When On High, When I Also Saw the Deep (poem)

Originally published at Isacoustic

When On High, When I Also Saw the Deep

I. When I also saw the deep

From earliest days I dug in the ground
with no need for gloves, with a love of mud
in my fingernails and filling the lines
of my palms, the smack of sloppy wet earth
and the heave of heavy tough clay brought up,
the shovel slicing a smile and vast maw
into the edge of the backyard, by the woods.

I caught bees in a bottle and shook them,
throwing them dazed like dice onto the ground
and watched them crawl the smallest detail of
the driveway, down where the ants dwell with their
heavy lifting, down where the annoying weeds
peek out, these flightless bees stumbling and drunk
where they do not belong, so near the deep.

A bike ride through the woods over ramps of
bulging tree roots, the ground strewn with bottle
shards and torn or burnt magazine pages,
a menagerie of garbage amid
acorns and last year’s leaves and somebody’s
steaming sodden pile of grass clippings wet
from just sitting there and slowly sinking
back into the ground like some lazy seeping
compost of roots, and all fed by the rain
and flattened by my own tire tread, by
my own shoe print, by my own flattened palm
smooshing branch and leaf and bud down into
the deep mud flooded with seed and darkness.


II. When on high

I leapt from the old fireplace in flight,
weird old furnace where to burn the fall leaves
which for me was merely near the big tree
and the weeping branch I held to and swung
only to kick off the trunk and tumble down.

The old piss-stained gutter on Lake Erie,
the old Municipal Stadium where
I could sit near field level with my glove
and, since games were so sparsely attended,
point high to the seat furthest away, toward
the upper deck and in the far corner
of the huge old horse-shoe, and a friend would
run there, could be watched as he receded
further and further away, turning to
wave as he went, some friend of familiar
face and voice and jokes a distant
blotch high up where no home runs ever went.

Through my room I sat in the attic’s height
above the retreating streets and far fields,
a spy upon all their sloping rooftops
or, turned away from the window, I hid
in The Timetables of History or
in further boxes of other books or
I glanced into the farthest garret corners
that never saw curious eyes but my own.

Those second-floor winter mornings at school,
everyone else far down below but me,
on high and with a view over pavement
and field and seemingly the whole city
back to the vanishing haze of suburban
streets meeting the grey winter light’s horizon
and further on the steel lake of more snow.
So content was I stationed on that height
leaning over the old radiator
and letting it blow and billow out my sleeves.


III. When on high, when I also saw the deep

There were other, stranger depths:
the hidden children in the oak trees;
strange men dancing from treetop to treetop,
nimble soles balanced on edge of sky and trunk;
forest monster beyond the chain-link fence,
red eyes and body of the oldest mud;
a sense of going back before there were names,
and the child’s imperative to creation:
blank rock, blank trees, blank sky and animal,
blank rain and blank long winter made vivid
and made a part of imagination and
memory through the toddler’s incantation
and the child’s original calling,
the truly old stories of bull and beast
and travelling the tunnel of the sun
and being tricked by the serpent with words,
and the wish to live in the wild forever
sharing with the animals a single spring,
the spell only broken later by love.
Nightmares of a body broken in two
and a piece pushed up to become the sky
and the rest laid down and splayed for the earth,
other bits placed up for stars and the rest
for mountains and the insides for oceans,
the body of some huge someone everywhere,
and everywhere both alive and a grave,
word and silence, long time and memory.

In church was the emaciated Christ,
no loving Jesus but a broken Christ,
dead meat on the rack under high floodlights,
ribs and hollow stomach not seen again till
photos of Andersonville and Auschwitz,
this the one that was my every Sunday guest.
But of course he came to be hanged on high
so that he might overcome the deep and
rise out of it as revivified clay,
remade body of soggy leaves and mown grass,
redone body of summer mud frozen
and thawed and squelching under the rain again,
nailed hands and feet and crowned face full of thorns
a blooming bush from high rain and roots below
hollowed belly now color and growth, the
ribcage a cornucopia of life
Young heresy, what a high from that low,
from that honey for my eyes and for my lips
I could suggest with my own bent shovel
cleaving the head of earth and its hair of grass
to bury a bottle and a newspaper
and dig ever-giving time up again
after a season of meaningful sweetness.