It is easier to think about death
on a wintery evening, when so much
of life slips into stasis, and there is
nothing to do but concede your mortality,
and with good fortune, then slip
into sleep before being lost
in a sea of depression.
I must be thankful for my dreams
for they keep the night from becoming
the little death of the ancient philosophers,
and on awakening in the morning,
the mantle of snow that has painted
the world in a glittering white, does
not demand the shovel as yet, but
celebrates the world’s rebirth,
and with a nod to the sun, my own.
He started digging early in the morning,
and hoped that by lunch, he’d be well
on his way there, though he wasn’t certain
how he’d get up out of the hole
when lunch rolled around, but need
is a good instructor, so he was sure
he could figure it out easily enough.
It was slower going than he imagined,
slower by several magnitudes.
He knew that would play havoc
with his plans, but he was capable
of adjusting to circumstances, that
was one of his strengths, he knew.
When the day receded, he set the shovel
aside and retreated home, knowing that
he wouldn’t complete the task
for at least another week, and the idea
of having real Chinese food in China
would have to wait, since he had
to be in school every day or miss out
on the First Grade perfect attendance award.
I have given up on winter,
which is to say that I have
fled its iron grip, but
the memories I have
linger painfully in the rods
the surgeon carefully
screwed onto my spine.
It wasn’t the cold, though it
was far from pleasant,
but the snow that demanded
but also defied being shoveled.
I grudgingly face the job,
moving the snow from walk
and driveway to lawn and street,
and on occasion I’d heed
Buddha’s advice and treat
the exercise as a meditation.
But even then I’d recall
the tale of the monk told
to clear the garden of leaves
before a great master’s visit,
who completed the job
and proudly showed the abbot,
who agreed, but said
there was more thing
needed, and dumped all
of the collected leaves
back on the garden, then
said it perfect, and I knew
the wind and weather
would soon play the abbot’s role.
the slightly waning moon
will bathe us in her presence.
That presupposes the clouds,
so very jealous of late,
allow her to appear. They,
and the unending winter,
are the evil stepsisters,
and they have neither
justice nor compassion
for the moon or for us.
And so, to save their
maleficent case, I shall
again, tomorrow morning,
take up the shovel
and imagine my boots
are crystal slippers.
Richard Wilbur lives in Massachusetts
and in Key West, Florida according
to his dust jackets. If you set sail westward
from San Diego you may find your dream
of China, of the endless wall which draws
the stares and wonder more foreboding
more forbidden even than the city,
which you visit to sate yourself of lights,
sirens and the blood heat of steam grates.
It is far easier than digging and far less
dirty, and the walls of the sea rise
more slowly. Once it was a risky journey
the danger of the edge looming over the horizon,
but then digging was no option, pushing deeper
with your crude shovel, knees bloody,
until, at last, you broke through
with dreams of the dragon as you fell
into the limitless void. Now you sail
with dreams of the Pacific sky, although
water has no need of names. The poet
has grandchildren now, and it is to them
to dream of the China that was.
First appeared in Midnight Mind, Number Two (2001) and again in The Right to Depart, Plainview Press, (2008)