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Poems


12.29.99



Outside the Kitchen Window

Late into morning the waning moon
floats above barren trees,
pale white crescent among pale white clouds,
while crows clamour and shriek from the rooftops.

Two days till millennium's end,
till the year comes up three zeroes.
Everywhere champagne is chilling,
fireworks are ready, noisemakers await --

but the crows cry on, indifferent.
Once, I'm sure, lovelier species overflew
this neighborhood, but ours has been a century
of scavengers and bullies, and now

it's crows that wake us every morning,
and show us nature's ways: They have
no calendar but the moon, and never shriek
about any other time than now.

The trees know even less, blind
to lunar cycles, sensing just
days and nights, summers and winters.
Only we -- itching with consciousness,

with language, with lust and envy and sorrow --
only we need more. Narration, our speciality,
requires tenses: past, past perfect, future,
future perfect. With every sentence we

anchor ourselves in time, in our pocket datebooks
and the schedules of our favorite television shows,
in our bizarre invented history
of saviors assumed into the heavens,

and prophecies foretelling fiery doom
just two days hence.

"Breathe in, breathe out"
is how it starts.
*

    Walking,
    running,
    biking,
I find myself
counting unconsciously --
    footsteps,
    revolutions,
    breaths.
The curse
of being able to count
is never being able
to stop.

    Contact lenses --
    One. Two.

    Cups of coffee --
    One. Two. Three.

    Socks, shoes --
    One. Two. One. Two.

And so on through
the days till the milk expires,
the months remaining
in the New Yorker subscription,
the 100,000 miles
on the powertrain warranty,
the nights' million dreams.

The Calendar of Dennis the Little

In the sixth century, Dionysius Exiguus
miscounted four years of Caesar's reign, and
dropped another because the Romans had no zero.
Now, for all our science and art, we cannot agree
whether the millennium ends this year or next.
Or should it have concluded five years back?

It's hard to know when to expect our damnation.
Still, the calendar the monk made is all we have to live by,
dating our wars and reigns, our births and deaths,
and next month's mortgage payment
from the year of a virgin birth in which
not everyone finds it especially easy to believe.

Even steadied by its racheting machinery of leap years,
this calendar is an oddment of history, a mathematics of errors
founded on a myth. Really the thing to celebrate,
as we raise our glasses at midnight and grin,
is just that we have been counting so long
without losing track.

Berries

Not that the crows are impressed, or the trees
in which the crows perch, or the clouds
or the moon. Outside the kitchen window, the little tree
that flowers every April has faithfully produced
its winter crop of berries, as if certain that spring
will come, and summer, then fall, and winter again.
As if it needs to know no more. As if
all our counting, all our prophecies of hellfire,
all our New Year's toasts to good health,
meant nothing more to the tree, or to the universe,
than the wild clamourings of idle crows
on a sunlit morning, as the waning moon
floats timeless among white clouds.

January, 2000

* from "A Mathematics of Breathing," by Carl Phillips


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