Goldenrod – it’s familiar to anyone who lives in the East, where it blooms late summer when the hayfields go brown. Today, it’s just starting to bloom in North Florida.
When I moved back to New England in summer, 2011 after a few years out west, goldenrod was one of the many elements of the Eastern landscape that were achingly familiar to me. As summer turned to autumn, I wrote a crown of sonnets, which became the title poem of a collection.
Out West, I heard the phrase back East in tones
expressing every angle, every shade
reflected in the family prism: warm
red longing for the hearth, the reflex back
to what’s familiar, followed by obtuse
refusals, diluted yellow wistfulness,
or upright judgment paired with violet
nostalgia, straight-out breaks from what was done,
acute resentment toward the say-so
of parents pairing culture with discipline,
sustenance with table manners, shelter
with chores, and who say nothing valuable,
or even earnest, who impress their threats
on us: You leave, you can’t come home again.
Whoever said you can’t come home again
was wrong. I’ve slipped in place back East like one
more river stone. Surfacing, a beaver
dog-paddles, torso flat and long.
She curls her spine and dives. Her broad tail smoothes
the tannic stream behind her like a mother’s
hand soothes passage. Midsummer: fields
of milkweed nod, pink before they pod;
The Monarchs reconnoiter, back again
to feed and mate and scout out homes for eggs.
The farm pond’s little boatmen dip their insect
oars and skim along, enough to make
the water glint. The osprey dives then rises,
gold clutched in his claws, the gold that swam
too near the line between the air and water.
Too near the line between the air and water,
low clouds bluff and plump, collaging shades
of bruise and white and gray. Then rain sheets.
Before I know it, goldenrod tassels
yellow, brimming over green, the arc
of time as I recall it – thrumming summers
interrupted by synaptic longings
back to chilling snows. The twilit meadow
blurs its colors as if on purpose, as age
blurs imperfections, my image in the mirror
less well-defined than ever, less intriguing.
Gauzy threads of cirrus, backlit by
a gibbous moon, form gaps, framing now
and then a star, once I spot the first.
And then, like stars, once I spot the first
collect of ash leaves yellowing, I see
the turning everywhere, the sumac pinnates
tipped with orange, sugar maple palmates
edged with red — familiar, slow crescendo
toward October. Downhill, merlins flap
around a long-dead tree, then perch to spy
on kingbirds. Even with such names, they’re barred
from what’s between us – the briefly living – and
our fiery, dying sun. The Mourning Cloaks
feast on windfall apples, rotting sweet
and brown, as winds blow from the South, unsettled,
caressing us like volatile parents.
All night, their thunders wake us; rains lull us.
All night, the thunder wakes us; rain lulls us
back to sleep. Repeat. The morning forest
drips crystals, leaf tips drenched and sparkling,
this bright illusion glossing ironies
of evergreens that brown and die like all
of us back east. The leaf-mold footpath sponges
underfoot, instant karmic mushrooms
reincarnate up through amber needles.
The crickets start their songs at noon as if
to cram time full: their manic chirps
resound like nextweeknextweeknextweek; they
predict the killing shards, the silver frosts.
Each funeral, a funeral for all
of us. Winter waits, the parents know.
The winter waits, a parent knowing we’ll
come home. October vapors silk above
the stream, miming ghosts and veils. The forest
floor, a wreck of branches after storms,
mocks our broken family trees. The row
of maples, cicatrized by sugaring,
stands witness roadside: nothing sweet is gleaned
without some cost. Escape, impossible,
from autumn’s litany: fertility
brings loss, precedes decay. November smacks
of fractals, stripped to spines and ribs and scars.
The last leaves spiral down in yellow, buff,
and ochre-red; winds lift them up to spin
like dervishes collecting spirits of the dead.
Like dervishes in flight from spirits of the dead,
we spin from South to North, from East to West,
a nomad race of animals condemned
to thinking we can torque the angles of
perspective, paint with undiscovered colors.
Our range is vast but finite: infrared
to ultraviolet, and zero to
three- sixty. The gold-tipped chrysalides have split,
the milkweed pods have split; a hundred seeds,
each with its hundred threads of silk, have left
or stayed. Downhill, the long dead tree still stands;
a raptor lands like ash, and shifts her feet.
She turns her head in profile toward the wind,
the west we make our wishes on back east.