Literary Yard

Search for meaning

‘Tundra’ and other poems

By: John Grey


It’s almost midnight
and the June sun is still not done shining.
The day stretches wider
than it’s ever been.
Night won’t come near
the scrub alders of the tundra
or the short grass
that’s been mowed by passing seasons.
Landscape bathes in this vast
iridescent wash
as if a lake of light
has overflown its banks.
A stream, flush with northern snow,
slithers through,
flecks the dreams
of the campers in their tents.

A solitary eagle hauls its shadow
through camp then off to higher ground.
Nothing in a sleeping bag invites interest.


It is June.
Early morning.
A small fire
burns off the briskness,
stirs water into steam.

A forest, mixed deciduous and pine
floats ups around the camp,
buoyed by clouds of mist.

There is no street you could name.
No taxi taking a corner too fast.
Not even a jostling on the sidewalk
or the languid eyes of strangers
too long waiting for the bus.

Anything approaching pavement
is softened by leaves.
Any area, like this,
that prides itself on being grassy and clear
soon meets its comeuppance
in tangled roots and ailanthus.

A brown-eyed, rough-haired
middle aged man
who is five got eleven inches tall
and weighs in at one sixty,
adds coffee grains to a cup,
scribbles something in a notebook
that only he can translate,
rubs his cheeks with dew.
Then he reads Thoreau for the thousandth time.
He poses as his favorite line.


From my window,
I watch as a gray squirrel
digs a hole with claw and paw.

It has an acorn to bury,
an Autumn safekeeping
for a Winter meal.

It’s all about preparation.
Maybe this rodent
is so young
it’s never been through
a harsh January.

But survival instincts
don’t begin and end with one squirrel.
They’re imprinted in the womb,
the nest, by the presence of those
who’ve been through it all before.

That’s why that squirrel
doesn’t cozy up to cats
or wave to hawks.
Even when I’m about,
it’s a wariness machine.

From my window,
I’m seeing not just one squirrel
but every other squirrel,
extant or that’s ever been.

It’s many squirrels
preparing for the future.
It barely knows itself
as one.


A walk uphill
on a clear Providence morning,
my wife’s soft footsteps
falling in with my clip-clop.
A row of welcoming houses,
well-kept gardens.
Even the dogs don’t bark.
We continue on eagerly
as if someone is waiting for us
at the top.
Maybe a long-lost friend.
Or a parent.
Or the two of us
when we were younger.
It’s just a crest.
But it feels like a person
we know.


Scars tell so much about a guy.
I’ve done it tough but survived
with just these mega-scratches
on my back and chest.
And they’re easier than telling you my story.
I just unbutton my shirt,
show you my skin.
Words are, after all,
no more than confetti spilling from the tongue.,
But here’s a ridge you can run your finger along.
It’s jagged. It’s come through the fire.
And this other one. A knife left its signature.
Others figure tattoos will show
how resilient they are.
But if you let it happen,
it’s just a pretty picture.
Nothing more.
I earned my scars down at the docks,
in bars, in pickup fights,
in dragging some lost soul to safety.
To me, they’re jewels.
Shine like scarabs.
Like bracelets of rubies.
Here’s one where I came close to dying.
The wound stuck around,
threw in its lot with the living.


This is the moment
when I bare my teeth
in a downward grin and
a shadow crosses my eyes
like there’s a bat trapped
in the room. Your chest
rises and falls with my anger.
And you flutter like paper shreds
in steam waves rising
from my pavement grating.

This is me sweaty and
hurt, face all pain instead
of pores as guilt, like a snake,
grips tight to you, too busy
swallowing its tail to hiss
back in my direction.
But then it’s all over.
My fury gets all feathery,
drifts away in the fading wind.

It’s a prelude to us lying together
breathless, noise-drugged,
on a cooling turquoise sheet,
everything fading into that perfect
physical and emotional inertia,
not even bothering to wonder
what the argument was all about.
This is moment that burns out
in a rage just so the next moment
can be something else entirely.
Yes, we could always begin
a moment in the future. But
you really need to hear this first.


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