Steve Straight is professor of English and director of the poetry program at Manchester Community College. For many years he directed the Connecticut Poetry Circuit and the Seminar Series of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. He is the author of four poetry collections: The Deepest Breath, The Water Carrier, The Almanac, and Some Assembly Required. He has delighted audiences with his readings both here and abroad. About his work, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has said, “Steve Straight is a poet of everyday experience whose disarmingly casual voice can lead the reader into deeper waters of insight . . . Every one of the poems in The Almanac achieves that rare thing in the streets of contemporary poetry: they are just plain interesting.” Steve lives in South Windsor with his wife, Marian Maccarone.
– Rennie McQuilkin, CT Poet Laureate
The one-eared chipmunk I had fed so many times
last year from my hand, so close I could study
the tumid wound where his left ear had been,
the sucking flies stuck to his striped back,
the tiny toenails manicured by rocks,
did not return this year,
and I imagined all the calamities that chipmunk
flesh is heir to: the silent dive of the red-shouldered hawk,
the neighbor's wily calico, the fox whose baby-squeal
electrifies the night, and even plain old age,
which is never far off for a chipmunk.
And I blamed myself for taming him
to the point he trusted this indentation
in the big stone atop the wall,
that despite his palpitating heart he might have
let down his fidgety guard because of our daily routine.
And so now, when he does appear, three weeks late,
ear hole now healed, and clambers over the rocks
and into my hand, all four feet, even pausing
to eat one of the black seeds as I hold him aloft,
what choice do I have but to stop,
breathe deeply in the palm of the present,
to shuck what isn't and savor what is?
A Murder Question
On a frost-covered morning I hear crows
out in the yard somewhere, their raucous caws
complaining about something over and over
in their hoarse, irritating way.
"What is that racket?" asks my wife,
not a fan of sharp sounds.
"Crows," I say, and looking closer,
"about eight of them in the St. Francis garden."
When after half an hour they are still roosting
in the semicircle of lilacs, like angry barristers
bickering over some point of natural law,
I go outside, thinking of what I know
about this unpopular family, the corvidae,
that they are among the smartest of animals,
have at least 250 different calls and rattles,
will defend unrelated crows from hawks,
that they can remember a specific human face
and even hold a grudge against it.
As I get closer the cawing increases, deafening,
but they don't fly off, as if they have some reason
for perching on these specific bushes in the cold
and then right below, hidden among the hyacinths,
I see it, the dead crow, and I realize the caws
are not complaints or arguments but eulogies.
When I lift the crow with my gloved hands
and then dig its grave at the back of the property
the crows gather in the maples nearby,
softly keening now, witnessing my respects.
Morning opens through the fog on the lake
and the three-note wood flute call of the loon
carries through the mist, which makes it easier
to stay in the lapping water present,
hearing some truck in the distance hauling
the past to the future, and as the sun starts
to burn a blue hole from the sky to the water
I return to the puddle of my thoughts.
Then, checking the temp on an outside thermometer,
I see through the glass that trapped in the fabric
of a giant web glistening with dew is a three-inch
dragonfly, what I later will determine is a female
green darner, still as death and covered in silk.
I step outside to study it closer, for once at rest,
its bright green thorax and long brown abdomen
with a black line running down the top
and clear wings tinged with amber, a sign of age.
Then I am surprised to see it twitch, and I realize
its thousands of honeycomb lenses in each globular eye
can see me, the mosaic that I am. It twitches again,
and without much hope I grab two small sticks
and try to remove it from its grave.
I set it on the picnic table, and it doesn't look good:
one wing is folded over itself, and it spasms again,
helpless. Then it settles down, and when I pull
the silk off, it straightens its wing, apparently OK.
Next is the goo around the abdomen, so sticky
and strong. When that is gone, it still doesn't fly,
and when I remove my progressive lenses, I see
the tiny legs are still caught. Needing a finer
instrument, I find a piece of pine straw
to hook the silk and extract it speck by
speck from femur, tibia, tarsus until all is clean.
There will come a time, if it doesn't make it back
to Mexico, when the darner is taken from above
by some quick kestrel or below by a bass,
but as it skitters off toward the lake again I say
to myself, Not today, at least. Not today.
The Buddhists say that three things
cannot be long hidden:
the sun, the moon, and the truth.
While I long to see the truth
rise in the east and blaze all day,
to be so full and bright in the night sky
that I can almost name the craters on its face
I fear it is more like the fisher cat,
or the mountain lion, elusive and shadowy,
even like the okapi, limited to one rainforest
in the Republic of the Congo,
its habitat shrinking with each day.
In this age of ignorance and malignant spin,
the truth has a striped rump
to disguise its profile, and
long ears to sense predators.
I approach it patiently, wordlessly,
leaves proffered in my hand,
eager to see its long blue tongue.
The Horse Does Not KnowIt Is in a Movie
The horse does not know it is in a movie,
I am sometimes reminded,
especially in a close-up, when
all the other characters are removed
from the shot, and it is just a horse
eating hay, oblivious to the gaffers
and best boys and bright lights
outside its stall, not Pie,
the horse that wins the Grand National
with Elizabeth Taylor astride,
but probably Sam, or Big Red,
a little annoyed by all the fuss
until the hay arrived.
Nor did any of the Lassies
know they were television stars,
I have to remember,
the audience at home hanging on every
cocked ear, every suddenly rigid stance
when Timmy was in danger,
waiting for June Lockhart to say again,
"What is it, girl?"
It wasn't anything, except a young collie
playing that game again,
doing those tricks for Rudd Weatherwax,
attentive to his tics and hand signals
as he stood off camera with a treat.
Now that I think of it, those cows
I saw on top of the Cliffs of Moher,
in County Clare, have no idea
they are Irish cows, characters
in the long-running, bumpy play
called Ireland, have no notion
of religion or history or any of our powers
to name and distort the world.
They only ruminate
on the sacrament of grass.
And if I am perfectly honest about it,
most days I do not know
that I am on a stage,
do not notice my Weatherwax
in the wings, raising one finger
to arouse that memory from my childhood,
or wagging his left foot to bring that scowl
of recurring anxiety to my face,
or summoning that metaphor
by cocking his head to the right.
Most of the time I think I'm just a man
who comes up with these things
all on his own.
How to Catch a Fly
Wait until the fly is still,
preferably on a surface
with space on either side of it,
as we all would like to exist,
even better if it is occupied
with its fly yoga, passing
one leg over its head
and then another. Now
bring your hand up gradually
behind the fly and pause.
Do not try to catch the fly
where it is, or you will catch
a perfect handful of air.
You must catch the fly
where it will be, the future fly,
the fly one second from now.
This is one lesson of desire.
So, then, when you are ready
(sometimes the fly will sense this
and stop all motion)
swoop your hand over the fly in
one clean motion ending with
a gently closed fist in the air,
with thumb on top,
then feel the fly buzz inside
against the walls.
Appreciate for a moment
the coevolutionary arc
that all of natural history
has conspired to achieve
this intersection of species.
A sigh here is optional.
At this point you might
surprise a yawning friend,
or roll the fly on the counter like dice,
but better to open a door or window
and release the fly back into the present,
back into the cool night air.
Poems copyright © 2002, 2012, 2017 by Steve Straight