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by Joseph Baldwin

I saw a squirrel launch himself
from a perch ten feet above where the trunk
of my elm forks to form a V,
and leap across to the other branch,
landing only a foot or so below
his departure point.
Inside such a quaint fur ball,
what suppleness, lithe grace!
How he gathered, flickered across
the space, then landed, again a ball,
and then slimmed out again
to scuttle along a limb!

Could this be only a search
for food, such a ballet?

I must believe he did it
for joy alone.

His flight, for flight it was,
was like words without music,
the words making me hear
a music of my own;
similarly, he wore, for a moment,
splendid and indescribable
wings — of my imagining.

Branch Line Local, 1923

by Joseph Baldwin

In that part of Tennessee, the train rocked
like a vessel on a storm-tossed ocean:
outside, red clay banks rose and fell away with
sickening surprise,
green meadows humped up in great muffin-like swells
and then fell off to nothing;
the horizon was going up and down.
Trees walked along the ridges;
the child saw them as dark muttering giants
keeping a menacing pace with the tall windows,
seeming to march with the train for a while,
then only reluctantly falling behind and away.

The child — rocked, lulled — heard
the french-harp whistle up ahead
and stared at the custard-colored ceiling
from which hung clusters of tulip-star lamps
and wondered at the rich, edible color
and the sweet lights’ glowing in day-time.
Wondered long
until life paused, and he slept,
cradled in good: the train.

Awakened in Virginia by this warning:
Don’t mention the train to Grandma.
— Grandmother, bed-ridden now fifteen years,
victim of a train-wreck in Kentucky, a collision,
and of the dark business (so the story went)
of company representatives picking their way
among the wreckage, getting release forms signed
by the dazed injured people, she one of the cheated:
the family grudge told over and over, but resisted
by the child.

Too soon, too soon in life to learn
of evil lurking in beauty; not for the child
to know of the copperhead coiled beneath flowers
waiting to fang his mother’s hand reaching for eggs
in the “stolen” nest; also, he shut his ears against
his cousins’ warnings about stings waiting
among blackberry bushes. These were gashes in
a world which should be sure, and whole.

For Grandma (propped up in her bed)
he sang about Jesus
and recited his poem and was kissed; earned back
his homeward journey in the train — trusting,
surrendered to the green seat’s swaying,
hearing the voices of wheels and rail-joints
and the complaints of bonded wood and iron
working upon each other in the inmost secret
coach-parts like the creaking of oaken ships’ timbers.

The pauses in life, the on-going lulls
of journeys, not the arrivals: these
he would love, life-long. He knew this
in secret; clutched it close against reproof.

Cloud Picture

by Joseph Baldwin

Images, images.
Gull wings, cutting scarlet;
sun fractured, bitten
into new shapes.

On fire, glowing fire,
are edges of things,
because of sun;
and thunder-colored undersides

Wreckage of a storm
which harbored in itself

Most savage mien,
but innocent now
of any harm,
its violence changed
to rue:
the look of embers.

Geese, and the Boy

by Joseph Baldwin

A sound like a bicycle horns,
coming at us at rooftop level, rapid and almost scary.
The six-year-old next door,
stomping his trampoline and soaring
again and again, cries to his brother:
“Geese! Geese! Hear?”

And again, without pause
in his jumping, himself airborne
almost as much as the birds:
“Geese! Hear?”

And I was glad I heard
both boy and geese.

He is the one who,
when three years old,
put the family’s miniature
Doberman-pinscher into
the refrigerator,
as a kind of experiment.
(The dog survived.)

And he’s the one I’ve seen
doing a sort of pantomime
on the way to school,
making only a bit more
progress forward than to
one side or other of the walk,

straying to look at things,
to handle them and test them,
to threaten them, to pose with them
— all the while voicing
a wordless music.

Him I have seen
breaking a branch off a bush
and making it his foil
for fencing with the other branches.

And once I saw him
picking up the little yellow flags
marking the path of
the buried natural gas line
and using them as darts
for tossing at tree trunks.

I shall hope to hear geese again,
and soon after, the boy
not yet immune to amazement
who, at home or edging schoolward,
dances his own movie.

Creatures Interface

by Joseph Baldwin

Raccoons live in the storm sewer — this I believe
since seeing a great rat-rump near the entrance;
the whole beast almost swallowed by that concrete mouth,
suddenly a clown face flashed at me over a shoulder:
one look, then gone. Not a rat, after all!
I was reassured, for I had been all ice with the thought:
If the rats around here are this big, I’m moving!
Apprehension gone; comfort given — by a raccoon!

Life in a sewer? — or do they live in trees and only
hunt in sewers?
What is the way of raccoons, in a city,
confronting asphalt, concrete, human noise and detritus,
ears nature tuned to owls here assaulted by sirens and

Which of us, then, is the intruder?

And what did that one, for instance, think
of the sudden clown face I showed him?

Ghosts of a Summer Evening

by Joseph Baldwin

He stepped out into the warm, caressing
night, and smiles, remembering music
and slim girls in bright flimsy dresses,
smiling, sweat gleaming on their foreheads.
And then came near fainting with dismay.
It was a judgment on his life,
he feared, that such a night, beloved
of his youth, should now distress him.

Warm, warm, they had been, eight hundred
miles away and fifty years
ago! And careless of all but love songs,
blooming youthful bodies, and hope.

Fans placed here and there gave breaths
of cooling; moments were enough,
then back to the giddy heat and swirl
of dance; linkings raised hopes higher.

Hopes of what? Life to be grasped.
Each other, grasped. Promises;
only implied, but promises,
for all of that; in touch, in glance.

Promises of bright futures;
financially bright, of course; but also
immediate promise given unspoken,
then taken back, as soon as given.

The embrace frankly sexual;
but, by tacit agreement, not that
at all, only social custom,
though shared sweat drenched clothes of each.

And weren’t mothers looking on,
while scantily-clothed daughters clung
to lanky swains, to see that all
was decent, stayed within control?

Years later, why dismay? Distress?
Ah, yes. The memory of shame,
at being an imposter there.
Imposter? Yes. But, in what sense?

Why, simply that all such affairs,
cotillions, balls, “formals,” where
the bright of eye and light of foot
displayed themselves (discreetly and

by custom, but nonetheless displayed
themselves as “eligible”) had ever
been a showing of wares. And also
that one knew it was understood

accepting such hospitality
and exchanging embraces in the formal
figures of the dance meant one
shared in this eligibility,

having “something to offer,” and wasn’t
poor then, nor poor in prospects. Ah, yes:
the cruelty of the social system,
offering such delights, but only

at a price! Better not
to have come at all, as if disguised
as one of them and able, like them,
to repay the piper for the tune.

Hence, the shameful distress. In spite
of knowledge that the sweating girls
of long ago in long bright dresses
were now grandmothers; that, or dead;

and that the dance, the glitter and romance,
was all a form of commerce; dismay
persisted. The shame of being poor,
of having been poor, lasts all one’s life.

Also, the shame of having been
a pretender lasts. But, O! the glowing
girls, the music, and the dance!
Enchantment, then its own excuse.


by Joseph Baldwin

Raindrops are exploding
into brief crystal crowns
on the glistering asphalt
outside my window,
thunder is laying down
a barrage, dullness and
sloth in nature are being
defeated, stale air and
old thoughts washed clean,
all life renewed.
— Even my own. I shall
stir, soon as the storm
has passed, and stride
about outside, ingesting
the new world; blithe,
remembering how prodigal was
the scattering of crowns.