Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Aleda Shirley

Back when the Stanley Hanks Chapbook Series was running, I could think of no other chapbook series that I dreamed more of entering (and winning, of course: I wanted a book as beautifully made as H.L. Hix's Kindling Point or Aleda Shirley's Silver Ending). Today there are probably hundreds of small and micro presses turning out chapbooks--some of them (like Tarpaulin Sky) truly beautiful at the Book Arts level, and others (like Pudding Press) (forgive me, but it's true) cranking out quantity over quality. Still, I go back to the Hanks Series often, not only to reread the poems, but also to hold these books in my hands and aspire to making something at their level.

From Aleda Shirley's Silver Ending, published in 1991:


The day before Christmas it was fifteen below, and windless,
the river willows perfectly still in a light coating of snow.
Early that morning I stood on the shore and watched steam rise
off the river, mistaking its movements for the river’s, which was still,
the surface threaded with thin and delicate scratches
as if skaters had glided through an endless series of school figures
all night while we slept. Nothing moved, except the steam
which moved in one direction only—up—into a sky
smoking back at it like dry ice. Nothing was moving
except the moment, and my hectic sense that it was over,

that the moment would change even before the weather did.
But I wanted to hold this moonscape fast in my mind
where it would join other ghostly postcards, like a sunset
off Key West a year ago, as we returned from a snorkeling trip
out on the reef. Everything was painted in simple colors:
the blue water, the red sun, Mike’s yellow shirt.
And the deaf scuba diver I’d watched all day signing
to his hearing girlfriend signed something to her again
and she asked if I’d snap their picture as they posed
in the stern of the boat, the sunset behind them. It’s a picture

so vivid, even now, that I expect to happen upon it
when I leaf through the pages of my photograph album.
I used to think I understood this, the rapt attention
at which I stood during certain moments of transition:
the bright-gray color the air has in the spring, right before
it rains, when the grass and budding trees are too green,
their lushness somehow scary. I thought I knew the reason
I sometimes set the alarm for hours before I have to get up,
just so I can re-set it and linger for a little while
in the blue light of dawn and listen to the mourning doves

as they begin to grieve in the trees outside the window.
I thought it had something to do with those years of my childhood
spent in the tropics where, like any place near the equator,
the duration of dawn and dusk is so brief it’s easily missed.
There, twilight was an afterthought of day, an aside,
and the heat so relentless I moved through my life
as if I were drugged from wine. But now I wouldn’t swear
I ever noticed those twilit moments brief as rain,
that this theory isn’t just something I concocted later,
from a book I read. The Japanese call it

that feeling engendered by ephemeral beauty, the way
some things are beautiful because they will change
with the passage of time. I’ve scores of other examples at hand:
just last night, driving home from work, I saw a huge
pale-yellow moon rising in a sky still pink with sunset.
It was so strange, so like the sky of another planet,
that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see other moons,
two or three of them, rising there too. But
the moon, I know, doesn’t rise, not really, nor does the sun
set: the moon moves, moves around us. And we’re turning.

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