by William Stratton
if you've got time you can see a lot of
Over flat-backed cows and from silo tops
I learned hedgerow secrets about tall grass
and wooded field edges and how deer nod
in its shade, trust their fawns to a curved canopy.
I know the skin of the pond in winter has spots kept
bare by feeder springs, and I have seen the fisher cat
form from nothing before dawn and dip its head
into dark water. I've seen a mourning dove linger
three days on a busy road trying to wake what used to be
his mate and with my finger pulled afterbirth
from the mouths of a hundred new foals, calves, piglets—
and weighed each first breath on the back of my hand
as reward. I've put a bullet in the head of a hog
and watched as it stumbled around the yard
looking one last time for the perfect place to lie
down, snapped the neck of a chicken with my thumb
and held the nose ring of a bull with hooves as big
as a steering wheel. It is hard to measure a day
when I have had so many and I remember so few now,
only a handful of moments and how they felt.
The queen bee in my hand and a swarm hanging
from my arm as heavy as a lamb. The back of my son
running toward the old house and its titled porch,
his mother through the kitchen window, hungry for us.
Real. As if I had lived a whole life just for them.
As if my life now after all these years
were only pictures of them in my mind and
the understanding that I am very lucky
to have lived in a world where all these things
and more happen, and I have had the time to see them.
This room is no office, this hospital no barn, these
curtains no stall. Blue and white. Clean. Disinfected.
I miss the smell of cows and their shit and hay I pulled
down with one hand to feed them. If I had just one day
from forty years ago I would skip the cigarettes
and take my children to the barn for chores and then
I'd put them on the wagon and ride to the top of the hill
so that we could look down the valley at our home
and maybe we could see like it is, the river a dark artery,
the mud spitting stones and the trees sap, then the adolescent
green of raw leaves and grass, and new foals as they learn
what legs are for, piglets pushing dirt with noses bent to their mothers,
and we might imagine fall as it is nowhere else: fire that rises
from the root of the maple and burns the hillsides as it finds new fuel,
and then gray and brown and white and finally even the sun fades
into nothing. I would take my children and hold them
as I wanted to before the war, as I dreamt I might
when I returned. I would take them and show them
what we are: each of us piglet, root, fire and then
fading. Then nothing. I would love them more
then I could anytime before now, before I had seen
the wheeled bed and the white sheets and recognized it
as my coffin and the smile of the nurse the face of
a man who lifts dirt and stones and fire with a shovel
and then returns it all, all of us, to the mud from which
we sprang. Did I say I would skip the cigarettes? I lied.
William Stratton currently lives in northern Vermont and teaches poetry and writing at SUNY Plattsburg. He is co-editor of the Saranac Review and spends a good amount of time on the ferry crossing Lake Champlain. He has two books of poetry currently in print: Under the Water Was Stone and These Things Too Have Shape.