Before There Was Before Poems

Light R48 on the Storrow Drive Underpass

Published in Portside

Praise the beam of that light that slices
through late afternoon traffic.

The Birch


“The Birch,” from Before There Was Before, was first published in The Hudson Review. I remembered that the “little brown dog” was on the back of the slipcase, and that the book was Thomas Mann’s Joseph in Egypt. The dog was actually the logo for Alfred A. Knopf. This was the book! Funny how some memories bob back up while others are unrecoverable.


I scramble up the slippery trunk. I’m five,
in my own backyard. I fling my one leg,
then the other, hoist myself into the tree.
Then I crack open the shells
of my sunflower seeds, wiggle out
the kernels with the tip of my tongue,
spit the empty shells down to the grass.
I peel bark the way I want to,
the way I peel my scabs to see
the pink skin, the new part underneath,
just born. I watch
clouds scrub the sky. I stay up here
in my brave room until all the fathers
have walked home from the bus stop after work,
carrying the newspapers under their arms,
the streetlights just coming on.
My father is not coming home. He’s left
my mother and me and all
his shirts and his camel’s hair coat
in the hall closet. All his books
on the shelves, even my favorite
with the little brown dog I love
on the cover, his front and back legs
outstretched, running hard.

I’m Reading Darwin


I’ve finally finished reading Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and wanted to post this poem from my new book, Before There Was Before. I was fascinated to learn that Darwin had planned to become a preacher when he returned from his travels, and like most of his countrymen, believed in the literal words of the bible. He was also appalled at some of the local medical treatments.



On a tiny rocky island in the Atlantic,

a few months out on the Beagle, Darwin found

only two kinds of birds, the booby and the noddy,


both . . . of a tame and stupid disposition,

easily distracted and deceived—the males

couldn’t stop crabs from snatching


the flying fish they’d left near the nests

for their females. They even let

those crabs steal their chicks.


And on that island, not one plant,

not one lichen, no royal palms succeeded

by majestic plumage, succeeded


by Adam and Eve’s descendants.

Instead, just two dumb birds,

on whose feathers and skin and shit


the life of the island hinged; and a species

of fly that lived on the booby; and a tick

burrowed in noddy flesh; and a small brown moth


that fed on the feathers; and a beetle

and a woodlouse that fed on dung;

and a host of spiders, who fed on them all.



In Santa Fé, Argentina, a man splits a bean,

places the moistened bean on his sore head,

and his headache goes away.


A broken leg? Kill and cut open

two puppies, tie them on either side of the leg.

Replace doubt with a plaster!


Did Darwin despair? Or still believe

in a God who would break our chains?

On a dark night, south of the Plata,


he comforted himself with the sea’s

most beautiful spectacle . . . every part

of the surface . . . glowed with a pale light . . .


two billows of liquid phosphorus

before the ship’s bows, and in her wake . . .

a milky train.

Before There Was Before


“Before There Was Before” was first published in the journal Common Ground.


Before there was before, there was still before,

no verb to carry the abyss.


Light from dark, this from that, an easing

of boundaries, a slit

making a run for it,



blue at the edge of that pose.



The Big Bang hurled all the starstuff

ever to be made—brazen tumult,

lashed by the muscle of spume,


hydrogen and helium waiting

for their rings to close,


dark tonnage, billions and billions

of mewling seedstars,


all burning and burning

themselves out, the universe

braced to decay.



The shoulder of one boulder settling

against the shoulder of another.


Canyons cleaving, granite

wrenched free.


The apple asleep

inside the sleeping tree.



The tide slinks in.

Shelves of blue-green algae.







Shaggy-maned mushrooms

sink and dissolve. Beneath,

beetles frill.


Pea vines, holdfast clovers.

Bees shiver the white throats—


Whales slip through the slot.

Baleen and blue milk spilled

through all the rooms of the ocean.


Long lives call and click

the grievous migrations.


Sharp-shinned hawks seize

their trophies, clamping down

the whole lid of air.



When trees come, they are meant to

be climbed.


Stay away, or come, or come

just this far—you and I are

here, the compound of us,

a colossal conjunction.


And the calendulas in the field

who are riddled

with life-spark and flaws.


Let’s take a stab

at the dark, let’s

time our tea,


if we have tea,

if we have time.