Black Buttercups

In March, the farmer’s month
for packing up and moving on, the rutted
mud potholed with glare, the verb to move
connoted nothing natural, such as the shifting
of the course of streams or of the sun’s
position, sap moving up, or even
couples dancing. What the stripped root, exhumed
above the mudhole’s brittle skin, discerned
was exile.
Exile to raw clapboard,
a privy out in back, a smokehouse
built by the pioneers, no shade trees
but a huddle of red cedars, exposure
on the highest elevation in the township,
a gangling windmill harped on by each
indisposition of the weather,
the mildewed gurgle of a cistern
humped underneath it like a burial.
inhabited that water when the pioneers,
ending their trek from North Carolina, farther
than Ur of the Chaldees had been from Canaan,
settled here and tried to root themselves:
four of the family struck down on this farm
as its first growing season ended. Menace
still waited, literally around the corner,
in the graveyard of a country church,
its back against the timber
just where the terrain began to drop (the creek
down there had for a while powered a sawmill,
but now ran free, unencumbered, useless)—
that not-to-be-avoided plot whose honed stones’
fixed stare, fanned in the night
by passing headlights, struck back
the rueful semaphore:
There is no safety.
I was ten years old.
Not three miles by the road that ran
among the farms (still less if
you could have flown, or, just as unthinkable,
struck out across country, unimpeded
by barbed wire or the mire of feedlots)
the legendary habitat of safety
lay contained: the memory
of the seedleaf in the bean, the blind
hand along the bannister, the virgin sheath
of having lived nowhere but here. Back there
in the dining room, last summer’s
nine-year-old sat crying on the window seat
that looked into the garden, rain
coursing the pane in streams, the crying
on the other side and it one element—and sits
there still, still crying, knowing
for the first time forever what it was
to be heartbroken.
The look of exile
foreseen, however massive or inconsequential,
hurts the same; it’s the remembered
particulars that differ. How is one to measure
the loss of two blue spruces, a waterfall
of bridal wreath below the porch, the bluebells
and Dutchman’s-breeches my grandmother
had brought in from the timber
to bloom in the same plot with peonies
and lilies of the valley? Or, out past
the pasture where the bull, perennially
resentful, stood for the menace of authority
(no leering, no snickering in class),
an orchard—or a grove of willows
at the far edge of the wet meadow
marking the verge, the western barrier
of everything experience had verified? We never
thought of going there except in February,
when the sap first started working up
the pussywillow wands, the catkins
pink underneath a down of eldritch silver
like the new pigs whose birthing coincided,
shedding their crisp cupolas’ detritus
on the debris of foundering snowbanks
brittle as the skin of standing ponds
we trod on in the meadow, a gauche travesty
of calamity like so many entertainments—
the nuptial porcelain, the heirloom crystal
vandalized by wanton overshoes, bundled-up
boredom lolling, while the blue world reeled
up past the pussywillow undersides of clouds
latticed by swigging catkins soon to haze
with pollen-bloat, a glut
run riot while the broken pond
unsealed, turned to mud
and, pullulating, came up buttercups
lucent with a mindlessness as total
as the romp that ends up wet-mittened,
chap-cheeked, fretful beside the kitchen stove,
later to roughhouse or whine its way
upstairs to bed.
Night froze it up again
for the ten thousandth time, closing the seals
above the breeding ground of frogs, the Acheron
of dreadful disappointed Eros
stirring up hell—the tics,
the shame, the pathological ambition,
anxiety so thick sometimes that nothing
breeds there except more anxiety,
hampering yet another generation, all
the sodden anniversaries of dread:
black buttercups that never see daylight
or with lucent chalices drink of the sun.
Did we then hear them moving
wounded from room to room? Or in what shape
was it we first perceived it—the unstanched
hereditary thing, working its way
along the hollows of the marrow,
the worry taking root within like ragweed,
the noxious pollen flowering into
nothing but sick headaches
passed down like an heirloom? When,
under the same roof the memory of
a legendary comfort had endowed
with what in retrospect would seem
like safety, did the rumor
of unhappiness arrive? I remember waking,
a February morning leprous with frost
above the dregs of a halfhearted snowfall,
to find the gray world of adulthood
everywhere, as though there never
had been any other, in that same house
I could not bear to leave, where even now
the child who wept to leave still sits
weeping at the thought of exile.