Wild Grapes; Red Bird

Wild Grapes
There were grapevines climbing up one end
of the clothesline in their yard—tentative
green tenterhooks with curlicue citrine
shoots no thicker than hairs floating
on the summer air. Pointedly ignored
by my grandmother, every August they
produced several diminutive clusters
of grapes the color of opals. Not fit to eat,
my grandmother said, which may or may
not have been true: she’d grown up a child
of sharecroppers and in later life was
resolute in her refusal to engage with
the dirt or anything that came out of it.

Birds were her thing: laser-like purple
martins that skimmed but never touched
the ground, electric finches in their branch
heaven, even sparrows—so modest yet
possessed of wings. My grandfather,
with his encyclopedic knowledge of cattle,
crops and roads, dwellings, weeds and lunch
counters, could probably have told me
something about the grapes, but it never
occurred to me to ask, since the clothesline—
and everything attached to it—was women’s work.

By the time I knew them, my grandparents
didn’t say much to each other beyond what
was unavoidable: I remember my grandfather
flipping his table knife around—holding
the blade—pointing the back end at a bowl
of butter, my grandmother passing it.

What my grandfather loved was heading
uptown to the F & M Cafe at5 AM to sit
with his cronies, sip weak coffee, smoke
a pipe, converse about more ways than
one to skin a cat—jack-of-all-trades,
master of none. I was from far away,
a city where grapes from some nameless
other place accrued in slain heaps beside
the apples and bananas in the A&P.
This was before kiwi fruit came to the USA,
or cable TV—or anything digital. Back
then all the clocks still had faces.

I never ate one of the clothesline grapes—
they were so local they were off limits;
after all, I only came for summer visits,
and although I was young, I knew
the distance between tasting and living.
Red Bird
A cardinal’s chip chip in this glassy sun-
cleft afternoon with storms on the way makes
me pause to search the trees on Edgecombe
Avenue. When I was young my mother
loved those scarlet birds, and now a brilliant
flash, a tiny crest, the falling cheer cheer
of their call seize me with the blank
urgency of imperfect recall. Behind the hill
thunderheads felt but not yet seen are
taking their sweet time to break. The wait
from birth to death is merciless unless
we make it matter less by seeing more
and more: red bird, green tree, rim of memory—
speak to me.