John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident. He’s recently published in Examined Life Journal, Studio One and Columbia Review with work upcoming in Leading Edge, Poetry East and Midwest Quarterly.
An uncle showed me how the
native people made paint out
of nothing but tiny pebbles in the stream.
Berries were for eating
not mashing on faces.
But those stones did the job,
He rubbed the different kinds
into various earth-tones.
The back of his hand
looked like a Zuni rug.
It was a scout leader
who taught me to identify trees.
He could pick up a dead leaf
and recount its history.
And he was amazing with insects and spiders.
“Beware of beauty,” he’d often say.
“It’s usually toxic.”
The girl who was my second love
introduced me to the wildflowers,
Mammals first approached me in books.
Then I sought them out,
in zoos, and more agreeably
in their true habitat.
I discovered my own species
in tandem with my indoctrination
into the splendors of the natural world.
I opened myself up like I couldn’t
with a rock or a butterfly or a raccoon.
It was a combination of marveling,
wariness, education and getting the names right.
And I’m married now,
a fitting testimony
to the order in which things happen.
Morning, cardinal’s on the lilac branch singing.
I sing back. Then it’s the song sparrow’s turn.
I can mimic that trill, note for note.
If ever the bird world needs an impersonator,
I’m their man. Now if I could only fly.
But then again, which of my feathered friends
can notate it all on thin-lined music paper?
You’re right as usual. Nor can I.
During the day, I can hum along
to my mother washing. I can even
duplicate the beat of my father
working diligently at his cellar bench.
I can tra-la-la along with my sister
as she airily sets her latest love to melody.
At night, there’s no sound worth replicating.
Once, we had a bat up in the attic.
Flapping wings…a high-pitched squeak.
It heard nothing from me.
There’s the rustle of the leaves of course.
But that’s atonal. More John Cage.
I fall asleep with silent tongue.
In my dreams, my mother’s on the lilac
branch singing, the sparrow warbles
“Release Me” while overseeing the spin dryer.
And the cardinal’s making bookshelves
to our shared John Philip Souza.
And my father has a lovely voice to replicate,
and wonderful wings to match.
But then I dream the rustle of bats,
the squealing trees in the room above me.
My throat dries hard, my tongue freezes.
I’m about to be abandoned to a world
where there is no music, no harmony,
no symphony, no opera, no ballad,
only harsh, disagreeable noise.
Suddenly I awaken and the cardinal is
on the lilac branch, greets me with a lovely etude.
I purse my lips and answer back
with one long and sweet rhapsodic blow.