"there's no through trail" —Han-Shan, translated by Gary Snyder

Poetry Portfolio
Nine Poems by Rose McLarney

Issue: Spring 2017

 

You Must Know Things by Their Moving Away

From leavings, you may learn the animals. Look for tracks
of bobcat in mud and dust. Droppings and, in them, details

of what fruit (the pits) or meat (the fur) was the fox’s feast.
Flattened places in front of the berry bushes where a bear stood,

reaching. Burrow into which a beaver bowed. Path into brush
deer filed along, too slender for your feet to follow.

From far off, you recognize ways your family moves—
their walks, their talking gestures, even with backs turned.

Likewise with birds, you can see whether they are calm or
     fidgeting
on the branch without ever coming close enough to view
     markings,

then how the wings look in flight. You must know
things by their moving away.  The hand motions

of your husband will stay (as long as he does lift them) the same,
after his first, young face has been furrowed and replaced.

Concentrate on the silhouette slipping into shadow,
all that can be glimpsed from your distance. Be glad

of the field guide, so-named because it was the first book
among the bulky volumes of science with this intent:

Here is a small thing you may carry with you.

 

Not a Song

 

It’s the signature sound, the way I know
the woods I am in:

the pileated woodpecker percussing,
beating beak on trunk.

Of course, there’s traffic and construction
I’m not deaf to. This is not an idyll,

this is no denial of what’s true.
Just a word for the bird with a red cap

she keeps in hiding. Bird
much about, but little seen.

A strategy learned to live alongside
the likes of me. In a disturbed place,

with people piercing green’s boundaries.
Where she’s adapted to patchy trees,

punctuating the run-on of engines
with her efforts’ short reports.

This is not about singing,
but a battering.

The lyric, her soundtrack,
contemporary. What is more timely

than a piece so compromised,
and concessionary? The material

with which the bird works
is rotten and hollow.

She pounds. An echo, a harmony
with a dying thing, resounds.

 

Hunting Ginseng

 

Do not look on north slopes. Do not look
in mature, moist forests in the autumn season.

This is how you would find it, and you should not
find it. It should not be harvested anymore; too much

already has been. Roots dug, baring their shape, like
a person, but so little, and shriveled. Do not look

for Jack in the pulpit, trillium, Solomon’s seal, or cohosh—
the companion plants. The woman’s companion—

he is the man she had most wanted to seek her,
for whom she wished her hand a palmate leaf worth pursuit.

Though when he took it, turned husband, it became
he who sees her face, unprepared in the mornings,

wearing the easily slipped on sorrowful expression,
preceding appearances put on for any not the one

known. Do not look on north slopes. Ginseng has been
over-gathered hundreds of year. Time enough to teach it

not to be where it is hunted. Or to kill it back where it was
thickest and best. Collectors in the woods

would be wise to think of seasons ahead, not hunt so hard.
And, observer in our intimacy, of habit and body,

frailty and flaw, it may be better to turn back before
finding more. If I close a door in the house that is ours

together, it is to save you from me, too much discovery.

 

Identifying Characteristics

 

Is it silk with which spiders weave connecting strands across
      space,
and bind their young to belly and jaw to be carried close?

Or that by which spiderlings balloon away, disperse, casting
threads
into wind, to travel far from kin, because they eat their own
      kind?

Is it the way webs cling to me, with a substance from spider’s
     arms,
from spigots purposed to spin a stickiness that catches and
     holds?

Or how I flail to be free, coming out of grass as from a fight
so bad someone leaves home claiming, I won’t see you again?

Is it saying how like the jewelweed I look, with arms flung up
against words or web, whatever they fail to ward off?

Or that the jewelweed pods are exploding, seeds also flinging
themselves away, as far as possible from their flower as they
     may?

Is there a difference, does the same spider
make silk and venom, wrap her victim tight, and babies too,

and the plant that moves furthest, most forward its family?
I will never stop loving mine, among living things, the best

and that is not the same as believing we are, by some goodness, distinguished.

 

After Time Spent Studying an Antique Specimen Collection

 

If it could be that the tropical birds
offered their feathers easily,

understanding the need
for warm colors in northern winters.

The mounted mammals
shrugged off their skins like gentlemen

loaning their coats to cold ladies,
so obliged to make a little sacrifice

to be representatives
of the species, in entirety.

And when I was away working
on some project that would serve

a larger purpose, be lasting,
nothing was lost. Moments

were not measures of the missed.
As in the mink diorama,

for 200 years
suspending the instant

when the animal had just
emerged from swimming

by shellacking
the quick-drying fur to look wet.

Though I would not want
it to be times your face

was tear-wet
that were extended.

Though I wish I had
been the one to wipe it dry.

 

Fringe and Flourish

 

It looks like a purse, proposed the man
naming the pocketbook mussel.

It looks like false eyelashes, suggested another
of the soft tissue a female flaps

from her shell to be fanned by the water.
To flutter on the bottom, in the river’s bed.

To say something about what strikes us,
we speak of what it is not.

This is no failing of language.
Figurative language was the first language.

Without the want to get at more
than objects a hand can gesture towards and grasp,

words would not have been shaped by mouths,
moving to sculpt a missing material.

*

And with her sway and sashay
the mussel means to make herself mistaken,

a metaphor. The bit of her body batted
by the current looks like a little fish

to a bigger fish on the hunt for food.
It lures him, and she looses her young,

parasites that populate his flesh.
Taking his tissue and turning it into

mussels. They too, in time, masquerade
as other, like their mother.

Who never touches any of them again,
which, for her, can’t be called wrong.

Some young are firmly held;
some are free in the water, floating wide.

*

Some meanings are set; the substance
of some is more lyrical, and liquid.

How much of mollusk will reach fish,
of animal reach man, of woman—

it is uncertain. There are distances
it is a stretch to span.

But the mussel unfurls
her fingers. She widens her eyes.

That are faux eyes, markings on a decoy.
That are decorative fringe, not fingers.

That make us see and sense and speak
with words. Our airy flourishes

set adrift amid the amazements
with a foot in the mud of this earth.

 

Combined, Our Hands Count Four

 

Males are bold. Females are cryptically colored.
So the book says of birds. Of course, too familiar,

the female expressing nothing, eggs her end goal.
As for spiders, She lives in a camouflaged, silk-lined tube.

The male is wandering hunter and does not make webs.
What the males weave are bindings, about the bodies

of females they will hold until they are old enough to mate.
The sex an act conducted with an organ like a boxing glove.

Though there is also the male bird gathering bouquets
of twigs. Or bigger and better than that, let’s say,

curating displays of nesting materials for his partner
to pick among. And many branches of behavior

can be made the example. Such as spiders’ eight limbs
that they, before coupling, engage in leg play.

Exceptions among men who try to be tender.
And how, between married humans there is said to be happiness

with touch by half that many hands, total, the rest of their lives.
Here is a demonstration of deep love, then: Buzzards

as the selection for the conclusion. Because they’re
    monogamous
and guard eggs as a pair, gathered close,

though they are winged for flight, in what we can choose
to call a clutch.

 

Leaves   
-after the first field guide, by Mrs. William Starr Dana, 1893

 

I was looking for lives unlike ours, learning another kingdom,
turning my attention to leaves, asking,

Simple, or compound? Alternate, or opposite?
To the first field guide, the author a personality on the pages,

exclaiming of composite flowers, blossoms joined
and so better pollinated: In unity there is strength!

Then to the study of her life: losing her child, being widowed,
and in mourning, in the Victorian style, in veils,

allowed little but to go walking by herself.
Becoming expert in the offerings of fields, which were plants.

I had wanted to stay out, wandering away from people,
skipping meals and commitments.

But who can be so free?
Here, I carry with me, saying I seek new species, a human story,

a widow’s book. The title wistful:
How to Know the Wildflowers.

The identifying inquiries—Simple, or compound?
Alternate, or opposite?—also asking,  

In what way does one relate to another? Attach?
Is it too late for me to join

the dinner party, in serving others, and accepting plates?
In conversation and expectation?

How could I leave the husband I have
so often to himself at our long, bare table? May I begin

to fill it by bringing a bouquet of foliage gathered?

 

 


Rose McLarney has published two collections of poems, Its Day Being Gone (Penguin Books 2014)–winner of the National Poetry Series–and The Always Broken Plates of Mountains (Four Way Books, 2012). She has been awarded fellowships by the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and Warren Wilson College. McLarney is the 2016 Dartmouth Poet in Residence at the Frost Place and 2016 winner of the Chaffin Award at Morehead State; she has also received the Fellowship of Southern Writers’ New Writing Award for Poetry. Her work has appeared in publications including The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, and many other journals. Rose earned her MFA from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and has taught at the college, among other institutions. Currently, she is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Auburn University and Co-Editor in Chief and Poetry Editor of The Southern Humanities Review.

A Conversation with Rose McLarney