Poetry | September 01, 1997
The Old Bear
Nelson Candy says he saw him cross the snowmobile trail
which divides the field he recently hayed.
“A white nose like an old dog’s,” he insists.
They were hauling in strawberries, his wife and him.
“Must be an old male—a mother would be busy with cubs
this time of year.” Nelson points toward the woods
the bear took refuge in, woods I walked in
earlier in the day, woods which like a vision
never appear the same. Soft-dappled by summer light,
they are a shifting luxury and I chill at the thought
of encountering bear upon its deserted trails.
“Knocked down Johnny Sawyer’s cow fence
just last week,” Nelson adds. I describe the claw marks
gouged beneath my son’s window a year ago—
could be the same bear, or the one I spied
at Sweet Water Farm, stripping trees of winter apples.
But Nelson is onto other things—the property he caretakes
is up for sale. The price is too high, but still,
at 70, it’s tough for he and Eileen not to know
where they might be. I turn to take my leave—
there’s supper to make and my own young son
to care for. By bedtime, I’ve all but forgotten the old bear
and how he might lurch through jewelweed
to the compost pile where I tossed peaches
top-dressed with mold and pears dimpled with decay.
I kiss my son good night, then cover him
with the cowboy bedspread that covered his father as a boy.
The background mountain ranges are faint,
but the red shirt of the wrangler and the red flowers
on the cacti remain blood bright,
even in the low glow of the night-light.
The horse the cowboy rides is a gray ghost—
likewise, his kerchief and the face of the brown steer
who’s just been rustled to the ground.
Lowell’s remark about poetry—meat hooked
from the living steer—comes to mind,
but my pen feels like a blade of grass
I might lay, in inky darkness, upon the rock
that forms the cornerstone of my garden.
In bed, I read soft words calcified upon the page
while moths congregate at the window screen,
thrumming the dust from their skittish wings
as though it were a sleeping powder.
I’m soon washed over by dream and drift
through the hollows of space while my unconscious inflates
like a blow-up angel who redeems, compels
and magnifies the soul in its sumptuous waste.
I dream the elephantine beauty of private experience.
I dream, in fluent wonder, of the organs in my body,
soft as fetal heads, and of the old bear clawing me open
as though I were a trench deep with the darkest honey.
Drugged by sleep, I succumb to the bear
when he lowers his head to devour
my womb’s dark nimbus. I wake,
shuddering, as if in the throes of childbirth,
then stagger into my son’s room where the windows,
like books of moonlight, illumine the mysteries which fall,
soft as unshod breezes, upon his sleeping face.
No bear has been here, but I climb into bed anyway.
My son’s head smells malty, like dead-headed flowers,
just as it did the moment when more than he was born—
although the ancients say we have two souls,
the physical spark and the dream wanderer,
I birthed in that hospital room, a third, to forever
ghost and guide my soft, romantic child.
I now summon forth this trinity of souls
until dense with their sensuous presences—
they move like nurse maids, about the bed
and sing in fairy-like voices until my son
rolls into me, like a log on a fire, safe
beneath his dreamcatcher which promises to ensnare
in the bright abacus of its leather web
the stately and doomed spirit of the bear
as though it were the ruined side of ourselves
which, in its hunger to be whole, brutally guts
the beautiful worth inside us.
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