Numen. It rustles at me when I pass
this urban fen. Next to an asphalt road,
cattails and loosestrife, ringed with goldenrod,
chicory, butter-and-eggs, and wetland grass
wave all summer, over a swampy smell.
A soggy, boggy singularity
oddly distinct from everything nearby,
it seems set free of civilized control
as if an ancient spirit of the place
held it. This sounds like fantasy, of course.
Water, not spirit, is the mass-and-force
at work: the cutout for the underpass
has nicked an aquifer. No living water
chuckles out of the hillside right-of-way,
but step there, trying to steal a wildflower spray—
it’s got your ankles. Then you hear the laughter.
The messy richness of the place undoes
the modern-world religion of my thought,
the tidy categories god and not,
for this is a spot where startling power leans close:
A woodchuck carcass under goldenrod,
half out of sight and uncollected, lies
just visible; the steady work of blowflies
shows me for weeks what happens to the dead.
Passing morning and evening, I see the first
red-winged blackbird here each warming spring,
the gold and scarlet swipe across the wing
flaring from cattails in a heartbeat burst.
These apparitions stun. They set me dreaming
the genius loci is tolerant, at least,
of man’s intrusions. But I know the test
is winter—the black mornings when the steaming
vapor of bog sits in the dip like a ghost,
hard nights when frozen ground will not take in
the flow, and road and sidewalk grow a skin
of ice, thicker and harder with each frost.
Slick fingers of glare ice stretch down the hill
I struggle up. Those days, I turn around,
go back, cross over. Fear of gods seems sound
however we approach them, and the will
of one we bulldozed from his sacred haunts
might still be ill-disposed toward covenants.
Poet’s Note: In the decade since this poem was written, the city has “improved” the road, and the little wetland has been drained, a sad loss in the summer.
Editor’s Note: [ETA-a kind reader has brought to my attention that the blank verse in this poem is actually not blank at all. “Subtle slant-rhyme” rules this poem. Hat tip: Julie Ann Sih.] The careful imagery and blank verse of this poem corrals the emotions of the narrator into tidy lines. It cannot, however, completely disguise the residual instinct of our deepest fears.