Kneeling at the Edge by Cory Brown

BOMB 51 Spring 1995
051 Spring 1995

1.

Late February and smoke, mixing with the mist,
lifts from the salt mine across the lake.
I can see its vertical movement, though cold
clouds form a ceiling so low the smoke
is one of them. Elsewhere in the sky
faint outlines of cloud mass, indistinct otherwise,
adumbrate all we have. The column of smoke
lends volume, its movement slow, uneasy,
rising into the gray—profound and miniscule
and imperceptible. Out on a walk the other day
I was lifted by fog into a vision of ourselves—
a man, woman, a child carried by each
coming out of it and into a field. Today
the fog lifts. I see nothing but ourselves in it.


2.

A certain quality in the pattern of woodgrain
appeals to my sense of chaos today. Early March
and the first time in days the sun’s pealed back
layers of impediment and spoken to us. Spelled out
on the floor a sermon seizing the concept of meaning,
binding it within those lines that sometimes
wrap themselves into shapes not quite round.
Wasps appear from nowhere on the windows and
floors, chapperoning ladybugs. They are weak,
easy to swat, the wasps, like fixity itself,
like the force that keeps my skin tight around my
bones, my skull covered, my words in the confines
of a poem, woodgrain patterns in pattern.


3.

The little boy sleeps in the confines
of the bassinet as gray clouds spill themselves
and wind teases the brown bare branches.
Who can argue with such ganglia, outposts
of perception, stretches of sight and absorption
planned by nothing, a tree spreading its network
into sky? It’s a quiet life, no looming blues
or impending illness—yet we may project
into the future some such loss, impediment of growth,
grief, a latching onto a time when no one
can pull us out of that deep groan like some
far-off jet we can’t see but hear.
In the woods up the road today there were groans
we couldn’t quite identify, old winter cherry trees
perhaps, rubbing branches, contending for space—
the sage contends with no one, says Lao Tzu,
thus no one can contend with him. We spot holes,
animal shadows, imagination in and out,
last year’s pussy willows dead and lying among
the brush, bare sumac swaying. The baby sleeps
in the backpack, his coos lulling himself
down to a space we pretend to understand.


4.

Yesterday was a warm March rain and out
front were so many robins the yard itself
seemed to move, the way enough worms
moving in a mud-clump makes the clump
seem to move. Every so often, two or three
would flit themselves above the others
to the other side of the house—only then
would I think of them with wings. Today
it’s ice-plated windows and no sight
out of them to see no robins. I talk of them
though, brag at counting sixty,
fewer in reality. Reality though,
like that movement behind the worms and robins,
confirms no such small observation,
never did and never cares enough not to.


5.

Is being between seasons being
out of a season? The first day
of April and thick-wet snowflakes
fall like small birds, a seasonal
genocide of sorts. We walk through
streams and rivulets that run down
fields toward the large lake, soft
patches of grass our stepping stones,
our solid assurance that all is
not solid. Geese begin their cries
and we look up; a flock of gulls
in the distance will appear piecemeal
in a light’s single column,
the prevailing gray swallowing them
one by one, two by two, ten by ten,
their brief sheen on and off.
Who are we to be in this cold air
in April, this soft earth up to our
ankles in fast-paced water,
looking out over a lake that to all
appearances one could walk on
from a field and on into clouds?


6.

The fields are staying put today.
Ground has soaked in all it can
and is puddle-rich, air mist-thick,
woods bare, wet, and vertical against
the massive gray sky. There’s a weight
to it all, moisture heaving its way
to the center of the earth, moon bearing
down, fleeing deer that can’t stay air-borne,
the dog’s nose heavy to spring’s
melting smells. I walk up the field’s
slight incline, and at the wood’s edge
a knee-high black cat erect on her haunches,
her back turned, turns into a small wolf
howling motionless and silent, then into
an ordinary stump. I scan the fields
and skies. They are inaccessible to me;
they mock my trifling imagination,
my brain-heaves’ slow descent.


7.

There are enough deficiencies in the world
to make the calm of this late May evening
conspicuous. I was holding my eight-month old
earlier and his high-pitched, soft squeek
still issued out every few seconds before his
dip into sleep, muffled by the crook of my arm
he mouths in that position, his veins visible
beneath his temple’s pale, taut skin.
In the evening’s dying light I began to see
his skin as water, as that surface tension
a body needs to keep itself alive. I saw
the nearby large lake in my mind, shimmering
on a late spring afternoon, the sun too then
lending its brilliant two cents to the tension.
Then everything I saw and heard began to chime:
crabapple blooms and sparrows chirping, lilacs
and fields of alfalfa and rye fast-growing
in these wet days and cool nights, dandelions
metamorphosed and fuzzy-globed, and all
the apple orchard’s trees in bloom, a cat-sized
crow perched in one of them, and lower to ground
lily of the valley releasing its sweet scent.
These are the surface tensions of the mind,
the world’s sensibility we like to think. The sun
going down lit a small egg-shaped portion
of the western sky salmon-pink. I could almost
see in that light a vein beneath its pale surface.


8.

The tall grass framing the yard
sways, cut grass clumped
or strewn thin, wind sweeping
into the house. Irises line
the south side, full-bloomed and
purple, mock orange’s aroma
ubiquitous, a storm sneaking up on us.
Across the road a tractor
spat its loud venom all afternoon,
a strip turned over
for pumpkin seeds, squash,
melons. I almost rocked myself
to sleep with my infant boy
in my arms today, half-dreaming
of the swing outside, children
taking turns tick-tocking under
the giant-domed clock masquerading
as leaves and limbs and
box elder bark. Tick-tock tick-tock,
turmoil dances in my head.
I wake from a half-sleep, see
dead limbs on the swing’s tree,
innumerable caterpillars devouring
its leaves. In the garden deer
munched pea stems down, clothes
on the clothesline so multicolored
they defy the uniformity of
nomenclature. Buttercups mingle
with the tall, swinging grass,
sky darker now. My boy’s awake—
tonight cars and trucks
on the nearby highway will noise
their venom into his soft dreams.


9.

A black spider, fly big as
she is in its clutches, marched up
the window this morning. Spirea
blooms now, and crows adorn
the still air with their far-off
cries. Habit, it’s all
a habit of nature, I say to myself,
stepping onto the back porch
with its full view of the apple orchard,
warblers and worms at work.
Te-dum te-dum we hum to ourselves,
listening to cars on the road
hum by. A book lies
face down, on the cover
a woodcut print of a tall woman
in a long print dress and handsome
hat, sitting on a porch-rail,
young trees behind in silhouette,
blooming rosebush in foreground.
It is the hat that matters
the most, says Mrs. Dalloway.
Dandelion seeds float in the air,
castaways, words unused, a discarded
sketch waiting to spawn another.
Coffee this morning was
the color of rich soil, or a crow
streaking a blue sky,
wearing its cries like a hat.


10.

Philosophy’s driving habit of representing the real
is in a rut, snowstorm on the way, sleet falling
thick as mud, thunderstorm just passed, no clearing
in sight, five day forecast bleak bleak bleak.
Almanac predicts floods for years and no allocation
for road repair, local deficit deep as the universe,
politicians mired in partisan quarrels their great
grandchildren will feed, on to feed their own
great grandchildrens’ quarrels. Tow trucks broken down
for months, chain-store mechanics on strike for safety
in the workplace laws, board of directors and all
their illustrious progeny close their eyes to hire
lawyers who learned from lawyers before them.
Independent mechanics meanwhile murdered, sabotaged,
their children murdered, sabotaged. The local lake
and the not too distant ocean rapidly rise,
walls of water as we speak heading toward us—tires
spin and spin, their deep treads spinning in the deep
sludge, sentiment of rationality at the wheel,
beads of sweat on its white, blood-rushed knuckles.


11.

Imposing the likeness of things
can get dull. Late June
and rabbits in the cool
late morning sun hop to the tune
of a faraway dog’s faint bark.
My infant boy sleeps in the next
room and dreams in his head
may approximate this scene,
me eyeing a large lake over the top
of tall plump-green oaks and
spruce and pine. An aging crow
enters and exits the stage; sounds
of passing cars wash it all away
a few seconds at a time. A book
on the curious workings of the mind
tediously stews on the windowsill.
Goldfinch and swallows cruise
in arcs like the curve of the earth.
I’m tired of white-washed uniformity,
music making music of it all:
the poem’s giant foot shadows
the lone event—the upward wing-flap,
single note isolate and calm,
out-breath of an unremembered dream—
and levels it to ground. A bright
red cardinal tails the black crow,
lifts me in its infant motion.


12.

Skepticism in moral matters, says William James,
is an active ally of immorality—who is not for is against.
A warm wind brushes against my cheek, late afternoon
in late June, lawn mower next yard over buzzing
like an amplified swarm of flies. The universe
has no neutrals, forward or reverse, sensations and sounds
of sentient living redundant to a beating heart,
valves opening or closing, no in between—my restlessness,
satiety, or abject decadence no raft on the Rubicon.
So what is the act of music making in a world where
often as not soft flesh sates itself on explosive solidities?
Thunderheads build in the south, lawn needs mowing,
apple growers spraying insecticide each week. Certainty
in universal matters is expendable. Blueberries may not
drop this year, butterflies lose their looping flights,
weeds grow down, the world spinning north to south.
I will tender the wind in its course, objurgate a local law,
praise the curve of a jet-stream, remark on the uplift
of a single leaf. And in so doing lose sight of a fresh horror,
or the unmitigated beauty of another valley’s depths.


13.

A stiff breeze in the yard and my boy
dozes in the swing I’ve let go, until it
swings by the breeze alone. Crow and
mourning dove answer one another’s calls,
one a bardic yawp, the other drowsy ache.
I’ve been clearing box elder and spruce limbs
this morning from paths; it seemed my saw’s
appetite grew as it fed, so the holes are not
my doing, I say, asymmetrical, unsightly,
spaces where substance belongs. Every day
the things and doings we have and do,
it occurs to me, grow and feed on themselves.
Branches of things we wished to do and say die
or get in the way and must go down. A recompense
to it all is like a child in a child’s swing.
He wakes and smiles—the breeze moves his hair,
and the sun moves back and forth to fill
those spaces leaves and limbs don’t shade.


14.

Along the roads are white trumpets of bindweed,
soft blue cornflowers, young green Queen Anne’s lace,
daylilies and ripe blackberries, apples beginning
to bend the boughs, heads of yellow-green rye
heavy and plump. I’m home from a walk
and watch shadows of pear trees in the back yard
quickly stretch their reach before the clouds overtake them.
Mine is a nihilism I cannot explain,
an over-abundance of love not for the disinterested vista,
the hyper-indiscriminatory nor the superimposition
of linguistic construct, no elan vital;
but for the sentiment of provisionary statement, a robin
hopping into sight and out, its task
it knows not of accomplished. What a sundown!
Mid-July and sky has painted itself for autumn—
clouds dressing it obligingly. Roadsides flourish
their ineffable richness of colors, and my task is out.


15.

I pick up the poems of Tanikawa:
’When the wind is strong
the earth resembles someone’s kite.’
A mourning dove coos in the dusk,
quiet but for crickets, occasional songs
of far-off birds, and the occasional car passing
on rain-soaked asphalt. Following a day
that soaked the leaves and grass and berries
and all the flowers, the world
makes its transition from lies to truth.
A low line of clouds over the lake hangs
its ragged edge down. I raise
the window screen to gain a visual clarity and gain
volume from the passing cars. Leaves have stopped
dripping. There is no wind. The earth
is a rock at the bottom of the sea.

Cory Brown is a poet who lives with his family in upstate New York where he teaches at Ithaca.

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Originally published in

BOMB 51, Spring 1995

Featuring interviews with Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Juliana Hatfield, Li Young Lee, Antonia Bird & Danny Boyle, Liz Diamond, Bradford Morrow, Dave Hickey, David Seidner, Shirley Kaneda, Cachao, and William Gass.

Read the issue
051 Spring 1995