Poetry

Like Mowing the Grass; Annunciation Triptych


Like Mowing the Grass
 
 

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
—Robert Frost, “Mowing”

 
 
Fed up with my angel-ridden, Latinate dirges,
my sophomore poetry professor kept telling me
to write about something more ordinary and at hand, like
mowing the grass. Instead of elegies for my mother
who’d died suddenly a few months before,
always mowing the grass was my prescription.
He wanted it plainspoken, monosyllabic,
backyardly. Certainly not
the lines I’d been writing, like
“lassitudes of opulent lamentation.”
 
“You think I’m too dumb to know
what existentialism is,”
my high school principal once said to me.
“Well, I know what existentialism means:
you get to go out in the back yard
and do whatever you want.”
—Well, the front yard
works even better, I almost said.
 
I knew Camus
said why we don’t commit suicide
was the only question worth asking.
I wanted to ask
why my father had mailed in life insurance papers,
driven hours to Glennville where he grew up
the day he tried to kill himself
a year before he died at 48, why
my mother—post-breast-cancer, post-DTs—
had followed him at 50, why I didn’t, but
poems, I learned, drew
on things more urgently at hand
like ridding the garden of its weeds, suppressing
again and again the lawn’s ambitions to grow.
 
So reading Rilke’s Elegies aloud
to the accompaniment of Chopin’s Funeral March,
I set out to summon a massive
passion for lawnmowing, its chop-cries, spat gravel.
But the grass couldn’t just be grass, the weeds just weeds,
nor could the poem get “weighed down by ideas”
so you had to let the monosyllables and concrete
images only whisper what you meant.
 
(Why concrete? I always wondered.
I had a lawn mower whose motor forgot
how to stop, so I learned to cut it off
by slamming its blade onto a concrete strip
till the spark-collision of iron
against pavement gave it a violent
kind of choke-stop.) “My long scythe whispered,”
Frost said in “Mowing” (the only mowing-the-grass
poem I could find), “the earnest love that laid the swale in rows.”
But not my mower blade, ground down
a quarter inch further by concrete each time
it had to quit hacking down the swale.
 
I tried for decasyllabic monosyllables, Anglo-
Saxon, angel-expunged, wrote “the cord-yank’s
gag,” aimed for more swale and slashed my line
“Where the wine of the unsinned blood slept,”
more motor-shutdown whine and less
sin-purified Father and Son Eucharist-blood, fewer
cherubim and more like the tagline REAP MORE LEISURE
WITH A WHIRLWIND SABRE.
Tried
to grind the clumps of ideation down
into metaphor’s tamed and palliating
mystification: Frost’s green
snake sneaked right in from Eden.
 
—Cure me
of thinking, or let me go in the unmowed
front yard and do what I want, like the whine
of the Whirlwind Sabre choking
on what it cut. My friend’s mother called her
“the first pancake”—she was the oldest child—because
“you always have to throw out the first pancake.”
My friend said it with an air of resignation
like that was just a fact, inalterable and blunt.
 
—“This is constant, hard work,”
said a Jerusalem Post op-ed
this spring of the recurrent labor
of re-razing the Gaza Strip with bombs,
“just like mowing your front lawn.
If you fail to do so, weeds go wild
and snakes begin to slither around in the brush.”
The love that lay the swale
lays on the streets of Gaza City
a thousand airstrikes
in a month. Sixty-six children killed.
“There was smoke coming out
of my children’s mouths.”
“Imagine seeing your children’s eyes
outside their heads.”
“I had a family. Each had a dream.
It all disappeared in one second.”
The land was ours before we were the land’s
(Frost declaimed at JFK’s inauguration).
Gaza was the Gazans’, before
Occupation and Siege and No-Go Zone,
before, without power most of the day,
among flattened skyscrapers, salty, stinking water,
a bombstrip 25 x 7 miles,
four million people were sequestered in.
 
I’m somewhat late with this assignment, Sir.
It’s taken me awhile to see
such mowings as both ordinary and at hand, and
now it’s hard to turn so leisurely away
from disaster to the existentialist
and concealed back yard
and its boustrophedonic perfect rows
of slice, red-rhododendron-sequestered-
in. There’s no lassitude or opulence, no piped-in
Chopin Funeral March
for most lamentations. The long scythe whispers
Frost says (What is it it whispers?).
We know what it whispers, why it whispers:
the growl-choke of cord-yank and what’s
lovingly lain in swale-rows of ruins that
because they won’t just stay
chopped down to ground forever, get,
with the sweetest dream of facts and labor, mown,
and mown and mown and mown and mown and mown.
 
 
 
Annunciation Triptych
 
 
I
 
ALERT there is no emergency.
 
There is only the alarmed
vatic voice from the fire-
warning strobelight red intoning
through every phone, laptop, or AV screen
in the classroom ALERT
THIS IS NOT AN EMERGENCY.
It is not
 
necessary to crouch
beneath your desk
in fetal position
as previously taught. In this case it is better
practice to stack your desks
five-high to blockade
the doors
that do not lock.
 
 
II
 
Alert: there is no emergency.
There are the now-customary
rapid mutations of novel viruses
and neo-flash-floods, neo-deserts.
There are shelled
maternity wards and orphanages,
as often there may be,
and not-unusual occurrences of millions
escaping to soon-to-be-
annihilated sites of refuge.
To flee
may nonetheless constitute a better choice
under grave conditions
than Options (1) hiding, or (2) freezing.
Should you attempt escape,
go quickly.
Do not permit the wounded to interfere.
 
 
III
 
Alert: no action is required.
The emergency’s nature would have been
disseminated, had there been one.
This has only been a test you may have well
already passed, or failed. Do not
be afraid. Nolite timere. The Power
of the Highest
shall overshadow thee. Users
need only click the green
Dismiss button to make this
and future
Annunciation Warnings
disappear.