augury doggerel

Sunday, April 28, 2002


The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearl'd;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in His heaven�
All's right with the world!

� Robert Browning

The snails are back this spring and I am again wondering what to do about them. Or me.

There were no snails where I grew up, but every child knew them from pictures. We knew that the snail carries its home on its back and is the incarnation of slowness and laziness. The snail was a sign. (The snail is also a hermaphrodite, and many species impale their lovers with darts, but we didn�t cover these interesting aspects of the snail in elementary school.)

Now, in spring, I don�t go a day without seeing real snails, big and brown, clinging to the trees, hiding in the grass, wiggling their tentacles, and moving out as slowly as ships on the horizon, alone across the prairies between trees.

I am by training and inclination an engineer, but a lapsed one. I try � I have to try � to resist tinkering with everything that doesn't seem quite right. The snail, however, presents me with a problem I cannot easily ignore.

When a snail sets out, building its own smooth road as it passes, it is working energetically, anything but lazy, but working to a different clock. Its prey is the leaf, and the snail has succeeded all these years by being able to look like a stone, slip gracefully under grass, and outrun a tendril�s growth. It is a perfection in its world.

But we have diced the snail�s territory with treeless paths and hot sidewalks a snail-mile wide. A snail out in the open, with its trail shining in the sun, can in a second be plucked from life by the lightning beasts of the third dimension.

Some Newton among snails might someday realize that snails in convoy would enjoy the ease of coasting on the leader�s trail, like migrating geese sharing slipstreams, and thus be able to make an easy dash, so to speak, across sidewalks. But such a snail genius would also see the disadvantages of such a scheme: they would arrive together and have to share leaves, and their caravan, however swift, might be an even easier target for predators.

So what if a benevolent being came across a stranded snail? Should this being bend down and move the snail to where it seems to be going? This is my dilemma almost every morning on the way to work these days.

I should let the birds have their share. I should let today�s natural selection � another person�s foot or the wheel of a car � save future snails by breeding in an aversion to sidewalks or the ability to look like discarded gum. And how do I know the snail isn�t just after a tan? I should trust the patient architect, the coil in the coil.

But a supposedly higher being gives up something of that supposed elevation if it ignores suffering it can prevent. So I move them.

Snail story that doesn't belong anywhere:

When the kid and her mother and I were out for a walk, back when the kid was shorter than the long wet grass, we each held and talked to a snail. Then I, because I am foolish, pretended to pop mine into my mouth like a candy. A second later, the kid tossed her snail into her mouth and kept it there just long enough to see my jaw drop and my eyes bulge. I�m glad I didn�t pretend to chew.

Friday, April 26, 2002


This morning after five, ducks flew over our home on their way to doing something only ducks do at five in the morning. There were at least three of them, by the sound of the conversation, and they were in a hurry. But no rooster crowed.

I know there�s a rooster across the street because I have heard him a few times, though only on late weekends, and never early, when I�m getting up for work. Once or twice he�s been up in time to give me a couple of halfhearted ku-ku-ri-kus when I was heading for my bus, but I had the impression he did it from bed, maybe just leaning out a window. His voice had that pre-coffee sound.

I have been wondering whether he�s someone�s pet. I picture him in a child�s bed, burying his comb into a shared pillow and stretching under the blankets. Someone might chuck him under the beak and stroke his tail feathers. He might wear thick socks and nibble crackers.

Wednesday, April 24, 2002


When I was old enough to work a record player, no one minded that I closed the door and dragged a diamond over old vinyl. I had a wonderful time experimenting with the speed setting. The bad songs were still fun at 16 and 331/3 and 78, and the good songs made me sing and dance by myself.

We had no children�s records. I took possession of a stack of 45s that had become too boring for my older brother and sister. I sang about whorehouses and wanted criminals and lust for underage girls and religious conversion and social inequity, and always about love lost and love slavery, unshakeable love and love that cannot be shaken. They were records for teenagers.

When I was a bit older and selecting my own popular garbage � the same words fit to other rhythms and sung by other costumes � the old 45s became physical embarrassments to me as they had become to my brother and sister. Starting with one that was too cracked to play anymore, I found that they flew nicely, so I threw them all, one by one, over the field adjoining our land, testing my small muscles with each discus.

The field has since been plowed and harvested many times. The records must be shards under the earth, the winter and summer, the corn and fallow and wheat. I still sing the songs to myself sometimes. The words still don't mean anything.

Tuesday, April 23, 2002


A small deer just hopped out of the woods, edged our lot, and bounced across the field and away.

Sunday, April 21, 2002

Crow vs. Buzzard

I just watched a showdown on the lawn here between a brown buzzard (Buteo buteo) and a large black-and-gray hooded crow (Corvus corone cornix). The buzzard arrived first and started his stroll across the lawn. The crow, who has been making this patch of grass his own for some days, landed and approached.

A buzzard has strong, thick, feathered legs and walks with a dignified gait. It looked with round yellow eyes straight at the crow and appeared fearless, ready to fight.

Crows don't walk, they hop as if their legs are tied together. This crow skulked and cowered up to the buzzard, sometimes lying low to the ground, sometimes popping up into the air, always trying to stay behind the enemy.

Each time the crow hopped close enough to be bothersome, the buzzard turned and walked straight at it like a strong man about to lay out a pesky neighbor kid. But the pesky neighbor always hopped just out of the way, then began again to skulk.

It's a lovely day and there are other places to hunt, places without crows springing up behind you. The buzzard sailed away. The crow, too, left the field. He was here only to annoy.

Saturday, April 20, 2002

Society of Friends (The Quackers)

When they built the place where I work, they dug a small pond near the building and put a chain-link fence around it. Little is done for aesthetics or enjoyment in this company or this town; I believe the pond is intended to drain groundwater away from the building foundations and to be a useful supply of water should angry villagers ever come in the night to set torch to the place and its evil humming electronic brains.

I can't see the pond from my window, but I sometimes stop to watch it when I'm going to or from work. Burst cattails and grass line the edge; the water is thick, a deep green murk, a beautiful green cocktail. When I'm watching, nothing ever breaks the surface.

But this spring, mallards glide past my window in pairs � I don't know whether they are several pairs of occasional ducks or a single pair of restless ducks � but mallards glide by, two at a time, on an arc that must end with orange heels digging into the green surface of the pond. And just as often, they go the opposite way, working the air up and away from where, just beyond my line of sight, I know the pond was that morning.

I've never seen the ducks and the pond together. I only know that the pond is there and the ducks are there, and that it must be peaceful to be a duck on the pond.

Ink, Glue, Air, Grass

I remember the smell of Russian propaganda in the mail. I had written a letter to the Soviet embassy on lined three-hole-punched school paper, left it in our roadside mailbox, and put up the red flag for the mailman. Eventually, something came. The envelope was tattered � there has always been a �Homeland Security� force or two looking into things � but inside was that first whiff of strange ink. The package and postage might have cost a day�s Soviet wages, but someone thought it was worth the price to show a kid in America the mighty Russian spaceships and the medal-wearing Heroes of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics who flew them.

I was a boy, and this was rocketry. I had glued and painted plastic models of every American spacecraft � Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo � I could imagine myself into, and I stayed home from school to watch launches on television. But more than rocketry, this was Russia. Russia was farther away than space, and stranger. When I could find a Russian rocket � Vostok, Soyuz � I built it slowly, carefully, and puzzled out a few Russian letters and words from the decals. BOCTOK. Vostok. East. Soyuz. [I can't do the Cyrillic here] Union. And CCCP, USSR. I read every word of everything Russia mailed me about their rockets and heroes.

When I was 10, our local newspaper, in big red headlines, a rarity then, announced the end of the Soyuz 11 mission. I read the story in our back yard on a warm, sunny day. The cosmonauts had spent the last three weeks in the Soviet space station, everything had gone well, and they were coming home. They were spacemen without spacesuits, quietly sitting in their work clothes, riding a meteor, and looking forward to standing on their own summer grass. When the spacecraft landed, surprised doctors pulled the three still men out on to the grass in Kazakhstan and tried to resuscitate them, but they were gone. The air had hissed out in the static of re-entry, when communication with earth is impossible, and they had quietly suffocated.

I had seen their pictures and built their rocket piece by piece and smelled the ink and glue and paint alone in my room. I thought I could imagine how they died. But I was a kid, it was summer, and the grass was thick and green.

Friday, April 19, 2002


The bees used to fill the display case at the little bakeshop between home and work. When I stopped to buy a sticky pastry, the bees were buzzing under glass. The girl behind the counter, cashier and accidental beekeeper, would calmly shake bees off my pastry as if they were excess sugar. One bee might just wind out of the bag before she crinkled it shut. The girl didn�t mind, hardly noticed; she tapped numbers on the cash register with sticky fingertips. The displaced bees found other sweet things to tiptoe over.

When they widened the road, they knocked down the shop and then bulldozed away the corner where it stood. I haven�t found another bee shop yet.

Thursday, April 18, 2002


The sun has just come out like the moon.


This morning is thick with fog. The rooster down the street is still sleeping, but the woods are full of livelier, chattier birds. I took the wrong bus to work on purpose so I would have to walk a little more and see a little more. A bald man on a bicycle flurred out of the fog. I cut across the field. Birds somewhere in the air. They fly so close in the fog you can hear their wings whir. A spider waits just offstage, dressed as a bud among buds, while her web collects big drops.

Wednesday, April 17, 2002


In the evening, walking out from work, I go by a house with chickens walking in the yard and a small dog orbiting on a chain.

Last night, a child screamed in the house, and I, the dog, and five red chickens in the dirt all seized and looked straight ahead. We watched the air for what was next.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002


The bus driver cracks his window, lights a smoke, stops the bus, and lets his pals on. Three ticket-checkers, suitably thuggish, climb the bus steps and flash badges. Without badges, they would be simply large, scruffy men shaking down teenagers and drunks and pensioners. With badges, they are instead three large scruffy men who surround passengers (teenagers and drunks and pensioners) who haven't punched tickets and officially get one rate or unofficially get another. At the next stop, the checkers get off with the one (there's always one, but only one, one to three) who had no ticket and could not pay. His ride is over.

Monday, April 15, 2002


According to this research, the male European hare (Lepus europaeus) has big balls this time of year and his sperm production is at its annual peak. Unless you get close enough -- can you run 35 miles an hour while conducting testicular research? -- you won't be able to see the difference, but he and his doe know. She's in his air now, and if he hasn't mated yet, he's probably as mad as the hare he was in March. Madder, if you try to measure his balls.

But after all of my wandering about the bush here, I've just seen my first hare, a big brown beast hopping from grass to railroad tracks to woods. They are fading, and with them fades the language: leveret, leporine, lagomorph, prick, scut, squat, form, doe, harebrained, harelip, Lepus.

By the by:

The Collar-Bone of a Hare -- Yeats

Would I could cast a sail on the water
Where many a king has gone
And many a king's daughter,
And alight at the comely trees and the lawn,
The playing upon pipes and the dancing,
And learn that the best thing is
To change my loves while dancing
And pay but a kiss for a kiss.
I would find by the edge of that water
The collar-bone of a hare
Worn thin by the lapping of water,
And pierce it through with a gimlet, and stare
At the old bitter world where they marry in churches,
And laugh over the untroubled water
At all who marry in churches,
Through the white thin bone of a hare.

Sunday, April 14, 2002


The pair of magpies I watched from the bus stop came back after the snow and are well settled in their rough ball of mud and sticks (much like our apartment) over the millstream. And they have neighbors; another pair has built a similar rough ball of mud and sticks (tract houses) within yakking distance. Each nest will soon have five to eight green eggs beneath mama's hams, and then these red maws.

Common tales say these birds are thieves and demons, and maybe they are, but my mornings are better for them. A magpie behaves no more or less respectably than its cousins the crow, the raven, and the rook, but magpies are certainly asking for scorn in their showy white vests and long black tails. If the raven is an undertaker waiting in a black hearse, the magpie is twenty inches of good gaud cruising in a pimp's two-toned 1950s sedan with big fins.

Friday, April 12, 2002


Putting one bare foot down accidentally on a swollen maggoty toad corpse, belly-up and big in the grass, made me groan and leap straight up and run to wash my feet with detergent in the laundry tub. That was summers and summers ago, but my lips still curl when I think of it.

Bones, though, are good. I was a boy with free summers and a subscription to Archaeology. I collected bones, picked up heads left inconsiderately in the woods by lost beasts.

Horses have large carved vertebrae you heft and clutch. You work fingers through large smooth nerve holes and clack puzzled pieces together. A horse�s skull is a massive armful of grinding teeth and braincase and face.

Cats dead, especially their backs, are jagged under bare feet, and they snarl despite themselves � I knew several alive and happy, ran a hand over soft furred backs, and then met them later on the ground, curled and quiet, and then again still later, white and smiling.

A bird becomes pale shells and arcs and slivers, a weightless palmful of light, a blown bubble of beaked skull and thin airy curves for constructing chest and back and wings.

All leave big spaces where wet eyes rolled in their heads and halted.

Thursday, April 11, 2002


From this angle, only I can see what goes on below waist level behind the bar. The young, newish waitress is sitting back there. It�s a slow night. After she gets me a beer, she settles on to a barstool. In one hand, she holds a translated Jackie Collins. She puts one foot on the stool�s crossbar, one knee over the other knee, the free hand on the top knee, her chin on the knee hand, and curls her back over everything. Or something like that. She is piled on herself. And somehow, she has managed to let her very short skirt fall away to show each inch of her legs and the twin curves of her buttocks. Her lips are thick with plumb red lipstick. Her white shirt is unbuttoned enough to show, but only from this angle, most of one breast. You�d think she had arranged this pose. But I am only writing. She is only reading.

Tuesday, April 09, 2002


We climbed a high wooded hill somewhere near here, though I don't know how we got there. On the windy side as we went up, we had to climb over very tall trees that lay on their sides, torn up by the water and wind and their own weight.

We thought we heard woodpeckers tapping somewhere over our heads. It was the low rattling croak of crows hanging over us, black cut-out birds stretched on invisible string in the spaces between the leaves, three of them floating and croaking to each other across the tops of the trees.

The girl called back to them and interpreted their responses for me. They were talking about the fallen trees and the wind. We found a bird's bloody claw and a few feathers lying on one of the fallen trees. She found out from the crows that a cat and a kitten had eaten it.

We were beasts in the woods.

Monday, April 08, 2002


Getting ourselves ready for school, toast half eaten and tea just sipped, we look out the front window to check the weather and start watching for the yellow bus. The morning is a little misty. And there, across the road, is one of our ponies loose on the neighbor�s front lawn, quietly chewing holes in his perfect square of grass.

Our neighbor is stiff and unbright, a vice-administrator at the school where we waste our days in classes and where our mother teaches.

Before anyone can get a coat on and run across the road to grab our escapee, she lifts her tail and piles six warm balls of manure on the cool green. Steam.

Our mother gets a good laugh at this. She finishes her tea, very hot, milk but no sugar. And here�s our bus, ponies put away and kids out the door.

Saturday, April 06, 2002


April, and snow again. Flurry is a fine word for this soft evidence of sky over us. Last night while I watched the first flurry, people going out doors -- to close family dinners, to television, to amateur plumbing, to weekend hotels -- all lowered their faces against the cold. But snow makes me look up. My snow idol is still in the freezer. Maybe he is why the snow came back.

This morning, the snow is starting to cover the ground. The magpie nest is empty. There's an argument in a bush somewhere ("You said the snow was definitely gone." "Well, you were so eager to lay your damned eggs."), but they'll get over it and settle down.

The demolished house has marvelously been reduced to six neat piles of soft sifted soil, two wooden chairs set out as if for observers*, and an accidental de Stijl in tile, brick, and paint on the corner of the next building.

"And for those who like to rock..."

Friday, April 05, 2002

Housewarming, Homewrecking

A pair of long-tailed magpies is building a nest in the trees along the millstream that runs down from the hills and through town. I watch them while I wait for the bus to work.

This morning, they and three or four other magpies were hopping in the field alongside the stream. Every minute or so, one would carry a stick up to the new waterfront loft. I don't know them well enough to be sure who owns the nest and who was just visiting the new place. Are there magpie contractors?

A flap and a glide downstream from there is the pile of brick where men from an old truck have finally pulled down the condemned house on the corner. The remaining walls are leaning on, or have become one with, the walls of the next house. The work now will have to be less demolition than surgery.

If you weren�t afraid of things collapsing, you could still walk up their stairs to half of a green-tiled kitchen, but the chimney that smoked just a few weeks ago is rubble and the pretty girl who skipped breakfast there with her family is gone. After they vanished, the basement was still full of junk metal and glass. I thought about taking a big strange greenish bottle that caught my eye, but I couldn�t think what I would do with it. Someone else has it now, or it�s under the collapsed brick and concrete.

My chest still aches from the scooter accident on Sunday. That�s a bit of shiny metal I won�t be going near soon, though a walk with the pilot would do me good. I�m tired.

Monday, April 01, 2002


This city was at least half German until the war. The bad guys1 were elected to power here from 1933. On the hill behind the Orthodox Church, which doesn't look as old as the war, there's an abandoned, vandalized cemetery. The people buried there all had Germanic names and died no later than the 1930s.

That's where she chose to lead me for our Easter Sunday walk. She rode her scooter through the park while I trailed on foot and cheered her on. Then I carried the scooter while she led the way behind the church and up into the woods. Broken graves line the path leading up through the trees, and then there's a cluster of graves, maybe four or five rows, on the top. Stones are tossed and broken. Graves are open. Lovely green vines crawl over the ground.

Her game, roughly, was murder. We rode our horses up to the top of the hill. She used her sword to chop off my head. Then she carried my make-believe headless body while I, now a ghost named Mario something, walked behind. She threw my make-believe corpse into a real open grave while I haunted (and carried the scooter).

When she had had enough of the woods and the graves and the ghost of Mario something, she ran ahead down the hill towards more Easter chocolate. Thinking I might save a few steps and have a little fun catching up to her, I put one foot on the scooter and zipped over the lip of the hill.

After just long enough to gain body-crunching speed, the little front wheel of the scooter dug into the loose dirt and I flipped hard on to the path between the graves. Dirt shot up; there's still dirt in my jacket pockets. I landed with all my weight on my left shoulder and upper arm, which was bashed into the ribs over my heart. People die that quickly and unexpectedly, but I hopped up again and was just glad no one could see me. She didn't look back, kept running, and then waited at the church gate. After I met up with her and walked her across the road, she scootered ahead through the park2 again. I was a bit lopsided and moaning, and trailed even farther than when we had gone out.

I think there's nothing broken, but I cannot laugh or sneeze or cough or yawn; inspiration and expiration of just about any sort is suddenly painful. And I cannot roll over in bed without groaning and cursing in the dark.

1 I don't want to be Googled by that sort. The "bad guys" will do.
2 That park, I've just remembered, was also a cemetery. A big one.