During the quarantine, we were all in the living room,
the four of us, playing a game,
an unremarkable afternoon in April,
National Poetry Month,
and a small bird flew in through the dog’s foot-wide opening
in the sliding glass door to the backyard,
and the dog, Berkeley,
sprang up and barked and ran to the dining room
where the bird was fluttering against the glass and falling—
I could hear it, it was painful—
and before we could protest enough he had killed the small
gray-feathered bird with a swift, vicious bite.
I am a connoisseur of melancholia
with depression everywhere in my family on my mother’s side
and so, after years of therapy,
I am suspicious of, even resentful of,
those who are attracted to the sadness of the suffering of others
because, as I see things, it helps them make sense, or,
worse, feel virtuous about, their own woundedness.
I thought of this as I found the bird on the linoleum,
breathing with the last, sad, harried energy of the dying,
and I felt a wave of grief
and then a hatred—sorry for the necessary word—hatred of that grief,
and then—familiar—the lightness of an idea of the poem,
and then—this is new, in my accession to middle age—
just simple grief again,
awareness of the dying sunlit room in which I stood, its historicity.
Our house is built over a concrete slab
that was poured on the lot after an orange orchard was axed
in the sixties to build our neighborhood,
mostly nondescript modern houses, with two stately Victorians
owned by real estate agents and kept
in perfect performance of repair.
Shortly after we moved in a horde of termites appeared
under the kitchen window in the back yard
and the exterminator I called in told me that every nine years or so
the colony of termites that lives on the dead roots of the orchard
in the absolute darkness
under the slab
shoots up into daylight—
he seemed delighted as he told me all this
with a salesman’s unfeigned appreciative energy
that I know from my mother’s side of the family as well,
amoral and indefatigable.
Issa is the haiku poet of insects.
They will probably always have their day before and more often than
the losers of the wars of human history,
and there are so many of them in the spring and summer here,
that I cannot echolocate them in the yard
and so it can seem to me that at least some of them are inside the house
until I close the glass door
and I hear them as what Wallace Stevens called
the minor of what we feel.
the insect’s sound in contrast with the song of the bird,
one rasping note,
on or off,
half-nothing—the difference between mercy and grace.