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Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography
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of the Driveway that looks up and
outward to the stars and
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The day before the November snow, a few vestiges of summer
dangled like bits of grass and twigs in autumn's last spider webs.
A lone yellow hawkweed, contracted against the cold, looked up
out of the grass by the gravel walk. A little viney beast with tiny
white blossoms and heart-shaped pods grew near it -- shepherd's
purse, it was. There were dull orange marcescent oak leaves. Stiff
willow-herb. Winterberry branches heavy with red berries, like a
galaxy spun from seed. A murder of crows in the topmost branches
of empty maples. Up above them, two undulating V's of Canada
geese honking in the cloud-strewn distance and flying due south.
Lake Winnecook was as flat and gray as slate.
This was late in November. That night in a kitchen window two
brown-colored spiders were hunkered down at the center of their
geometric webs. These two (Araneus diademetus?) might have
lived so long because of the unusual warm this fall, but I don't
know. They could not survive the coming snow, I didn't think.
It's hard to accurately identify most species of spiders. The ones
who live outdoors, many of them, die in the autumn but rise again
in spring when their eggs hatch and a new batch of spiderlings
takes over the age-old work. The webs of these two billowed and
bounced together in the November gusts. One was constructed in
taut, carefully measured rectangles radiating from the center. The
other looked miskempt, with trapezoids loosely lashed to rough
triangles. This spider was probably older than the other, less
disposed to neatness. They were hunched down in the centers,
waiting for bugs that would never come. The silk is very tough
against the wind which batted them up and down, and they clung
They probably did not have long to live. Soon they would starve
or succumb to the cold. But if they lasted through the night, they
would dutifully build again. They were like two old Chinese poets
banished at the end of their lives to the northern frontier and
gazing northward into places so bleak it is almost unimaginable.
Cold, rolling, rocky grassland in the dark, with nothing beyond but
more dark and grassland and strews of boulders and somewhere
mountains. No town, no family, no tomorrow. Only vast, empty
winter, in the end.
Eight or nine inches of snow came and covered the gravel and
willow-herb and goldenrod skeletons where the banded argiopes
perished long ago in October frost. Whether the two old poets in
the window survived, I don't know. I haven't seen any new webs
since the storm. The shepherd's purse lived through two more
snows. The oaks are almost stripped. Cold and more snow are
coming. Winter is vast in northern China, and in Troy.
River in the Snow
By Liu Zong-yuan
Over a thousand mountains the winging birds
Throughout ten thousand paths, no trace of
In a solitary boat,
Straw hat and cape,
An old man fishes alone --
Cold river in the snow.
Translated by Bruce Wilson and Zhang ting-chen.
This text is transcribed from the book 100 Tang Poems,
published in a dual-language edition in China in 1988,
which I bought in the English language book shop in
Shanghai in 2000. In this little book are some of the best
translations of ancient Chinese poetry I have ever seen..
Living in the Questions
A 21st century talk before the Pennsylvania Poetry Society
By William Hathaway
I’m delighted to talk to the Pennsylvania Poetry Society,
but I can’t call myself a Pennsylvania poet because I’ve
only lived here a little over a year. I like it here. I was
living in Maine which is a very beautiful place, but I’m
having more fun here and there is beauty here as well and
the people are a lot less wintry. Having said that, I’m still
not a Pennsylvania poet. Over the years my poems have
appeared in Montana, New York and Louisiana poetry
anthologies, yet I’ve always felt awkward about being
represented equally with poets whose themes are
passionately regional. Reed Whittemore had a poem I
liked about watching “his bird” in “his tree,” but when
his bird flew away to his neighbor’s tree he was seized
with instant resentment. I was once fulsomely introduced
to a Sheboygan, Wis., audience as a Wisconsin poet, but
when I rose to admit that all I’d done in Wisconsin was
get born there a palpable chill filled the room. If you can
accept me as a guest Pennsylvania poet for the day, I’ll
Shepherd's purse, November, Unity, Maine