Editor’s note: In this week’s Poetry Corner, we feature the work of Deborah Brown who is an editor, with Maxine Kumin and Annie Finch, of “Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics” (Univ. of Arkansas Press, 2005) as well as a translator of “The Last Voyage: The Poems of Giovanni Pascoli” (Red Hen Press, 2010). Her poems have appeared in Margie, Rattle, The Alaska Quarterly, Stand, the Mississippi Review and others. Brown teaches literature and writing at the University of New Hampshire-Manchester where she won an award for Excellence in Teaching. She lives in Warner, New Hampshire, with her husband George Brown and four cats.
Poems below are from Walking The Dog’s Shadow published by BOA Editions Rochester, New York.
I don’t want to believe that genes
have us all on a leash, that math is a matter
of neurons, that fear lives in the amygdala
of mouse and man, that the genes of the woolly
mammoth led him straight to extinction.
Who wants to believe that everything’s
encoded—revolutionary action, bungee jumping
over walls and into hearts, passions like
John Donne’s or the disastrous life of
a Caravaggio? Let’s agree to believe
it’s possible to sniff along, nose in the grass
or up the telephone pole of delight, unleashed.
I want to believe we can shimmy right out
of that worn noose. You slip yours, I slip
mine, we’re off to the park in a sheer
Neitzschean will-to-power triumph
over everyone’s mixed-up set of instructions
for living, though not the ones for kissing
in the back seat, or for being the child who sits
in a puddle, arms up in the air, almost squalling,
not figuring someone’s going to pick him up.
That Venus spins backwards is a surprise.
Why wasn’t I told before? And the planet WASP17
travels in retrograde orbit—that’s going east to west—
the opposite of its star. What with carrying wisps
of orchids and the lace gloves I wear in the garden,
I’m in a retrograde orbit myself, writing notes
in reverse the way Beethoven did in the final fugue
of the Hammerklavier. It’s the way I’ve always moved
while most astronomical objects paid no mind.
What is worse than travel in reverse?
This year a plague assaulted the hemlock,
itself famously poisonous, and then
a pestilence developed that fed on the plague.
It’s also true that parasitic flies transform fire ants
into zombies that wander. It’s wandering that
frightens. It’s cold as Mars, it’s no orbit,
it’s a nightmare that refuses to speak, a bright red,
not the color of a scarlet tanager, or even brick
or blood, it’s an empty red that walks away,
silent, with no suggestion, no response.
Walking the Dog’s Shadow
It’s best to walk a shadow till he pants,
to let him roam a bit under the hemlocks
while you ponder the shade of boulders.
It’s best to let grief enter you like this,
alone with your own black dog,
a drag on anyone’s leash
along the logging road to the lake,
past loggers’ landings and a clear cut,
across the brook’s collapsing plank bridge,
past the neighbor’s garden shrouded in plastic,
past no trespassing signs, a dried up vernal pool,
crisscrossed by trunks of grieving oaks.
Every night, eager as a pup,
this shadow leads you into the woods
and shows you how well it heels
at your side, this old black dog of grief.
The Stone Wall
It’s not when you are lying here alone,
when the green of the leaves seems the color of your grief,
it’s not when the neighbor’s dog gallops like a lost foal
toward the moon, it’s not even when the seedlings
tell stories about the earth they’re planted in.
It happens later. Then the story you’ve been telling
tells itself, is written on the ceiling in Braille, on your arm in tattoos,
in the crude chipping on granite in a family plot that gives a child’s initials,
a husband’s name and “wife of.”
That’s when you know too many stories are being told,
so many no one has listened for a long time.
So now it’s time for you to start to listen
to the insects that clamor outside the screen waiting to be heard,
to the confused young deer that wandered from side to side in the road
while you watched from the car and waited for it to decide,
which it did as its spindly legs lengthened
slowly and strengthened into a leap over the stone wall.