Life in the Woods
In my uncle's diary of symptoms, light
is described as washed out moon.
Color as winter fields: gray sky, gray earth.
Shapes forming of their own volition,
strange geometries of line, lacquered splotches
coalescing then disappearing. He blamed
decades of wind, dust kicking up, grit catching
and congealing-or witnessing a younger
brother dying slowly from metastatic brain tumors.
Eventually the pages of the diary dissolved
for him into dark hallways, so I transcribed
the symptoms for the doctor, a task that reminded
me of high school when I copied out long passages
from Walden: whip-poor-wills chanting their vespers,
fluviatile trees, the ceaseless roar and pelting
of rainstorms. At sixteen I gave my lone copy-
spine fissured, pages bent back and loose from
their moorings-to a girl I hoped would understand,
but she returned the book in less
than an hour to say, I wouldn't ever live like that.
Which I recalled the August morning I arrived
at my uncle's farm to find him on his front porch,
a compendium of crows calling from the willows
by the wire fence. The old man was sitting on a lawn
chair with nothing but his quietude, his face dark
and obdurate, stoic with years. He looked up
with emptied eyes as my shoes creaked the front step-
here is what the dark brooms have swept away-and not
until my voice was familiar in the air did he rise
from his chair and gesture me into his house.
Nine crows in five days.
And if there are six snakes, and one
shucks its skin, becomes incorporeal,
is the sky still forever with birds,
these birds that map the grass
with their black stains?
And when the corn comes down,
four field mice enter the house
and hide behind the kitchen sink.
Then come winter, one horse dies
and waits for spring to be buried,
mounded in a lump of white.
It snows in our lungs, and driving
down the road we see the flakes
drifting like dust in air. Last
winter the bridge was out
for nineteen days, and the widower
who hanged himself
was spotted by seven children
on a school bus.
And then, this morning, there were
spots of blood on two eggs,
more beads sliding on
the imagined abacus.
Or now our monologue
of moonlight makes of the field
this arithmetic of grief. At dawn
we count three deer at the field's
edge, two fissures in the window
glass. And the crows count
slowly with each call: one, two,
three, four, five.
Depression is rage spread thin. -George Santayana
It was a form of weakness, my father said,
an embarrassment, the men after the War
who were hollowed out, were grass
in the field behind the house, men who slept
amid the shadows of their days, who existed
like cigarette smoke-idle and drifting-
and shuddered at backfiring pickups and saw
their life's labor as a stroll to the mailbox
for the government check. When I was twelve,
my father returned from a trip to Chicago
with 500 off-brand batteries purchased
on the cheap from a company going out
of business, and so I was sent on my bicycle
to the farm houses and clusters of neighborhoods
in our small Ohio town. There was something
holy in labor, my father believed, but what I
remember is how discouraging it felt to ask
strangers again and again to reach into their pockets
for cash they didn't have. Sometimes the old
women or men who opened the doors
eyed me the way the moon eyes the earth,
the way the clouds are part of the sky
but also separate from it. Then, in college,
I worked one summer on mosquito abatement,
and my primary job was to step from the truck
to the road's verge and count how many
mosquitoes bit me in a minute. I was a poor
man's St. Francis of Assisi, but my father
was impressed by the work ethic evident in
the manifold bumps on my arms and legs,
impressed the way he never was with my meager
sales of the batteries that mostly still remained
in a cardboard box in his garage during the final
years of his life, when I would find him sitting
on the couch with the television blaring the same
cycle of news, over and over. There was a stillness
about him then, a smallness, as though the grass
had grown up around him in great, empty stalks.
The years and the sun had freckled his hands
with dark splotches, and often he seemed to be
studying their hieroglyphics, pondering what
the slow decades had wrought, and his unshaven
face was listless as the clouds. The days blurred
together after that, were like the fallen oak by
the fence, hollowed at the middle and spilling
its dark salt. My father had little, if anything,
to say, though he did tell me one early morning
that he imagined the advantage of being dead
was that the living would finally leave you be.
-from Original Bodies
BIO: Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Original Bodies (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2014), and Mechanical Fireflies (Barrow Street Press, 2011). His first book, Black Tupelo County (BkMk Press at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2008), received the John Cardi Prize. He teaches at The Ohio State University at Lima.