George Perreault

My Child Asks about the Clouds

Aristotle was right about how if not why
air lifts to cradle water’s milkweed dreams,
so yes, clouds may be just rain wishing to fall
floating thinner than feathers on our breath.

Everywhere we walk we are surrounded
with drops small enough they drift invisible
which the rising wind carries into the far sky,
against their will the old Greek might say,

where they gather as if into clans, adhere,
join dances with their own, then dissipate,
regroup, paint themselves with sunlight
to mime intention, desire, surfeit and need.

There’s a choice we always have: this world
in its parts singing as if everything is sentient,
purposeful, else buffeted by the force majeure
of physics, the blind groping of elements.

Perhaps we are clouds ourselves, each together
violin, mandolin, guitar, the strum of our hearts
blending ever-changing harmonies of air
to dance earthward in a pasodoble of rain.

After Missing the Eclipse

If you’ve lived in a land this dry
you never begrudge the rain,

the moon and its shadows
they come and go, but now

in morning dark there’s Venus
steady in the southern sky, Jupiter

ticking west and dissolving while
the sun’s early fingers limn

the hem of our eastern hills,
and you find after weeks of priming

and stretching canvas, finally you can
paint as if plasma has ached itself into

legs again, into fragile wings as well,
not that winter’s over but today

something settles over the valley, not
color, not exactly, it’s more like a notion

barely stippling the willow where it traces
that place an acequia might hide,

there’s a semblance, a tinge – un sueño
de primavera
– that longs to alight,

to ease down its weightless feet,
unfurl its slender tongue.

Running in the Rain

all morning it felt like Florida
air thick with damp gray light

like living inside clouds when clouds
hold their breath, and I’m back

a wife ago, a daughter ago,
training on two-lane blacktop,

palms lifting in a rising wind
where after the first cold pellets

it doesn’t matter so much
drenched with rain or sweat

any time you run, head ticking
the pace, and here more than a full

marathon of years gone by, halfway
to the truck sudden wet gusts and I

rush to unload, return the cart
running empty-handed, no hat or

jacket, running with ruined knees
in a country where moisture’s always

welcome but offers no word to ensnare
the exactness of this instant

everything’s an end and a beginning
when the heart has done its brazing

now and forever run freely together
redefining themselves as rain

The Old Country

My dad once said Spain or
Portugal, he’d retire there
given half a chance

we were at the club then
drinking dime beers –
how young I must have been –

glad you never started, he said
singing softly ashes to ashes
dust to dust

if those Camels don’t get you
the Fatimas must,
I drink too much too, he said

and always wished I could paint
like my brother Joe – if only
we didn’t love so much

those things that are bad for us,
your mother, this fire in my lungs –
but I’m thinking resurrection today

the way this light rebounds
on an April bench, Barri Gòtic
late sun sliding over patchwork

stone and brick, the odd green
crawling up, old men working past
leaning on canes or women –

if each cigarette were a minute,
I wonder, how many nows
would he have taken back?

Miss Edna

Her name of course the very flow of it
how a brook eludes weed-smooth rocks,
tumbles into pools sliding brown to gold,

and then in photographs a girl near as
blossoms cup the sun, her face turned,
hand-held, ruby hair almost wild but

never quite, a girl from Penobscot Bay, old
Catawamteak as best our tongues can capture
one older still, a coastal town shipping out

barks and brigs, senators, generals, barrels-
ful of unremarked others with names and
fingers more musical than mine, woods

where you catch the water’s glitter rushing
through trees as light and breath together
whisper St. Vincent, St. Vincent Millay.

Author’s Note

Notes Toward My 77th Easter

Like other binge-writers, I’ve read with varying degrees of envy the accounts of those who rise each day at dawn with freshly-sharpened pencils to work uninterrupted for hours, fueled by coffee and cigarettes. Sometimes this is profitable for them, sometimes not, but it is their daily discipline. I don’t smoke or drink coffee and lack such self-control, so this does not resemble my life. Well, sometimes there are pencils involved, but mostly it’s waiting on the muse. So imagine my surprise….

On Mardi Gras, without even the excuse of alcohol, I suddenly decided to write a poem a day for Lent. Not only did this fly in the face of my work ethic, it felt very much at odds with the tattered remnants of a faith that would resonate more with Quakers than with the Catholic church in which I was raised – the rituals and the foreign tongue, the certainties. But Easter was coming, spring renewal, so I decided to give it a try.

There are solid anthropological reasons for grounding a ceremony at this time of year – Christmas gets a solstice, this one has the vernal equinox. Easter is calculated to fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21st (which is about mid-range of when the actual astronomical event happens). I looked it up. Okay, now go back 40 days, not counting the Sundays, and it’s Ash Wednesday and I have to write a poem. The first of 47. I have no idea where this is going.

Well, start with giving something up, with sacrifice:

there are some habits
i could put aside
and surely not alone

though we wear them well
like jeans gone all friendly
soft as a hangman’s hood

And then the weather and the uncertainty that underlies this project:

it has rained here for hours
the ashes
wishing they were coal

burn us soil into sky
burn us into wingbeats
of whatever soul might be

Day 1, check. I’m currently at a stage where I use mostly lower case except where it seems necessary, and I avoid a lot of punctuation as well, so this was really not a structural decision for the project. Titles, though. Each of the Sundays in Lent has its own Latin name, and I choose to use them to head those poems as well as for the themes when the Sabbaths came around, if I was still writing. The other days get numbers, at least for now.

On Day 2 some old church color slips in toward the end of the poem.

the windows stained with glory,
stones liquid as voices
practiced in chant…
another birth uprising
deep as the oceans of the moon

There’s a sighting of the moon, but it’s too soon to wonder what may emerge as themes, I’m just happy to have a second poem done. For Days 3 and 4 the poems drift toward uncertainty and surrender, and that seems appropriate.

Then it’s the first Sunday, Invocabit, the call, and it starts out a ballad – what the hell? I so rarely use traditional forms, and end rhyme?

was a clutch of maiden sisters
in a house across the street,
they lived all together quietly
and were Irish as could be

Which is when I discover an advantage to this approach – it’s the task that’s to blame, so let the poems go where they will. Then when a later poem starts sprinting down the page, let it be.

when we name our boats for girls
we hold a summer’s thought
there is a breeze across the bay
and they raise their sails like skirts

then we name our girls like boats
only dreaming peaceful shores
we never think of wreckage
never think no more

Somewhere in this week I decide to leave the weekday poems untitled, just labeled with Roman numerals. That seems maybe organic somehow, and there’s another Latin Sunday coming up. In the meantime, the poems note the Ides of March, which this year is the day W. S. Merwin dies; then the Sabbath, Reminiscere, recalls a troubled brother that we had and the shameful way we treated him.

mother threw her hands up, father all
what he could do, times being they were
so secret, sister tending to the wounds
the rest of us tiptoeing on our way
without a brother we never had

The next week’s poems have a hint of Goethe but lean more toward Zen. I think there’s an affinity between Soto practice and what I sometimes try to capture.

the wild red fox keeps singing
its five hundred generations,
this foolish world still swollen
expectant with spring

The next Sunday is Oculi and focuses on vision:

we must bend the mind to know
the waves on a blazed mountain
are the fingers of a single tree

By now, there is a rhythm to my day – rise and write – and I’m finding a comfort with this challenge. It’s like the old days when I was a distance runner, the predictable routines, the welcome discipline. But right now I’m going to Costa Rica with my wife and daughter. No more getting things down on the screen and poking them around, fixing this or that at leisure, considering the range of the poems laid out in their neat little file. There are airplanes and a rental car, three different hotels, pretty money, inadequate Spanish and all these different birds.

I take to working on paper instead of the computer. Jotting notes and phrases, planting seeds. Unsure and yet, because of the way the poems have been flowing, confident I’ll draw on my inner Wordsworth and recollect in tranquility. And when back home after this immersion, that is what happens.

frogs, birds, even the gutters
surrender to drip and gurgle

here, says the earth, here
you can have it all

On Laetare Sunday, one of only two days in Catholic rituals which permit the use of rose vestments, we wander past something labeled Church on the Beach:

the surf’s broken bassline
a barrackful of snoring
poking your ear
until the angel of sleep
is the angel awake
is the angel of you

I find I’ve been spending some time reading about the lives of Christian mystics, and though the harshness of their discipline is alienating, there seem to be some parallels with Buddhist meditation, with surrender of the ordinary.

some medievals that we know
floated away and then came back
to tell of a rock beneath it all
or else that everything is flow

can you imagine the trust it takes
when the ice begins to crack
to surrender the self to not-self,
to believe not-being is how to be

When the next Sunday arrives, Judica, I find myself reflecting on what I might call my Samaritan sympathies that are seldom translated into action, what in the Confetior would be transgressions by omission.

Judica me, for what i haven’t and pray
cast my sins into the depths of the sea

Later in the week I find myself considering the death of a local man on the roof of a homeless shelter, and the ease with which we might condemn the callousness and ineptitude of his caregivers without offering anything of ourselves when religions east and west, whatever their failings, ask the same thing of us:

… stand here
lift out against the dark and
instead the people under
under a roof tonight

I’m guessing the lesson is compassion, acceptance, perhaps even for myself, and if love is a pouring out, an emptying:

now inside is where i find myself
a sleeve empty within a sleeve

Palm Sunday begins the crucial week in Christian theology, the death and resurrection of Jesus which starts with his entry into Jerusalem and the deadly cat-and-mouse with the authorities.

oh we’re past already father
unclenching’s in the buds

quickened wordplay with the scribes
and a little hide-and-seek

and then,

you know

And we do know the story; it is embedded inextricably into Western culture, and even if I can’t consider myself Christian in any traditional (or perhaps even any meaningful) way, still, there it is. We have reached the Mysteries. The tripartite divinity, that’s easy; the creator and the holy fire, maybe male and female or even an intermingling within, gender being a limitation of the human mind. But the son, fully-god and fully-human, walking into his own death, is he harboring human doubts? Faith versus knowledge. Welcome to Holy Week. Welcome to the question:

If there’ll be
when i close my i

It seems, if I can believe the next few poems, it doesn’t really matter, that at least by our standards the earth abides forever:

… another hundred years
will carve the foothills indifferently
yet perfect all the same

Individual lives are both nothing and yet everything, the substrate of what is to come for humans through time:

yeast of these lives
consumed like any fodder
and laid down in the fields
as topsoil for our selves
and the ourselves still to come

Our salvation is the ability to find moments that transcend, that are filled with love and, somehow, live forever. I suppose that’s an act of faith, one I didn’t expect to find.

turning now into that once-time
we pushed worlds aside like chairs
and danced together in the dark

So Easter becomes, if not a traditional resurrection, not a survival of the individual soul/consciousness, then at least an acceptance of our transitory nature.

lie down as you were born
and know it is enough

It is the Monday after, and I do not plan to write a poem today. People should come back from a pilgrimage and take stock of what they have. Such a luxury to sit in spring sun and watch clouds and birds and appreciate the freedom to write a poem a day for 47 days. Maybe find out what I believe. Call it what it was – a blessing. Now there are all these poems, a chapbook’s worth tentatively titled A Far Cry from Galilee. The Sufis say we should always hope for work, so there’s always that. Selah.

George Perreault has worked as visiting writer throughout the Western United States, and his work has appeared in journals and anthologies in the US, Canada, Ireland, England, and India. His most recent book, Bodark County, is a collection of poems in the voices of characters living on the Llano Estacado in West Texas.