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Cleopatra Mathis

Cleopatra Mathis

Cleopatra Mathis’ most recent books, from Sarabande, are White Sea (2005) and Book of Dog (2013), which won the Sheila Motten Book Prize. Her poems have appeared widely in anthologies, textbooks, magazines, and journals. Awards for her work include two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Born and raised in Louisiana, she has taught creative writing and English at Dartmouth College since 1982.

Set Apart

The dying is a good thing,
these old woods with their snags, a welter
veering downhill toward swamp. So many hollows
for nesting. And not so bad, the ugly galls
providing food. All the clearing away I once wished for,
mangled trunks, a clot of branches on the forest floor,
is not the chaos I imagined.  
Rounding the pond's slew of weeds,
I see it's still there: one full-grown maple
uprooted from the bank where it should have never grown,
storm-fall in October almost twenty years ago.
Those first three falls a profusion of autumn leaves
floated on clear water, the length of tree lying there,
going gray and good enough in its lasting
for the wood ducks, an assortment of predators
and unseen, the pair of herons, their nest
somewhere up in the tangle.
That white spill of uric acid might be an owl

signing the path. Oh, I won't miss my mania for saving—
believing now the design and the killing woven in.

Don't Think I'm Not Grateful

though it's true the pileated woodpecker
makes me chase his call—thinking him here,
then there, crosshatching the woods.
Little god, he proclaims and confuses
but those few clarion seconds
stop us all, all the rustles and twitters.
Isn't paying homage enough: why should I
catch his flashing red crest
in the clutter above?

I miss the late sun praising
the lake's eastern bank, I miss whatever jumps
from the rock, the splash exploding
a muddy bomb through the water.
As if on cue, the drumming

begins again, the woodpecker in a grub's tunnel
or excavating a nest site in a living tree
afflicted with heart rot. I'm waiting
for the heron, her body a puzzle of folds,
that self-erasure. But nothing graces me
with those few seconds of meaning.
All I see is late winter, the subtraction
of everything green.


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