Hail hitting the small of my back as I try to cut two feet off a seven foot log, I sang The Shantyman’s Life and after an hour gave up, taking only the beaver-gnawed end of a branch I’d been using as a prop and broken in half. I hung my clothes to dry on the back of a chair, washed the branch in the bathtub, then myself, recalling some lines from earlier in the day, “Nor can I fortune to brief minutes tell” before I dry off, dress, and run out in the rain to retrieve the saw I clean and sharpen, reading in its alternately inward and outward curving teeth the back and forth of sorrow. Tomorrow I go back a second time in the morning, the pruning saw is no sharper, a third time in the afternoon, after a long meeting on close reading, the same result. Leaving I spot, newly washed-up beside my wood quarry, a complex of root, torn from a narrow trunk, an open three-sided pyramid that stands on its own, sheltering a space at the center. Distracted by Lisa at a distance describing James playing Lear to her Cordelia, I wander into Menards for tomorrow morning’s bow saw, hoping to replace what was inadequate. Home, I submerge myself in the bath to signal the day’s end, then I get dressed to go back again, noting a five-minute break in the rain and thunder, still able to fool myself some evenings. The killdeer leads me away from its nest. I follow the footsteps I left before coming back, past a goose egg in the sand, a white bow stuck in the sedge. A pink bubble gum wrapper is stuck on the tip of a blade of grass, protecting a few grains of sand from the wet. A few strokes complete the cut. I don’t regret my earlier efforts that allowed this to come into existence, but carry the logs, small, then large, large, then small, to the side of the road, where, hidden in the grass, I’ll pick them up like hitchhikers when I drive past from the lot, thinking of the “brief minutes” of wind and rain until we are rejoined, alive with the hope in the course of time I’ll be forgotten.
For 20 days or more I’ve been carving a donkey’s head from a log that washed up on the beach, a name for the figure I chose because its shape was given. The log was cut near a crotch, it has three ends. The lowest and widest suggest ears, the highest and thinnest the neck, both of these put in relation by the thick branch that droops, as it never did in life, when I place it upside-down on my bench, like one ready to work. As I hack at the driftwood that had arrived at a form after 20 plus years of growth, a felling in a storm or in deference to some plan, division by the chainsaw that foreshadowed the mallet and the gouge, and a year or more of wandering separated from its previous self in the lake, it turns from chestnut-brown to white and resembles an animal, one with several faces and lineages, each day less and less. If I knew what I was doing, something else would happen. The grocery bag into which I dump the chips I’ve been making all these weeks finally being full, I didn’t know what to do, so I poured them around the base of the small gingko planted by the city beside the root hole of the old maple they claimed improper planting had weakened to the point of danger. The white chips in a rough circle resemble the moon reflected in the lake, paused in the top of a cypress, or a donkey carrying a particularly tall and boney rider from a great distance. It’s impossible to know yet if it is approaching or passing away. Meanwhile, the wood that remains resembles the empty, open hands of one searching for the missing cause of the latest botched undertaking.
Here and there a pair of buffleheads appear after diving
There’s also the head — once a log that spoke to me —
that began to drift away as soon as I added eyes, nose, mouth, and ears
I hope when I put these words beside them things
will return to themselves, a weak and magical repulsion
When the poem cracks, the head or the wood, it’s
balancing its fluidity with the world’s
Richard Meier is the author of three books of poetry, In the Pure Block of the Whole Imaginary (Omnidawn 2012), and Shelley Gave Jane a Guitar and Terrain Vague, both available from Wave Books. He is writer-in-residence at Carthage College in Kenosha, WI and his ports and happy havens are Chicago and Madison.