Suburban — a poem by John Ciardi


Yesterday Mrs. Friar phoned. “Mr. Ciardi,
how do you do?” she said. “I am sorry to say
this isn’t exactly a social call. The fact is
your dog has just deposited—forgive me—
a large repulsive object in my petunias.”

I thought to ask, “Have you checked the rectal grooving
for a positive I.D.?” My dog, as it happened,
was in Vermont with my son, who had gone fishing—
if that’s what one does with a girl, two cases of beer,
and a borrowed camper. I guessed I’d get no trout.

But why lose out on organic gold for a wise crack?
“Yes, Mrs. Friar,” I said, “I understand.”
“Most kind of you,” she said. “Not at all,” I said.
I went with a spade. She pointed, looking away.
“I always have loved dogs,” she said, “but really!”

I scooped it up and bowed. “The animal of it.
I hope this hasn’t upset you, Mrs. Friar.”
“Not really,” she said, “but really!” I bore the turd
across the line to my own petunias
and buried it till the glorious resurrection

when even these suburbs shall give up their dead.

— John Ciardi (Selected Poems)

In the hole — a poem by John Ciardi

In the Hole

I had time and a shovel. I began to dig.
There is always something a man can use a hole for.
Everyone on the street stopped by. My neighbors
are purposeful about the holes in their lives.
All of them wanted to know what mine was for.

Briggs asked me at ten when it was for the smell
of new-turned sod. Ponti asked at eleven
when it was for the sweat I was working up.
Billy LaDue came by from school at one
when it was for the fishing worms he harvested.

My wife sniffed in from the Protestant ethic at four
when the hole was for finding out if I could make
a yard an hour. A little after five
a squad car stopped and Brewster Diffenbach,
pink and ridiculous in his policeman suit,

asked if I had a building permit. I told him
to run along till he saw me building something.
He told me I wasn’t being cooperative.
I thanked him for noticing and invited him
to try holding his breath till he saw me change.

I ate dinner sitting on its edge. My wife
sniffed it out to me and sniffed away.
She has her ways but qualifies — how shall I say? —
alternatively. I’d make it up to her later.
At the moment I had caught the rhythm of digging.

I rigged lights and went on with it. It smelled
like the cellar of the dew factory. Astonishing
how much sky good soil swallows. By ten-thirty
I was thinking of making a bed of boughs at the bottom
and sleeping there. I think I might have wakened

as whatever I had really meant to be once.
I could have slept that close to it. But my wife
came out to say nothing whatever, so I showered
and slept at her side after making it up to her
as best I could, and not at all bad either.

By morning the hole had shut. It had even
sodded itself over. I suspect my neighbors.
I suspect Diffenbach and law and order.
I suspect most purposes and everyone’s
forever insistence I keep mine explainable.

I wish now I had slept in my hole when I had it.
I would have made it up to my wife later.
Had I climbed out as I had meant to be —
really meant to be — I might have really
made it up to her. I might have unsniffed her

clear back to dew line, back to how it was
when the earth opened by itself and we
were bared roots. — Well, I’d had the exercise.
God knows I needed it and the ache after
to sing my body to sleep where I remembered.

And there was a purpose. This is my last house.
If all goes well, it’s here I mean to die.
I want to know what’s under it. One foot more
might have hit stone and stopped me, but I doubt it.
Sand from an old sea bottom is more likely.

Or my fossil father. Or a bud rosary.
Or the eyes of the dog I buried south of Jerusalem
to hide its bones from the Romans. Purpose
is that a man uncovers by digging for it.
Damn my neighbors, Damn Brewster Diffenbach.

John Ciardi, The Little That Is All, 1974

The Catalpa — poem by John Ciardi

This poem speaks to me no matter how many times I read it. The catalpa’s are in their full glory now and I intend to enjoy, and be thankful for, their brief exuberance.

The Catalpa

The catalpa’s white week is ending there
in its corner of my yard. It has its arms full
of its own flowering now, but the least air
spills off a petal and a breeze lets fall
whole coronations. There is not much more
of what this is. Is every gladness quick?
That tree’s a nuisance, really. Long before
the summer’s out, its beans, long as a stick,
will start to shed. And every year one limb
cracks without falling off and hangs there dead
till I get up and risk my neck to trim
what it knows how to lose but not to shed.
I keep it only for this one white pass.
The end of June’s its garden; July, its Fall;
all else, the world remembering what it was
in the seven days of its visible miracle.

What should I keep if averages were all?

by John Ciardi

Tree Trimming – poem by John Ciardi

I thought about this poem yesterday while I was dragging fallen limbs out the tall grass so I could bushhog. How cool would it be to write even one poem this good during your lifetime?

Tree Trimming

There’s this to a good day’s sweat
high in the branches trimming and down
into the ground rooting–I’m not used to it
any more but it reminds me when I’m done
and sprawl shaky with tiredness, wet
in the sun’s wringer. Sweat tells me again
who my people were. And yes, there’s more
to it. But without sweat I wouldn’t want
it. It takes the whole body to be sure
of what you’re remembering. I can’t
say my father’s or my grandfather’s name
a better way than this sog-tired numb
joy of having touched green growing
and the dirt under it and the day going.

Even then I can’t really touch them. Not ever
again. They had first things and the power
and the ignorance that go to the receiver
of first things only; that and no more.

I’ve lost it. I’m my own first. There was never
a man of my blood before
who spoke more than one tongue, or that
in a way courts wouldn’t laugh at.
My father did read some. But it was
his mountain he came from, not the mind
of man. He had ritual, not ideas. His
world that I cannot find
except as my body aches and sweats hewing,
was holy and dim. But doing
his work, I rest. I remember this:
it is good to be able. To hold axe and saw
and do first things again. I miss
this the desked days I go. I see
him here. I know him. But he is
more than I can teach my children. They
have no first life. That is their loss.
I wish we were Jews and could say
the names of what made us.
I could weep by slow waters for my son
who has no history, no name
he knows long, no ritual from which he came,
and no fathers but the forgotten.

He who could sweat down, tree by tree,
a whole wood and touch no memory.