We grub, we scrape the hardpan,
water all summer and harvest
shallow abundance—but no mercy.
The earth has turned its back on us,
yielding, for most,
only to the grave digger’s shovel.
Anything with its own roots,
even a creature huddled in its burrow,
finds more mercy here than we do.
Now and then, after winter storms,
epiphany: air scoured, immaculate,
and snow clinging
where nothing but clouds should be.
Otherwise, the legendary Sierras
lost themselves in haze so long ago
we don’t believe in them;
otherwise, uncertainty shrouds us.
No one here seeks God
in high places. Flatlanders,
we look straight ahead
to where the earth finally vanishes.
In such distances, unhindered,
we see all of the glory of God
at ground level where nothing
rises above the cottonwoods.
Up early, much too early,
I hear birds in the dark,
certain nameless non-singers
chanting their creed—
always the same every morning,
word for word.
I believe what they believe.
My doubts are written by the wind
on untamed grass. They pass.
My sins thrive like summer leaves
and cast shade to hide in, green
until the Holy Spirit sends frost.
I share faith with the bare branches.
They know what it is
to be stripped of every illusion
and yet persist . . .
And I believe what the stones believe
who’ve been around long enough
to know what God has in mind.
The intellect, that beetle
skittering from dark to darker,
its hard carapace
faintly lit by God’s glory.
Holy, holy is that hint of light!
Taken from under its rotted log,
it sits still as if stunned
by so much sun, by air
not dank and fetid and close
but free to shout hosanna
blowing among the high, unbitten leaves.
Blessed is the sparrow, that mendicant
who comes to us in his dun habit,
who makes a feast of our crumbs.
And blessed also the wicked blackbirds
who take what they want without asking,
and the crows who make do,
content with life’s sufficient leftovers.
Doves in the rain, hawks in the sunlight,
even egret savants out in the alfalfa
who know everything about insects
but nothing else;
swallows nesting under the eaves
above heaps of dung, psycho owls,
shy water birds, two by two,
who never stop wandering;
bless them all and those somber vultures,
who put up with our earthbound foolishness
and then come down to us,
if needed, in nomine Domini.
VI. Agnus Dei
Last winter, in this pasture,
dozens of newborn lambs
practicing their frost dances
easily took away the gloom of the world.
I laughed as I drove by
while ewes, bland and bleary,
whose best efforts to think-it-all-through
come to nothing but mutton,
could only look up and bleat.
On those cold mornings,
I could have been a ram in the brambles,
snarled in trouble, grieving
for everything loved and sooner or later lost—
aching in my brittle bones.
Nothing did any good, nothing,
neither mind nor stubborn will.
It took lambs to lift me
as only You, Agnus Dei,
who take away the sins of the world,
can give us peace.