A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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If it weren’t for Mary, who knows all too well my oblivious nature,
I’d never have noticed those tiny, crepuscular creatures
floating around in the dogs’ water bowls. The big yellow
jackets are easy enough to spot & easy to save — you just
cup your hand under their bellies, tossing them free with a splash,
& they’ll stumble back to their feet like indignant drunks, shake
out their wings, & fly off. But I’d never noticed those minuscule
midges & gnats till Mary pointed them out. At a casual glance
they are nothing but dust motes & flecks of debris.
By the time I bend over to look, a few have already been
pulled under & are hopelessly gone. But the ones still floating,
the ones still barely alive but alive nonetheless, you can lift out
on the tip of your finger, then gingerly coax onto dry cardboard
or fencing or whatever is lying around — though for godsakes
be careful! A single slip can prove fatal. But if you’re patient
& steady enough, you’ll see wings delicate as the lash of a small
child’s eye at last start to flutter. What has been saved,
though easy enough to disparage, is somebody’s precious,
irreplaceable life. Given this planet’s unending grief, let us
save whom we can. Eons after the last hominid skull has
crumbled back into the loam, may swarms of these all
but invisible creatures’ descendants coast still, at dusk,
over these hills. May they find water & food in abundance.
May every breeze upon which they sail prove benign.
It isn’t often I see someone in that little country graveyard
on Potrero Valley Road, but this morning as I drove past,
two women, each clutching a bouquet of flowers, were walking
toward a polished granite headstone in that solemn
& deliberate way that people walk when visiting their dead.
An hour earlier you’d left for Minneapolis. Your folks,
in their mid-eighties now, are clearly failing. When you get in,
they’ll fuss & laugh: perhaps the last time in this world you’ll
ever see them. I think of that baronial Jewish cemetery back
in New Jersey where my parents are laid to rest. For a moment,
driving through the Barrett Hills, I long to be there, kneeling
where they lie, to kiss their graves &, weeping, tell them that I —
well, you know the stuff that people always say, as if the dead
were lying there awake & listening. Dearest, I already miss you.
For a week I’ll try to stop complaining — though it’s my nature —
& make do: I’ll pour birdseed in the feeders for the finches
& grosbeaks & jays, remembering how vulnerable all of us are
& how briefly everything exists. I’ll feed our furry little
sweethearts & make certain Wally has his final dose of Baytril
& take Jesse for his walks — that slow, difficult circle he makes
these days around our modest property — & hide his Tramadol
& Condroflex in glops of cream cheese, per your instructions,
&, as I promised, every second day I’ll water the tomatoes & the
jasmine & the bougainvillea & roses & ice plant & the crape myrtle.
Steve Kowit’s poem “A Prayer” in the March 2011 issue strikes me as the achievement of a present-day Jonathan Swift.
In a culture where killing and death are staples of our entertainment as well as our news, Kowit’s poem affirms life in a way that is both poignant and intellectually acute. The poem is as skillful an example of the rhetorical strategy of miniaturization as I’ve ever seen. In making a case for saving the lives of “minuscule / midges & gnats” it walks a fine line between satire and pathos. Gnats and midges? we ask. Surely you must be joking! But the poem seems very much in earnest as it deepens to its true focus, the absolute and nonnegotiable premium on life. The argument for saving the gnats and midges turns on a powerful, satirical equivalence: that we seem to treat human life as casually as we do the lives of those almost invisible creatures afloat in a dog’s water bowl. Shame on us. If we cannot or will not cherish the lives of our own kind, “let us / save whom we can.” This is socially conscious writing at its finest.