The Owl

How far did she fly to find
this pristine town on the edge of winter?
Crows have set up their kingdom—
a yacking flock louder than traffic
maims the morning air.
Day sends the coven screaming
in pursuit, black rags
haggling from clump to clump

of the decorous elms and oaks.
The dog’s mouth hangs.
I follow his gaze through the shudder
of limbs to the still source, the center
of their flapping. The barn owl
commands a branch, the crows scatter
and aim, cutting around her
placid weight, something more of earth

than air. She stares straight ahead
as if focused on something she alone
can hear, their outrage at who she is
no more than a furious snipping,
until in one motion, she heaves upward,
her body transformed by sky.
The crows gloat, their battering
closes her path, and she misses a beat,
stumbling in the air
like a silence disrupted. The crows’
fat riot, their mine, mine, mine
rules the sky. Call the owl
sadness, the one who watches
from the other side.

Old Trick

Spring wants me back,
and I should know better than to heed
that old hag, the goddess
disguising herself with the first green
she can muster. Her true self hanging around,
gray, icy, bent, gazing from the corners
while I glory in the fine scribble
skimming the trees. I let her
bear the weight of my heart,
not my first mistake: every year she promises

to bring back what I love, and for awhile
she does—a flower here, another there,
fast-talking me through the price
I’ll pay later. It’s one panorama
followed by the next, the returning
birds in a parade, finches
twittering at dawn. They too

make you think you can trust them:
look at those nests, their faith
at your feeder, but I can tell you this,
keep an eye on the children.
September will come, the ripe business
you can’t see in all the greenery,
its constancy already tinged: a slight cast,
a whine. Your own girl will vanish
under that yellowing wing.

A Text in Forgiveness

In the way of all his mornings, he sits there
smoking, having risen in the pre-dawn
shifting black. Awake to nothing but the over and over
of soap and running water, he has made his way
to the kitchen, the ritual of coffee. He sits,
watching the window glass give back his own reflection,
an older man waiting. Each hour
divides room shadow from outside shadow,
until the outer light is stronger than the inner,
and with the dimming vision of himself
he is taken into day. The cold light
rises to cream and violet; he watches
the minute variations take their toll.
And when finally his hand rises, it is hard to tell
if he wants to shatter something or to beckon
a greater presence, some other body of light
opposing whatever it is behind him.

For it has become a lifetime, this waiting—
this quitting the circumstance, the predicament.
Quitting the books, their plots and voices
that all add up to one: his life as a fiction
he has made, the craft of it
outside what he really wanted.
The scene he looks out on, trees and meadow
coming clear, is resonant, exposed;
so different from the dense magnolia in his childhood yard,
a vastness and height defined only
by the limitations of beauty. The showy leaves
snapped too easily, the blossoms stood up like wax.
Never understanding that delicacy, deliberate as a white lie,
forbidden to climb the available branches,
he crawled into the vast canopied underside.
In that leaf-dark world and its dim pattern of silt and bark,
the visible tree became no more than a shape,
pruned and determined, an artful cover
for the interior. That reverie now
is what he wants: his fingers playing the surface
until the end he reaches is prayer,
intermediary between the two worlds.

And if he has risen to quit the night,
to mark the confluence of word and step
with the deep close hours he entered as if they were velvet,
as if had buried his face in some ravishing solitude
with its reverberating no; then with enough
of these mornings he would forgive
the longing by which he lived.

Change of Life

Dread wakes me and so, yes,
I welcome the white, ruled as I am
by the body. In monochrome, in stasis,
the part that wants to be dead
is one with the bloodless snow. These months
have piled up, the drifts rise higher
than the windows, the layers
make a readable strata. Six inches of powder
over the rotten sleety stuff from February’s
brief thaw, and under that, a packed twelve inches.
I too take on an aspect of knowing.
But outside the body’s chart, tell me,
is the self knowable, with limited but mutable
variations, finally an understanding
at the bottom of it all?

Among the withheld trees, the snow
has taken on the aspect of a tunnel
and as I walk, the past closes. Behind me,
the house I loved, its animals and children.
But this cold wants nothing of regret.
When I wake, it’s no waking
to the redeemable blue of sky, the new markings
on bark and limb-- only the pale light,
a calm caught in translucence,
a world under glass.

White Sea

The color of emptiness and denial,
April’s freeze
hardens again the melting field.

The balmy breath of last week’s thaw
left rotting snow, a loose clutter of frostwork
my footsteps fall through.

Underneath, the layers are collapsing,
dismantling the readable strata,
the frozen stasis coming undone.


A warming of the surface and it goes smooth,
likens its sheen to feldspar,
glassy hard. But this morning,

a new inch of powder gives up tracks, and as I follow,
I imagine the shudder of something just ahead,
wretched as hindsight.
The rabbit’s footprints
trace the perimeter of the field, then disappear.
No sign of struggle,
just a last print in the circling white sea of snow.

Vulture, Circling

February white, and the clean wing
of the vulture punctuates
the pristine air, the snow so lit
it’s blue, another sea, a heaven for grief.
But this bird knows what the dead are for,
knows what’s ripe to be taken,
his serrated feather-edge like a saw
working the sky’s perimeter. His life
is bent on watching, waiting
for the second to sweep
his sleek body down. For him, accuracy
is what I call ferocity. I’m the one
assigning value, my warning in the word.
Vulture, turkey buzzard, crow-- all of them
repel me with their unflinching need.
The body dies, they eat it,
rot and all, a progression
not so different from the ordinarily beautiful
flower giving itself up to fruit, then the fruit
withering for the sake of seed.
And so on, without sentiment.

You Wouldn’t Say Goodbye,

so now you come back as both substance
and shadow. You aren’t even a woman now,
the soul beyond female and male, or something
comprising the two. But I’m bound
by human image. I look into the sea
and only find myself, the same me, limited to flourish and sweep.
I want to see you again, the woman-you,
the one I spoke to here in letters, and you held on to them
for your husband to return afterward, their messages
turned back on their owner with the indifference of mirrors.

You who wouldn’t speak of dying,
what am I to think—that love was enough?
The understood as plain
as this ocean stretching before me, or the mote I ignore
floating in front of everything I see?
The sacred is one step away from the profane,
you said that once, as if I’d asked the question.
There’s no answer out there in the miles of choppy water,
not one white wave to follow in. But the eye
is never what it seems, its matter separate
and distinct, the cornea a transparent rigid shell,
while the body languishes in its ropy
strands of tissue, entirely perishable.

Listen, Spirit

I didn’t go around talking to you. I believed
in prayer, that necklace of psalms, and failing that,
the willow’s arches above my head. In those fans and fronds

I thought I could see it all-- the past
like a distant winter, the future… well, the leaves
hung before my face, and I could not imagine

beyond them. I needed signs, I see that now:
baby squirrels born in the woodstove, then
their mother dead in the road. The children

cradled the tiny beings in their palms, nursing with eye-droppers,
a finger massaging the belly that had just been fed.
I saw you as another mother, hovering.

But you are not the sentimental one,
you don’t consider permanence, and you don’t care
about my American happiness. So easy to confuse you

with cozy self-regard, conjure up some awareness
wanting me to winnow out life’s meaning.
I admit—I’ve been in love with appearances,

the ruthless sea, the toad’s gazing eye. Year after year
believing it was the same toad in my garden! The transmigration
of one spirit into another!

Charmed by shine,
I’ve dragged a finger through the flame and stared into the sun.
Imagine, thinking that’s where I’d see you.


*"The Owl" and "Old Trick" are selections from Cleopatra Mathis' book What to Tip the Boatman? [Sheep Meadow Press 2001]

**"A Text in Forgiveness" is from Cleopatra Mathis' book, Guardian [Sheep Meadow Press 1995]

Copyright © 2005 Cleopatra Mathis. All Rights Reserved.

Cleopatra Mathis was born and raised in Ruston, Louisiana. Her first five books of poems were published by Sheep Meadow Press, and are distributed by University Press of New England. Her most recent book, What to Tip the Boatman? won the Jane Kenyon Award for Outstanding Book of Poems in 2001. A new collection of poems, White Sea, will be published by Sarabande Books in July, 2005.

Cleopatra Mathis’ work has appeared widely in anthologies, textbooks, magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tri-Quarterly, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, The Extraordinary Tide: Poetry by American Women, and The Practice of Poetry.

Various prizes for her work include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, in 1984 and 2003; the Peter Lavin Award for Younger Poets from the Academy of American Poets; a Pushcart Prize; The Robert Frost Award; a 1981-82 Fellowship in Poetry at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts; The May Sarton Award; and Individual Artist Fellowships in Poetry from both the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the New Jersey State Arts Council.

Since 1982, Cleopatra Mathis has been Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, where she directs the creative writing program. She lives with her family in Hanover, New Hampshire.