Mudlark Poster No. 114 (2013)

Retirement Ode and Passion Among the Ruins
Poems by Frances Ruhlen McConnel

Retirement Ode

October, walking on Puzzey Road near Albion,
New York, past land that used to be my uncle’s farm,
I pass fat black and orange banded caterpillars
going my way. Or rippling toward me, or
crossing the roadway, left to right,
right to left, and sometimes smashed flat. 
A few light gold ones among them,
But the same shape, same fuzz, which I can see
is bristly as the spines on bunny ear cactus.
I count three dozen on my hour’s walk. 
Frost last night and yet I hear crickets,
katydids, peepers. Many voices beating
in withering soy bean plants, the umber brittle corn.
Where are they off to—some other crop
to level, even this late in the season?
Are they omens of disasters ahead, or just
dupes of some blind drive to nothingness?
For me, stretching my legs is taking a call
to be free, free of the small, cluttered indoors
and not the echoing farmhouse I knew as a child,
though it offers the same warm succor. 
Free of my uselessness to take part
in Aunt and Uncle’s chores, the ones
retired dairy farmers need to keep life
perking—those who haven’t left for Florida. 
Or, wait, I know, these caterpillar migrants
are looking for their own Florida.

Turns out they are woolly-bear caterpillars,
destined to become Isabella Tiger moths.
Perhaps yellow bears too. Turns out they munch
on dandelions and clover, not crops. 
In the fall, they go on the move, looking
for a place to hibernate—under rocks,
in cavities in tree bark. In the spring
they lay eggs early, spin their cocoons. 
Many say you can forecast the winter
by the width of their black bands. 
Turns out schoolkids know this, all over America. 
And now I remember them, from my Southern
childhood. But still I go to the internet
to look, close-range, at their faces,
the way they’d look between a kid’s thumb
and forefinger; to read of scientists
who do or don’t believe in their powers,
experiments in third grades, testimonials
from old-timers about caterpillar coats
before the blizzard of Nineteen Fifty. 
No more reading into. No more proclamations.

Proclamations of the teacher behind the desk,
proclamations of the ironist. No more
proclamations of the PA system, proclamations
of the learned, proclamations of the professional.
No more proclamation of machine gun and mortar.
Of dais and microphone, the 24 hour news channel.
No more proclamations from God’s mouth—
anybody’s god—no matter how powerful the weaponry.
Let there be only the proclamations of caterpillars,
the proclamations of thunder, the proclamation
of winter storms, obliterating our lines of logic,
the proclamation of the spring mocking bird,
of the rooster, pronouncing dawn to his kingdom.
The proclamation of the hen over
her new-laid egg: let it have chick included.
No more proclamations from poets, only
the saw, filling the mouth of the log with sawdust.
Give my voice hesitant questions
and apologetic doubts; give me wobbly suggestions,
the modest perhaps, the if so and the maybe.
Give me the sanguine inching of the caterpillar,
the twitter of sparrows, the blip blip of fish mouths.

Passion Among the Ruins: Thirteen Views

Butterfly, dancing
toward the sun—
your trying to coax it down again
to a wilted blossom.
Below, a sparrow with its little chipping
hip-hop dance of triumph, having driven away
the peacock and his glorious strut;
even the passionate owl whose talons and beak 
once plunged into your nape.                                      
Waterfall—the boulders and stumps of a mudslide
blocking its heady plummet,
so it must trickle around the edges,
through the tough grasses,
lose itself in earth’s crevasses.
Dunes rippling
across the desert floor;
sand, grain by grain, toppling
slowly, incrementally,
obliterating the spice route.
Jet stream slowing down.
Gulf Stream losing its way.
Not the gale pitching its grand spasm
through the deciduous forest,
but a dry wind kicked around
between stiff date-palms.
Prick of mosquitoes, mush
of flooded meadows.
The cool silence at the bottom of a fish tank;
snail with her lip climbing up and down.
No current. All the bright darters
dimmed in the haze of algae.
Glaciers’ slow tick-tock—
water to snow to ice to water,
running down now, trailing off into nothingness,
like lemmings, racing into the sea.
Words grown potato-ward, so they won’t stir
when evoked, but must be grubbed after, 
worried and wrestled and cursed;
until finally you get hold of a slippery edge
or a nubbin and maybe
it pops up unbroken.
Not so much a word as a breath;
not so much a breath as a wheeze,
not so much a wheeze as a croak.
Wheeze of the crone;
crones blowing on embers
with all their ragged lung power,
all the time mumbling, soft now, soft, my pretty;
fire creep, creep.
Croak of the geezer;
geezers puffing and trembling
like steam engines, the spine
going off in little firecracker pops,
the calf muscles fisting themselves,
the joyous fall of an imploded skyscraper.
Then, a rainbow, not arching the sky,
but caught in a little oily puddle in the road,
if you hold your head just right
and not gaze at it directly.
If not exactly a promise,
a best-case scenario, a parole. 

Frances Ruhlen McConnel is a poet and writer of short stories and creative nonfiction. She is retired from teaching in the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside. She lives in Claremont, California, and her old stomping grounds include Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Anchorage, and Seattle, where she attended the University of Washington. She has published two books of poetry, Gathering Light and The Direction Of Longing (from Bellowing Ark Press), and has edited a collection of West Coast Women’s Poetry, One Step Closer. Her chapbook of haiku and other short poems, White Birches, Black Water, was published in 2005 by the Alaskan fine arts letterpress, Bucket of Type Printery. Presently, she coaches a writing workshop at Pilgrim Place, “our local retirement community mostly for people with religious careers—a fascinating group,” she says. She also co-chairs a committee that produces the Claremont Public Library’s Fourth Sunday Poetry Reading Series, now blessed with a Poets & Writers grant. “Retirement Ode” and “Passion Among the Ruins” are from her new manuscript, Eve Swims the Side-Stroke. Her work has previously appeared in Mudlark as Flash No. 14 (2001) and Flash No. 24 (2004).

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