New Morning Mercies

After Anthony Bourdain, after a fashion.

On the day my next-door neighbor died
I went to breakfast in a hurricane.
The water ran through the floor of Waffle House
As waffle batter ran dry in the kitchen.

While I sat, deep in conversation,
Trying to imagine how to remake the world,
A home-health nurse brought a man with his walker
To a corner table for weekly worship.

A family from out of state sat down
And got up after twenty minutes waiting
To have their order taken, unwilling
To further delay progress to Florida.

I shouted across bad coffee for hope,
Over the drone of a country jukebox
And the pleas of hungry addicts, but this—
This—is the world as it is, more or less.

What is the life of a saint but suffering—
Patiently, daily, not in crucifixion
Or being drawn and quartered or burned at the stake,
But simple, faithful endurance through each day?

What is the life of a saint but living
In the tension between having one’s cake
And eating it, with holy disregard
For the contrast between spirit and flesh?

The next day was the first crisp morning of fall,
Broken only by the first southbound monarch,
Bearing the indignity of migration
For the joy set before him with foreordained poise.

When he gets to Cerro Prieto,
He’ll be welcomed as an ancestral spirit
Together with multitudes lighting
In sacred firs, echoing resurrection.

Image: Getty Images

Lookout Mountain, June

Wherever orange and ochre ditch-lillies
Cradle a rural highway’s curve or the
Summersweet goodness of black raspberries
Calls out from an overgrown, vacant lot,
Recall an abundant God who delights
In the mysterious placement of gifts
To slake the thirst of withered, weary souls.

In the chirps of bluebird hatchlings crying
For their food from within a trashcan nest,
In every kind and holy word spoken
Amid hurried striving for peace and rest,
In unsought, unbought graces coursing through
The veins of the world, receive the oracle—
Witness that there are no cosmic orphans.

Embrace atop a Civil War Monument

Deer, fluffed against the wind, graze among cannons
Upon the transfigured remains of the dead.

Ten thousand frogs, from craters-turned-vernal-pools
Cry out, lamenting the great dissipation.

On a snowy granite column, two figures
Gaze past each other, extending handshakes.

In glances not quite meeting, another hides,
Obscured in the blind spot of their cross-eyed stares.

His plight was the reason for the rift here patched,
His name, his toil, his pension forgotten still.

He was and remains a man, whatever past
Illusions and alliances denied him.

But the figures’ blank whitened faces hint
That next time, they would rather work together.

Image: New York Monument, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, January 2021.

Hiwassee

At the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers, silt swamps and rich farmland attract tens of thousands of sandhill cranes on their annual migration from the upper midwest to the Gulf coast. In recent decades, a sizeable population overwinters there instead of continuing further south. Just downstream from this merging point is Blythe Ferry, the site of the final forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their lands, where some 9,000 men, women, and children were held in camps for weeks before floating downstream or being carried across the river to walk what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

From the air, a river’s course is plain—
No surprise waiting around the bend
On this map for migrating sandhills.
Life is carried effortlessly as silt.
The flock pauses to dig mussels or
Pillage a farmer’s unreaped corn
Rejoicing in rattling trumpet calls.

From the ground, a river marks an edge
A line of knowing and not knowing
One side from the other as it flows.
Death is carried down cold and aloof.
Blood, waste, and tears washed along with mud
From a people massed and waiting for
The flood of pain to crest and recede.

Image: Original watercolor, January 2021