Kristina Moriconi is a poet and essayist. Her work has appeared most recently in Cobalt Review, Change Seven, Crab Creek Review, december, and is forthcoming in Brevity. She earned her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington, and she lives and teaches now in the Philadelphia area.
To Make It Make Sense
—for Judith Kitchen
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.
—Robert Frost, The Oven Bird
Along the Schuylkill River, in the midday sun, a single Birch tree appears pure white. I call it the ghost tree. From every direction, I snap photographs. From above, high on a hill. From below, just beside the trunk. In this way, I grieve. I document. I sit in shadow, record the light.
Along the footpath, I collect leaves, name each color: ruby, copper, gold. At home, I will curate, construct small-scale exhibits of what conjures and reminds: stones, leaves, bird feathers, pieces of curled bark from the ghost tree. I will classify, sort, scan my shelves looking for—needing—the comfort of these things. I will pick them up, run my fingers along the lines, the curves and angles, feel the weight of memory each one holds.
In my pocket, always, a paper crane. I recall my hands creasing hundreds, flocks I once made for Judith, mailed them one or two at a time. And, I am reminded, too, of the dream I had two nights ago, the night she died, how it woke me from sleep: paper birds circling above me in flight, unfolding into pages of her poems, looping and diving like kites.
On this day, I keep making my way back to the ghost tree in the woods, to a bench nearby where I sit and listen to birdsong, the rush of river water. She is gone. But I wonder what she would make of this tree, of its stark white. The white of Snow Goose and Herring Gull. The white of the smallest rings around the eyes of her beloved Oven Bird.
She taught me to push the limits of form, to challenge its conventions, and I do. What is shape becomes random pattern; what is sound, repeats.
I walk this afternoon without a trail map, wanting to be alone, lost. I wander ravine loops, uneven footpaths. Sometimes I imagine that I hear the Oven Bird, its singular song—teacher, teacher, teacher.
She is gone. But how determined I am to keep her with me, somewhere in the incomplete sentences, the half-thoughts. I am left with so much still to learn.
It all connects. Her words, how they weave and braid themselves into story. White to flames to water to night to want to change to time to after. And then it returns again to white. “White upon white.”
It is November when she dies. This is what she would say—dies. Death deserves the dignity of an honest word.
After that, winter comes fast, wraps itself around our new home, a white-washed brick cottage in the woods. What is brown falls, it crinkles and blows away. It gets covered, waits to decay beneath the first snow. The deer come and I cannot leave the window. A white-tailed doe and her fawn linger, strip leaves from the stems of tall weeds. I witness. I observe. In this way, I grieve. I think about feeding them, leaving carrots and corn at the edge of the woods.
A stack of Judith’s books stays on my writing desk, her last email to me pinned to a corkboard above where I sit. Everything she has written reminds me: Be curious. Question. Wonder. Hold on to what intrigues. Preserve what remains.
In spring, green pushes through the garden soil, pointing like fingers toward the sky. Grow, I whisper, bloom. I want to know everything that remains, what is hidden, what has been left behind. The family of six who lived here before us moved out in a hurry.
Already, I’ve unearthed a wedding gown in the basement, yards of white satin and lace balled up on the dirty wet floor.
Outside, tightly wrapped buds fringe the branches of winter’s brown; I wait for the shock of color, the surprise, each shade unveiling itself as part of a larger plan. What ended suddenly here will soon be eclipsed by the story of what carries on; roots will take hold, keep new soil from washing away.
We dig holes deep in the freshly tilled earth, plant Juniper and Chokeberry, Hibiscus and Big Blue. Artifacts exhumed from the ground in the front yard are piled along the new fence. Objects from another life, small bits from a family, extinct:
Four baseballs I imagine being thrown by a father before he left, before weather frayed the seams, exposing layers of string wound around a cork center underneath. Three disembodied plastic arms of action figures. Somewhere, Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America abandoned, each without an arm. And a boy who has tossed what remains of his heroes into a toy box, never to play with them again.
Two glass marbles: crystal blue Cat’s Eyes.
One plastic egg, still waiting to be found, hidden once by a mother or a father in the hollow of a log, before something cracked it open, took what had been tucked inside.
Broken pieces of a blue and white Spode plate.
At a local art center, I attend the opening of an exhibit that features one of my college professors from almost thirty years ago. The pieces are large in scale, made of porcelain, a clay that comes from the earth as pure white. The myth of its fragility is what we know. But here, in these sculpted cliffs and ledges, in these boulder fields and canyon walls, it is strong. Hard-wearing. It is the earth itself.
Judith’s words return to me once again. Testing me. Daring me. “What else has gone unnoticed?” I hear her ask, as if she is standing right beside me.
I look at each piece from far away then up close. I circle around, bear witness to what is there and what has been left for me to imagine: the effects on a landscape of wind and water, earthquakes and glaciers, of geological shifts and faults. Scars etched deep, perhaps by digging and plowing, by drilling and hollowing out, by building fences and strip malls and housing developments on acres of sold-off farmland.
In my mind, I wander.
It is all a matter of perspective. Point of view.
“Isn’t she looking for some way to make it make sense?” Judith asks, somewhere near the middle of The Circus Train. I study her practiced meandering: a sudden shift from first person to third, then, on the next page, a slide into second. I follow closely. Join her at each standpoint from which she sees and considers and interprets.
That May, on our last drive through the mountains of West Virginia, we stop again at Coopers Rock, look out over sandstone cliffs down to the river gorge twelve hundred feet below.
My oldest daughter has graduated from college and is making her way from here to a new life in Manhattan. We stand side by side, our hands on the smooth pine guardrails along the edge of the lookout, and I think about how things change, about time, about distance and direction and miles clocked on odometers, about the evermore intangible idea of home.
The sound of water rushing through the canyon, wearing through solid rock, reminds me how so much of what happens is bound and fated long before.
I turn back as we leave, knowing I may never see this place again. At that moment, the clouds seem to almost touch the high cliffs. Vast plumes hang thick and heavy, and I wonder what Judith would make of this sky. Maybe she would call it alabaster. Or milk glass. Or bone.
Weeks later, on the beaches of Cumberland Island just after a storm, I stand over the skeleton of a dolphin, its body decaying in the sand. The waves have left behind a fringe of sea foam along the shore. Blooms of algae cover tangles of kelp, driftwood, egg cases of the knobbed whelk.
I have taken her lessons with me, out to this remote place. Here, I can stop the rush of everything; I can listen and look more closely. With a stick, I lift open the dolphin’s long maxilla, count the cone-shaped teeth. I pry apart the spine, slip vertebrae into my pockets like souvenirs.
I keep walking, discover one still life after another. They are mine to study. The shell of a horseshoe crab. The beak of a Spoonbill. Bones of the Wood Stork.
At home, in a bucket of bleach, I soak all of the bones I’ve collected, admire how white I am able to get each one.
“White is the color of faith,” Judith has written somewhere. And I remember. And here, surrounded by these bones, this remembering becomes a meditation. Quietly, I fill a bowl with the shells I’ve gathered, moon snails and heart cockles, inside each one, the sheen of opal and pearl.
I begin to wake early each day, greet the silence. In our new home, surrounded by the natural world, I learn to distinguish one birdsong from another, to lure sparrows and finches with seed. I take note as Mourning Doves peck below the feeders, bustle and flap. In this way, I grieve. I stay perfectly still. Cardinals dash out from under the cover of a long-leafed Rhododendron, a flash of red across the lawn, their whistles, a series of syllables in code.
There are sounds a season makes, ways it insists on being heard. Today, it is one year since she died. I have returned to the woods along the Schuylkill River, to the ghost tree and the bench nearby. I think it is quiet, until I hear her in the rustle of leaves: listen. A gentle wind whispers questions in the sway of half-undressed trees: “Remember?” “See?” “Left alone, who would I like to be?”
The temperature is unseasonably warm, unlike this day last year when I wore a hat, gloves and a scarf, when I shivered as I sat here carefully recording the day in words I thought she might select.
Today, in the sun, even the light sweater I am wearing feels too warm.
I walk along Cattail Pond Trail, kick at piles of leaves to look underneath for the log where last year I had written her name and the date in permanent black marker. In this way, I had grieved. I had left behind a secret—a remembrance, a whisper, a repressed scream.