My Childhood Cloudy God
My childhood cloudy God,
milky vast and borderless,
blue and snowy white,
shining from the sky,
never quite in focus,
never out of mind;
a soft abiding presence,
Every morning just before dawn
I woke to a world with brighter skies;
found myself floating down the hallway,
out the front door, onto the sidewalk,
though my feet never touched the ground.
I flowed as if on a cushion of air.
The hard concrete fell away
and I found myself rising higher and higher,
floating over fences, sandbox, swings,
trees and rooftops, peering like an eagle,
at once elated, dizzy, and fearful.
A silent wind carried me upward
til I rose too high and lost control,
a sickening, familiar vertigo feeling
deep in my stomach, falling, falling
as the ground below rushed up to meet me,
to land again with a slamming thud
into my body, waking on impact,
wondering where I had fallen from,
and where it was I had really been.
The dream was so real and familiar
that I thought it was waking
and waking, the dream,
a falling back to sleep, as to earth.
And I wondered why my heavy feet
were anchored down; why I couldn’t fly,
travel the open sky like my thoughts did,
and how far the wind might have taken me
if only I’d learned how not to fear and fall.
I wonder still.
Every recess I’d run to the top of the hill
to watch and wait for the appearance
of a certain young girl with a name like a song.
Honey-blonde hair, haunting soft eyes
which struck me as sad and
(I might have said “beautiful”
had I such words then
with which to describe them;
but then I had none, nor for my feelings.)
When I saw her come out the door,
I’d spread my arms like wings,
run down the hill like I was flying.
She never noticed, except once
when I ran too close and she rebuked me,
and I fell to earth again.
What was I seeing? What was I doing?
Whatever made me think she’d like me?
Whatever made me think I could fly?
Concrete jungle schoolyard, roving packs of boys
building live pyramids, heaping piles of flesh,
thrashing limbs and squirming stomachs,
wide-gaping mouths shouting in rude triumph
over the latest one pinned beneath the collective weight.
And there’s no doubt who’s going to be next…
Hard foot-pounding, quick-darting eyes,
wild raucous shouts, my feet eating concrete,
heart and legs pumping over the wind-roar
until the hooting and footfalls behind me cease
and again I’m left standing unburied, unbowed;
sticks to your back like tar.
–Does black ever wash off?
In deep midwinter in the town where I was born,
where I was half my height or the snowbanks twice as tall,
the students at the college built statues out of snow,
their white masses looming like frozen clouds,
like fabled lost cities of old, enchanted
dragons and castles, trolls and snow queens,
galleons and sea monsters, ancient thunder-lizards,
Mickey, Minnie, and ten-foot bug-eyed monsters;
crystal palace kingdoms of engineer-wizards,
shapers of dream-stuff, artists of snow,
the same drifting flake-stuff which brushed my face
and crunched beneath my boots,
weightless and shapeless, impressed into form
by inventive hands and minds,
by will and skill and sheer imagination.
And so was I shaped and impressed:
Our front yard became the workshop-lab
of a snow-mad scientist, would-be maker
of worlds. I worked from dawn to dusk
in sun, wind, and snowstorm, freezing cold,
scooping and packing until I was told
I’d turn into an icicle if I didn’t back in.
They about had to drag me indoors
if I saw the sun shining.
But the yard was never big enough,
paths were shoveled through it,
the snow wouldn’t pack or pile high enough
to reach the stature of my dreams.
The heads fell off my dinosaurs,
kids pushed down my snowmen,
my castle walls crumbled, snowplows cut off
the walls of my forts ere they faced a foe.
So when I got older I took up shaping
words: they don’t run out so soon,
nor melt to puddles in the spring.
Small town blue-eyed budding beauty,
flaxen hair ripening in the northern summer sun,
like my affections suddenly bursting…
Like that sun you filled my mind sky vision.
You: all I could think taste touch dream of,
dazzling messenger of unexpected glories,
you rushed upon me unsuspected, unsuspecting,
before I was ready.
Flashing, flaming sword before my vision,
unbearable bright countenance,
stinging tears of joy pain bewilderment confusion,
my heart failed, my walls crumbling,
my old world crashing down around me.
I am still not ready, Angel.
Drugged green frogs pin-crucified for dissection,
smell of formaldehyde, stainless steel sinks,
dead things mounted in glass displays.
Dandelions grow in sidewalk cracks
and grass along the edges of the building,
but I only grow fast to my seat
from sitting among the dead and dying.
Cockroaches scurry from the shadows
and cracks in my decomposing brain.
Outside the window a wild bird sings,
and I can’t pay attention to the teacher.
When is this class over with?
When is high school over with?
When does learning about dead things and people end,
and my life begin?
When do I get out of this backwoods
I get enough “biology lessons”
from bathroom walls and the guys in gym class:
Hey, gettaloada da tits on her, eh?
Will there still be innocence left upon the Earth,
much less faith, when the Son of man comes?
Anything left whole, any imagination uncurdled?
What can you learn about life from dead things?
Is there anything left alive in this town,
Yes, it was right on that spot, I remember:
the day that the traveling carnival came,
how I tried my shaky hand at a game.
I wanted a pink stuffed snake I saw hanging,
and the barker egged me on to keep trying,
“one more time, just one more time,”
putting down quarters, shooting and missing.
I finally got a cheap plastic trinket.
Thus feeling cheated out of my treasure,
seeking for something more real and sure,
I went to get a hot “Polish sausage”:
at least a sausage is still a sausage,
you know what you’re getting. But when I bit it,
it turned out to be a breaded hot dog!
I walked away in complete disillusion,
ignoring the crowds, the screams of the children,
the Ferris wheel and the carousel spinning,
the festive sights and smells all around me.
For what had once been a gay celebration
when I was younger, had lost its luster;
was now nothing more than a sleazy concoction
of loud, grinding engines and hot, grimy metal,
blinking lights and rank herds of people.
But as I walked home along the lake shore,
head hung low, I noticed a flower
blooming alone in innocent beauty,
humble perfection. It was so precious,
and it cost me nothing but attention.
Something within me just seemed to shatter,
pain and beauty came flooding together,
and I saw the living world in its splendor
as for the first time I’ve ever seen it.
And I started to pay the closest attention
to every detail, color, and texture
of all the living things around me.
It seemed as if they all wanted to greet me,
for me to take and root them more deeply
within each moment’s living remembrance.
And, though I didn’t quite understand it,
I welcomed them into my heart, I accepted,
and as I look back, that single act
was the beginning of everything.
New and Ancient
This new and ancient land,
scoured by ice and snow,
washed in wind and rain,
rising up each morning
sparkling new again;
now locked in cold and gray,
now shining like a diamond
in the northern sun.
Long ago one midsummer’s eve
I climbed this stone stairway
to be nearer the stars shining brightly
in the cold, clear northern air.
Polaris and the Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades,
the glowing band of the Milky Way
spanning the deep black vault of night;
starfire flashing across the edge of sight,
the Northern Lights, their soft green fire
falling upon the dark horizon waters
where silent freighters pass blinking
in the night.
When the waters are a calm, clear mirror
spreading unbroken to the horizon
and everything in Earth and Heaven
is caught, reflected upon their surface,
then I can almost see His face.
And when the wind blows over the waters,
creating a sparkling field of diamonds,
spreading ripples in all directions,
their infinite fields of interconnection
reveal of the tracings of His hand,
the intricate patterns of His mind,
oft-hid, now openly-displayed
where the wind and sunlight play.
And so I come to kneel and pray:
As I continue on my journey,
this lifelong poetic odyssey,
breathe Your breath of life into me;
open and heal these eyes to see
the great and unbroken Unity.
Fill in the empty spaces in me,
my mind, my inmost reality
until I can see Your face more clearly,
mirrored still more faithfully
in the shining face of the sea,
in the beauty of a mountain stream,
in the River of Life which flows through me
and all the living world around me.
And may Your glory be revealed
in all that’s good and free and wild;
in the shining eyes of a little child,
in the glory of a loved one’s smile.
And may I even ask the grace
to be able to see the original face
I had when You first conceived of me:
show me my true identity!
It was in the midst of my seventeenth summer
that my father hitched the wagon and trailer
and started the long, incredible journey
into (for me) undiscovered country,
the mountains and the western sea.
Now it all comes back to me:
South into the Land of Lincoln,
crossing the wide blue heartland river;
St. Louis, the gateway Arch,
sign of our restless westward march.
The rolling hills of eastern Kansas,
frozen swells in a sea of green,
watching the sun rise over a hilltop,
climbing its grassy slopes to see
a land afire with glittering sapphire
ponds and lakes and wildflower glories
jeweled in dew; everything new.
Prairie stretching to the horizon,
golden wheat, a great sea of grain
waving beneath a bright yellow sun.
A silvery shroud hangs in the west,
crystal droplets dancing on glass,
diffusing into a pearly glow,
threaded with sunlight, clearing to blue;
the breathtaking sight of a great double-rainbow.
The wind’s wild music, songs of the summits
whose piny freshness they rumor below.
Rain-soaked sky and shadowy foothills
looming enormously out of the gray;
a labored ascent upgrade in low gear,
the scent of pine in the cold mountain air,
cleansing awareness, wakening senses
that I didn’t even know that I had.
Setting up camp as the sky was clearing,
beholding crystal starlight glories
sparkling through the evergreens;
sleeping beneath their templed spires.
Wakening to raucous jays,
a gorgeous Colorado day!
Narrow roads and winding switchbacks,
hanging cliffs and bulging rock face;
rushing waters, massive boulders,
narrowing steep river canyons
opening to long green valleys
stretching on to the horizon.
Southwest desert, red rock country,
massive monuments of sandstone
sculpted clean by wind and water,
cut and polished into facets,
gleaming red and bronze in sunset.
Mesa Verde, ancient dwellings
carved into the naked cliff face.
Walking through the camps at night,
youthful faces lit by lamplight,
flickerings of tribal fires
beneath a diamond desert sky.
Staring over the Grand Canyon,
distances the eye can’t measure,
heights and depths the mind can’t fathom;
rock and sky and wind and silence.
Stone cathedral spires and temples,
many-contoured faces painted
all the colors of the rainbow;
intricately carved inscriptions
revealed in changing light and shadow:
language, could one only read it.
The subtle, shifting pastel tones
of the lovely painted desert,
silver-yellow in the morning,
soft blue-violet at evening;
and the loudness of Las Vegas,
rows of bright neon casinos,
temples built to wealth and power,
glittering in pagan splendor…
I wonder what it’s doing here.
The rolling hills of the Central Coast,
winding roads on the towering slopes
of Big Sur, where the mountains run to the sea.
Fog in the headlights, dangerous, thrilling,
hugging the unknown edge of the world;
silvery sunlight bursting through cover,
etching the face of a glittering ocean,
vast and beautiful to the horizon.
The hills and shoreline of San Francisco,
most beautiful city I’ve ever seen;
towering bridges spanning the waters,
rising up out of a silver-white dream.
Massive columns thrust from the earth,
towering crowns half-piercing the sky:
the deep green groves of sheltering redwoods,
ferns and mist and fragrance of resin,
the hush of feet on springy-soft needles,
and the rush of wind song high in the branches
like the sound of crashing surf in the distance,
a resonant music more felt than heard.
Cool, salty winds blown fresh from the sea
at the farthest westward point of the journey;
spray-soaked rocks hanging with moss,
a thundering roar through silvery mist,
billowing breakers pounding on cliffs
in a rhythm unbroken through eons of time;
a near, holy presence, breathing, alive,
a deep inner space where I started to feel
that I’ve always lived here, and always will.
Grey dawn hangs in indecision
on this day of my departure.
The sky hangs low with a load of misty drizzle
as familiar scenes and streets now pass
behind a pane of rain-streaked glass.
I drowse to the rhythmic patter of rain,
sleep a half-sleep, dream a half-dream.
Waking later in the morn,
the ragged edges of the storm,
shreds of cloud go streaming by,
opening a bluing sky.
Yellow sunbeams streak a meadow,
paint the land in light and shadow.
Woodland yields to farm and pasture,
dairy lands across the river,
rich and rolling, softer, gentler
than the shores of my Superior
where life struggles for a foothold.
The roots grow deep, the branches wide.
Neat houses and white picket fences,
flowerbeds and close-trimmed hedges
speak of love and care in the land.
Yet in time I sense a change…
it all begins to look the same,
like the features of the land
have been stamped out by the heavy hand
of some mindless machine.
So efficient, so Germanic,
the Midwestern Protestant Ethic
carried to the last extreme,
until even nature has to earn a living
in order to justify the expenditure
of valuable sunlight!
I begin to long for my glacier-scoured lands
and their rugged useless beauty,
unfit for the plow.
But it’s too late to turn back now.
Neon signs, commercial strips,
E-Z this and KWIK that;
even the language is chopped to bits,
ground to patties, flash-fried, frozen,
and boxed up in disposable cartons
like these cardboard excuses for hamburgers!
The meltingpot is having a meltdown!
The flavor’s gone, the vital substance drained;
and so our bodies and our brains,
for, are we not what we think and eat?
The last open spaces are closing up;
not sure when it began, exactly,
but now the houses are back to back,
effacing the last of the natural landscape.
Suburbs, I’ve heard these places are called:
gleaming white buildings, sprawling malls,
schools and libraries, parks and beltways,
sprawling development on the freeways.
I had to see it with my own eyes,
how everything exists to serve the cities,
how the all-consuming central power
skims off the cream, gathers the treasure,
grows rich and sleek off the fat of my homeland,
the lives and labors of its people.
Yet there remains a beauty
that they cannot take.
The brawny gray city rises before me,
assaulting the eyes, storming the senses.
Rails haul freight and commuters to business,
vehicles fill the land and sky,
traffic flows in roaring rivers,
thunderous jets ascending and landing;
the world is sucked into a vortex,
a cavernous engine gulping in everything,
everything the land brings forth
within a thousand miles:
crops and commodities, ore and fuel,
machinery, know how, peoples’ lives;
nothing can remain as it was.
Here the mills that smelt our hard-dug iron,
here the stockyards that turn the grazing cows
into flash-fried frozen patties;
here the plants that take the fruit of our land
and send it back frozen, packaged and labeled,
pumped full of sugar, water, and chemicals;
here’s where the “vital substance” has gone.
Approaching the city’s concrete core,
pillars of concrete and steel thrust upward
as by some unnatural force of nature,
challenging the heavens, piercing the sky.
Faceless crowds of ant-like figures
scurry down cold, gray windy canyons
seldom warmed by the rays of the sun.
A metal bird stands fixed in a plaza,
a bell tolls six from a gothic steeple,
a flock of pigeons takes to wing,
the last remaining living things
save this lonely living tree.
Yet there is a kind of energy,
a pulse, a close electric humming
of engines, wheels, and clacking heels,
a symphony of rubber and steel
which makes the blood run fast.
The terminal, our destination,
teeming crossroads of the nation,
passengers by bus and train,
arrivals, departures without end:
Boston, New York, Detroit, Cleveland,
faces of every age and description,
a veritable United Nations,
a cross-section of humanity,
a mankind in perpetual motion
toward some great collective destiny
which I can’t make out for the life of me.
Taking my seat, I find myself surrounded
by a dark-skinned people of strange speech,
music pounding from their headphones,
raw with hunger and frustration.
How did they get here? –Sadly, I know.
Brown and yellow, black and white,
we all seem far from home tonight.
Driving on into the heartland darkness,
dimming aisle lights, sagging heads,
the purr of the engine our pilgrim’s lullaby
as we cross the wide and starless night.
A thousand miles from anything I know,
heading for a place I’ve never seen.
I listen to the rain on the glass,
feel a close embracing stillness.
A voice speaks softly; or is it distant thunder?
Violet flickerings on the horizon,
sudden stabbing forks of light
reveal the features of the land.
Thunderheads like burning mountains,
terrible glories of the plains
letting loose a driving rain,
howling, driving gusts of wind
rattling the windowpanes,
swaying us from side to side
down the shining ribbon-road.
Ship upon the prairie, sailors lost at sea,
will we find safe harbor
at the end of our journey?
Now the shining Mississippi:
the midpoint of our journey.
Trees give way to open spaces
browned and yellowed by the sun,
grasslands stretching on and on.
The winding floodplains of the Platte;
boring, featureless and flat.
The body stiff and locked in straits,
the mind as always goes off wandering,
in circles without beginning or end.
No sense of time, ahead is behind,
where we’re going’s where we’ve been;
are we moving? Does Nebraska ever end?
I try to look beyond the present,
see beyond the veil of time,
see this land as it might have been
before the barbed wire and the trains,
when bison roamed in herds of millions,
thundering hooves and clouds of dust,
shaggy coats and breath of frost,
a river of life unbanked, untamed,
flowing all across the plain.
(Now a few fat burger cows
look up at me forlornly…)
Wildflowers bloomed in red and gold,
all the colors of the rainbow.
Prairie dogs in bustling towns
digging tunnels in the ground,
barking and basking in the sun.
Coyote and wolf had their fill of game,
the hawk had the freedom of the skies.
And the peoples of the plain
planted beans and squash and maize,
lifting songs of thanks and praise
to the Creator of all of these,
whose goodness they knew by more than creed.
Now our silos are full to overflowing,
but we’re too busy to hear the song;
the land is silent, and all of that is gone.
–What have we done?
My God, what have we done?
God and Father of creatures and men,
Earth our Mother, embracing and wise,
open these hearts and blinded eyes
that we and our children may yet see
the glory which once was and could be,
the beauty that once was and yet will be
if my voice, these offered prayers,
if the cries of the beasts and the blood of the martyrs
of the Earth can still reach Heaven;
if there still be justice beneath the sun.
“Can these bones live again?
Thou knowest, Lord.”
I speak to bleached bones, scattered feathers,
drifting seeds, dulled hearts and minds,
“Rise up and be filled with breath!”
Prophet of the Ghost Dance,
I pray that you were right.