine
At Edward Hopper’s Self-Portrait
My father wore that same fedora—brown felt,
wide brim—forty-five years ago when he would
navigate his Plymouth through the tangled braid
of L.A. traffic, peddling life insurance to people
dead now. Every December he’d send his clients
Christmas cards with Audubon calendars inside,
color plates of indigo buntings pecking at worms,
white-crowned pigeons nesting in strangler figs.
At eighty-five my father is stooped—a slow, gray
emperor penguin. This visit he is hoping to sight
a cardinal. We stand together scanning the winter
landscape. Like a Hopper painting—bare maples
against a watercolor sky, our backs to the viewer
—two small figures in the stillness. Not one bird.
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.
Lament of a Bare Branch
Dedicated to the bare branches: young men in Asia and India
who will never marry or become fathers because of the ongoing
genocide of women in those cultures
On my way home, I will not steal a red pear for my wife
I will not place a ring of kisses on the throat of my wife.
She will not pour my ginger tea or stir steaming noodles
I will not watch her watch clouds dress the moon, my wife.
In our bath, she will not wash my head, chest or ankles
I will not softly trace the gentle hills of her spine, my wife.
I will not gather our babies like fat bushels of sweet grain
She will not lift their hungry mouths to her breast, my wife.
At the stream, I will not draw herons beside our children
She will not find crickets hidden in their hands, my wife.
Like a branch in wet snowfall, I will not bow in sorrow
When she leaves this world, I will not bow for my wife.
I will curl around myself in sleep, as wolves do in winter
I will not tell the dragon stories of my dreams to my wife.
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.
Her Face, Crimson Petals
—for Du’a Khalil Aswad
a 17-year-old Iraqi Kurd girl
stoned to death in an honor killing
for her relationship with a Sunni Muslim boy
an uncle gathers her in his arms
the body takes so long to surrender,
a palm tree straining its skinny roots
for the chance to stand.
Once she watched her boyfriend
nurse a wounded parakeet—
he fed the small green bird
grapes and sunflower seeds
until it flew from the sill.
What is honor?
A father teaches his son
to skip stones on a lake—
across the gray water
they watch the smooth pebbles
splash and leap.
There are no bad stones,
only the world reborn in us
the question of rain or no rain.
All across Normandy I study the sex of the statues—
women with their two mouths—their insatiable hunger,
their endless mosaic of words; men with their two heads
—to think of themselves twice? A fool, I question God
even as he holds me up, even as he tosses me back—
my life brief as a mackerel’s. Outside the cathedral
a mourning dove performs its hollow music of wind,
barleycorn, and sorrow. The rain comes again, tentative
as a girl’s voice—you are here now, you are here. There
are doors you close only once, the way the world disappears
one artist at a time—a lace-maker of Alençon stitching
by window light, delicate snowflakes gathering in her lap.
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