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Tuolomne

by George Starbuck


(Tu•ol'•omn•e. 1. a river in
California, north of the
Yosemite. 2. a meadowland on
the river, above Hetch-Hetchy.
3. a tribe, now vanished.)

for Meg Nye

Lord, look at the grass.
Globs, glebes, gallopings, a whole ocean
and blade after blade after blade
of promiscuous
grass.
It could make a man feel called.
Called on the carpet.
Yes, Lord, yes,
I let my seed fall on the rocky ground.
I never laid my talents out to found
The many-mansioned condominium.
I stop off to camp out on the way home
From a trip west to see my married daughter,
And look at me.
            Big woodsman.
                       I’m so dumb
I build my space-age puptent on the sand.

You read me well enough.
Mornings, chilled to the marrow, when I stand
And squint out over the pebble-brightening water,
Something there is that shakes me by the scruff.

I forage off. I climb a little bluff
And kick my morning cat-hole in the dirt.
My knees are cold. They hurt.
I get down close to what my heel turned over.
All made of leaves! Oh look:
So many profligacies brought to book.
Look at the way the crumbs and fragments glisten.

Tell me again thy teachings, Lord, I’ll listen.

Happy the man who hunkers down and mulls
A second reading of the parables.
I brought your book along to do just that.
Let’s see now; have I got the message pat?

Where there is soil, plant seed. Where there is boulder,
Cover the same with buildings. Neither build
Nor scatter seed along the highway shoulder,
But if you are an ethnic, scavenge there
For someone newly robbed, or damn near killed,
Or both, whom it behooves you to befriend.
If you are merely indigent, perpend:
The hedges and the ditches are the place
To stand forth and be feculent in case
Some parvenu who planned a banquet gets
A mailboxfull of monogrammed regrets
And throws himself a little social tantrum.
If someone slips you money, don’t succumb
To modesty or misplaced moral scruple.
Throw it around! Invest! It might quadruple.
Weeds, you weed out. Collect the weed seed, though.
Your enemy may sink his pot of gold
In millet-fields and leave them unpatrolled.
Salt, you are meant to savor, not to sow,
Unless there be a grievance to avenge.
On sand, thou shalt not build nor plant nor scavenge,
But meditate. The sand shall be a standard
Of competition and comparison
In counting up the offspring of the dutiful.
The lily too shall function. It is beautiful.
Lastly, at unpredicted interval,
A sparrow shall conveniently fall
To test the quickness of the Cosmic Eyeball.
I have committed whimsy. There. So be it.
I have not followed wisdom as I see it.
You avalanche me sermons and I make
Rhymes for the sake of rhymes.
Break
This sinner, Lord, of his lamented crimes.

It’s not as if you hadn’t, lots of times,
Shown me the moon.
The kingdom brought to birth.
Convulsion in the ferns. The very earth
Rising above itself in ecstasies.
Haven’t I gone glass-eyed onto my knees
To pry into the busyness of these
Green legions, every microscopic blob
A roller-palace with a milling mob
Of chloroplasts careening around in it
A dozen or two dozen times a minute?
How furious they are as they compete
At drawing water up a hundred feet
To let a picturebook blue spruce complete
Its simulacrum of a waterfall.
A man’d have to think exceeding small
To get no hustle from that plasmic jazz.
Quadrillions! Every cell as frenzied as
A Circus Maximus beside a Tiber.
Whole generations toughen into fiber
And turn into the body of the mother
While I scratch out one verbal razzmatazz
And heavy up my notebook with another.
They have their conquests to consolidate.
And I? I guess I’m here to celebrate
Myself, your works, man’s passions, or the State,
Depending on which school I emulate.
And do I mock? I mock. And grieve? I grieve.
There’s nothing I would gladlier achieve
Than Poetry. I mean the serious thing.
Not this Pop-Popean ringa-dingdinging.

The pure Organic Form,

Where not one word malingers from the norm
Of grateful dedication to a purpose
Higher than its own accidental likings.
As self-effacing as a bunch of Sherpas,
As drab as doughboys and as dour as Vikings,
Ready to take the universe by storm
And die in the attempt, my Words would swarm
Over the dazzled reader like a . . . swarm.
Of bees perhaps. Or how are wasps at swarming?
Oh hell, the whole conception was just forming.
I know that poem. I can almost hear it,
So sure am I of it, and of the spirit
In which I have heard (so often) it described.

I’d swear I struck the rock once and imbibed
Something that wasn’t used-up hock-and-soda.
Move like the wind upon these waters, Lord;
Make me a spectacle of devastations;
Break, blow, batter me, leave me floored
And at the mercy of the Great Inflation
That launched Jack Keats. Or was it Carol Doda?

Hopeless, abysmal, my transgression is.
You are, by your own double-barreled Testament,
An agribusiness tipster and a whiz
At principles of capital investment,
And here, instead of pyramiding shares,
I’m scattering my corn among the tares,
As bad as any of those silly gooses
Who put the right thing to the wrong thing’s uses
And made an utter hash of their affairs.

I’d better just sit down.
I’d better get my coffee boiled, and brown
An egg or two around the spitting edges,
And sop them with that canned brown bread I love.
I’d better take a walk into the scenery
And on the willows in the midst thereof
Philosophize without so much machinery.

Great big lumberless weeds,
What are you good for? Holding sand together?
Huddling in bunches under heavy weather
Like immigrants on shipboard? That would fit.
The cabin-glass contingent lathers it
Off to the high horizon hell-for-leather
And there you stay, all sombre on the decks
Of something big and frightening and just
About to give in to an underthrust
And go down in the folklore of great wrecks.

I’ve seen you walk the waters, willow-trees.

Somewhere in all their dappled botanies
I think the English Bards ran out of gas.
They left you lorn, and pretty much unheeded,
Except when one of their fair damsels needed
A semiotic shorthand for Alas.

No skin off you. Who needs us and our tricks,
Our amateur hysterics and theatrics?

I’ve seen you skating with an easy stroke
On waters that would petrify an oak.
I’ve seen you lean, and brake, and send a slash
Of icy whiteness up against a trash
Of aspen-bones and ponderosa rubble
The snow-melt-water flood had swept aside
Like scaffolding. I’ve seen your streamers ride
The wind as if to whip it on the double
And laugh at it for getting out of breath.
I’ve seen you scare a camper half to death
You stood so calm, so silent and serene.
He thought he almost knew what it would mean
To cease upon the midnight without cavil.
He tossed his beans aside, and panned some gravel,
And whistled “Oh My Darling Clementine”
To put his thoughts back into proper channels.
And when he’d pulled up stakes, and itched his flannels,
He still felt shivers up and down his spine.

Some master of the high Miltonic line
Owes you a Great Ode, willows, sure as hell.
I think I’ll speak about it to Kinnell.
I hate to see so versatile a tree gypped
Out of its rightful place in the Anthology.

But this is not some Ode, it’s an Apology.
And if it needs a moral, there’s the grass.

Look at it. Grass grass grass.
Who sent these indolent armies out of Egypt?
They pillow the plains and valleys wall-to-wall.
I do, Lord, oh I do wait for a call.
But also, I enjoy my avocations.
I scribble side-notes to the fall of nations.
I play with spacings, and with indentations.
And generally, I sit here like a dope,
As obviated as the spheres of Ptolemy,
And keep my crafts and hobbies up, and hope
That when the big wind comes, it speaks Tuolomne.
I mean why not? I know the wind I seek
To flee from seven days an average week.
If everything it says to me is Greek,
And everything it means to me is All,
And all I care about is the unknown,
Who is to say I’m loco if I fall
Into a little singsong of my own,
And while the twigs fly, and the tent-ropes moan,
I make a joyful noise: “You speak Tuol-
Omne. You speak Tuolomne. You speak
Tuolomne.”

George Starbuck’s long awaited new book, Desperate Measures, is due out this springs, from Godine. (1978)


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