Above The Vanished Ground

Richard Wilbur

Writing poetry is talking to oneself; yet it is a mode of talking to oneself in which the self disappears; and the product’s something that, though it may not be for everybody, is about everybody.

Richard Wilbur

The Death of A Toad

by Richard Wilbur

A toad the power mower caught,
Chewed and clipped of a leg, with a hobbling hop has got
To the garden verge, and sanctuaried him
Under the cineraria leaves, in the shade
Of the ashen and heartshaped leaves, in a dim,
Low, and a final glade.

The rare original heartsblood goes,
Spends in the earthen hide, in the folds and wizenings, flows
In the gutters of the banked and staring eyes. He lies
As still as if he would return to stone,
And soundlessly attending, dies
Toward some deep monotone,

Toward misted and ebullient seas
And cooling shores, toward lost Amphibia’s emperies.
Day dwindles, drowning and at length is gone
In the wide and antique eyes, which still appear
To watch, across the castrate lawn,
The haggard daylight steer.

In the spring of 2019, all the factors aligned for a small explosion of baby toads the end of May everywhere in Minneapolis. It had to be the right combination of moisture, temperature and soft moon light for toad pick up bars.  Regardless suddenly in every back yard, every front yard and in every school yard, where there was even a tiny bit of grass and shade there were baby toads in multitudes.  Fortunately the lawn that I was helping to keep cut, was tiny, with ample places for baby toads to hop off to safety.  The first mowing, with Wilbur’s poem firmly in my mind, I went slow, mowing around them mindfully, even leaving some grass uncut where there were too many toads to let pass in the pedestrian zone.  But the things that help baby toads prosper are the same things that nurture grass, and so with the lawn turning into the rough at the U. S. Open after a week and it being even harder to see them, I tearfully admit there was some carnage.  Okay, there was lots of carnage, the herd was thinned.  By mid June I was still trying as best I could to mow around the survivors, but I began to realize that sometimes when I purposefully went on the other side of a toad I spotted in my path, it would at the last minute jump into harms way, possibly suicidal over the loss of his pals from this evil contraption built to torment them from the week ago, or on a fools errand, sent by the toad general to make a mighty stand against the steel tank. It never ended well, no ceremonial burial beneath the rhubarb like Wilbur, no 21 gun salute. By August I stopped trying. I realized I actually killed less, and by now we were down to maybe .001% of the original population, if I just moved in a straight line at a reasonable speed and let them get out of the way.  The survivors had figured it out as long as I acted consistently, the tornado staying in tornado alley where it belongs.

Despite my first hand summer long reality TV experience with Richard Wilbur’s famous poem, you would think I had figured it out then.  In fact, Wilbur’s poem just made me more annoyed as the summer passed, I disliked it all the more.  It felt pointless, the poem and all the toad slaughter.  It wasn’t until the Ukraine war began, and men, women and children, unarmed, are being attacked by tanks, that I suddenly had a connection to Wilbur’s poem. I have no idea what Wilbur intended when he wrote it, but it feels to me like the poetic narration to the CNN clip of the family killed in a mortar attack crossing the street in Kyiv, their deaths replayed over and over again on YouTube, their heart blood seeping out on the pavement.  

The problem right now, for me,  is that its harder and harder to believe that good always defeats wrong, that light always overcomes darkness.  Does it?  Not for that family.  Not for George Floyd. And maybe the point of Wilbur’s poem is to remind us of this fact; sometimes you have to get lucky and hop at just the right moment in the right direction. 

Last night on the way home from work I stopped by my local Trader Joe’s to pick up a few things.  There was a car alarm on a late model Toyota going off a few cars away in the parking lot, blaring its sad song. I went in and shopped and came out and it was still at it. Just as I started pulling out of my parking spot, a man approached me, shivering, asking if I could roll down my window.   I stopped and we looked at each other for maybe two seconds.  We were the same age.  He was conspicuously under dressed for the current temperature and wind chill.  He had fear in his eyes and I realized I probably did too.  The spate of high profile car-jackings across the Twin Cities the past year running through my mind and he probably thinking the same, “is this guy crazy?”  I rolled down my window.  He said; “I am the biggest idiot in the world, but I think I locked my keys in my car, and I set off the alarm trying to get in, can you help me?”  A white person calls the police when you lock your keys in your car and they send out a nice young cop to unlock it for you, even free of charge in Elk River, or they dispatch a tow truck with a door jimmy.  In Minneapolis, black men do not call the police to help them open their cars. I said; “sure, hop in.”  He guided me to his house about 4 miles away, and he said as we pulled up, “I will be right back, I know where my extra key is, it will only take a minute.”  He looked me up and down briefly.  His eye’s downcast, imploring silently, unsaid; “are you going to take off the minute I get out?”   I didn’t.   He came back in about 3 minutes.  We drove back and chatted the whole way.   I asked him “where are you from?”  He said, “Queens”.   I asked, “Mets or Yankees?”  He laughed, “Yankees!”  I said “damn, those Yankees eat the Twins for breakfast.” He laughed again and said, “you have no idea how much I appreciate this.” As we approached his car, he hit the fob and the alarm stopped.   I fist bumped him as he climbed out, winked and said, “We were on a mission from God!”, doing my best Blues Brothers imitation.   He smiled and said, “I loved that movie. I still lived in New York when Belushi died.”   To which I thought, man, was that death pointless….

Chronic Condition

by Richard Wilbur

Berkeley did not forsee such misty weather,
Nor centuries of light
Intend so dim a day.  Swaddled together
In separateness, the trees
Persist or not beyond the gray-white
Palings of the air.  Gone
Are whatever wings bothered the lighted leaves
When leaves there were.  Are all
The sparrows fallen?  I can hardly hear
My memory of those bees
Who only lately mesmerized the lawn.
Now, something, blaze!  A fear
Swaddles me now that Hylas’ tree will fall
Where no eye lights and grieves,
Will fall to nothing and without a sound,
I sway and lean above the vanished ground.

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A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

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