Poems by John Smith

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by John Smith

From Canary Winter 2010-11

John lives on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River in the Lower Delaware watershed.

I come for the stubble,
for the honey brown
and blackened rows
of corn stalks stitched
in strips of snow and
dried grasses, wind-
rattled free of all but
the most stubborn seed.

I come for the rough-
legged hawks that rode
noríeasters down from
the arctic, come to see
their feathered strength
and patient talons hover
above shivering fields.

I want to witness the
persistence of harriers
swooping in low, back
and forth between rows,
until the last of the light
for mice and voles
from snug burrows.

I come to give thanks
for my ease and comfort
and ask forgiveness
for having taken too little
care of these, the bare
trees and fleeting river,
the horned larks
and snow buntings
pecking seed cast
on asphalt at my feet.

I come to apologize
for my trespasses,
renew my pledge,
and pay homage
standing, silent
in the salted cinders,
listening to swirls
of snow geese bark
like a choir of seals,
my eyes fixed on wing tips
dipped in black ink
and what they write
on beams of light between
the cloud-smudged sky
and white fields
drifting over
Oberly Road.

Birder's Last Blessing

by John Smith

From Canary Spring 2011

Leave the binoculars behind.
What good has bringing birds closer
brought them, anyway?

Let species spring
unidentified branch
to branch

and catapult
into the scrambled alphabet
of clouds.

Let wings alone
be sufficient, a glint of indigo,
dusk’s fluted calling

spiraling to earth
like a handful of leaves,
the feathered thing before you.

May the names of all thirty-six warblers
—if you ever had them—
be the first to go.

May nothing fly from
the field guide of your mind
when iridescent emerald zipping

zips by a Kool-aid-red feeder
hooked like bait
on the neighbor’s gutter.

May you hover sipping nectar
from scarlet trumpets mid-flight
in nobody’s garden.

Published in the Edison Literary Review


by John Smith

From Canary Summer 2011

Do you remember your first bird,

the way it scuttled across the lawn, stopped stiff,

tilted its head, and listened to the earth?

Don’t you still need to hold still sometimes

and feel the world underfoot?

Aren’t you plucked from this life

by such singing as unthreads each day,

struck by shadows soaring past your feet

and scaling the very buildings

that tower in your way?

Isn’t a black silhouette perched in every tree?

Who among us hasn’t sat up with the owls

interrogating the night?

Who hasn’t been knocking on dead wood for years,

flapping through life, season by season,

squawking and warbling, warbling and squawking,

migrating, migrating, migrating?

Don’t we all live on the wing,

teetering in the wind,

from one nest to the next,

compelled by our own singing?

Previously published in the Literary Review

Capsula Mundi

by John Smith

From Canary Fall 2016

When I first heard
of capsula mundi
world capsules
egg-shaped burial pods
made of biodegradable starch
planted in cemeteries
instead of caskets
and seeded
so that the body inside
fertilizes a tree
and funereal plots
become starter beds
from which the dead
rise as woods
convert a graveyard
into a forest
I wanted to be sown
nourish a sycamore
by a river
or a willow
but not for the weeping
rather the breeze
through my hair
or a birch tree
for the un-peeling
like pages of a book
opened by fire
anything other
than boxed in a casket
or ashes scattered
on wind and wave
I would rather
be left out in the open
and torn apart by vultures
not afraid to be feed
but to be part of a forest
would be marvelous
maybe a maple
with strong limbs
for climbing
and a green head of hair
full of whirligigs
and shade.

Previously published in Spillway.

Great Swamp

by John Smith

From Canary Fall 2011

As kids we skinny dipped
in the Passaic River
off of White Bridge Road
where the water made a clean break
from the Great Swamp
and headed south.

Swinging out over the stream,
we let go the rope
and parted water,
plunged our toes deep
in the leechy mud
then sprang back
and broke surface with a scream.

We took turns at the rusty wheel
of an abandoned Chevy
imprisoned by birch trees
and told bloody stories
of young lovers parked
in the murky dark.

We believed in campfire guitar,
our smoky voices rising
like tributaries
into the mouth of the night.

But even as we sang,
the river was dying.
National Gypsum dumped
asbestos in the water downstream
—the first of many things
we weren’t aware of
on the way to the ocean.

Previously published in New Jersey Audubon.


by John Smith

From Canary Winter 2011-12

If my father were alive and driving,
he would have pulled over
on the shoulder, braved traffic,
then threshed through the downcast
corn rows and cropped
the blackened sunflower
nodding among them.

He would twine it to an eyehook
in the basement beam to dry out
for future arrangements
alongside of motherwort, milkweed,
snakeroot, carrion flower, wormwood,
heal-all, Queen Anne’s lace,
angelica, and sweet everlasting.

My father rummaged all four seasons,
but there was something about fall
he had to gather and salvage,
something he needed to maintain.
He believed in the afterlife
of remnants and practiced
the art of arranging the remains.

"Remnants" was published in the New Jersey Audubon

Sea Glass

by John Smith

From Canary August/September 2009

Hunched over
            like an egret,
my sister, Margaret,
            rummages barefoot
through a shoreline
            sharp with shells.

She can spot
            a speck of sea glass
and snatch it
            from the backwash
faster than you can say
            mea culpa.

Shards that aren’t soft,
            Margaret tosses
back in the froth,
            keeps only the worn,
frosted scraps of light,

            with a jagged past
thrashed around
            so long they’ve been
sanded down,

rounded off,
            smoothed over,
dull, but translucent
            and elusive.
My sister
            has spent

half a century
            of summers bent
on a handful
            of cobalt blue,
a few riptide rubies,
            an orange pearl or two

Seaside Heights

by John Smith

From Canary Summer 2012

This is the ocean before memory,
and those are the pelicans my grandfather
told me used to pilot the waves
before I was born.

I swear thatís the same dolphin
that surfaces in my dreams,
and this is the sea glass my sister and I
gathered and polished like gems.

I understand what water means.
I have been thirsty all of my life.
Still, no matter how long itís been,
Iíve never forgotten how to swim.

Iíve seen the sea blue, gray, and green,
sharp as a bed of shells
and stellar with jelly fish.
And Iíve suffered its undertow.

So I take the sand very seriously,
and this year the beach grass
stitched in rows across the young dunes
is a promising binding.

But I know the waves, like pages
in the book of all there is to know,
turn over themselves as they come
and into their own as they go.

"Seaside Heights" was published in an anthology: Under a Gull's Wing† (as "Lavallette")

What I Wanted of Milkweed

by John Smith

From Canary Fall 2012

I picked a milkweed pod from a field
and propped it in a vase on my desk
then made a game with students
of watching it shrivel dry, day by day,
and split open. While we trudged through
another novel, unlocked another plot,
a slit widened from the base of the casing
and spread to the tip of the husk.
It was the slowest opening any of us
had ever witnessed, the softest shedding.
Whenever anyone swept by or undid
a window anywhere in the classroom,
white hairs trembled inside, then peeled from
a gray pouch, and tumbled on the breeze.
I wanted to see who among the passing
between bells would notice a wispy cocoon
bottled on a desk and not be able to resist
stopping in for a second, risk being late
for class, just to stroke the silk tufts
with a fingertip, maybe even pinch a seed
from a gray pod, dangle it in front of pursed lips,
whisper a wish, and blow it away with a kiss.
I wanted to know how long it would take
to fill the hallway with feathery white spheres
and an entire student body, distracted
by frayed bubbles bobbing around them,
turn away from lockers and friends.
Caught up and spun by a sudden draft,
I wanted to watch teenagers dip and weave,
careen off the walls on the way to physics
and history. What else is there to wish for
if not that a corridor of milky green tiles
and fluorescent lighting be quietly converted
into a swirling field of snow?
What knowledge is worth chasing after more
than that we can clasp in our hands?
How far have we come if we aren't struck downy
and transported by the world around us,
if we can't open our lives to what's sown
on the wind and drift into class late
but inseminated, or better yet, turn
at the first exit sign we find, burst
through the fire doors, and climb the sky?

"What I Wanted of Milkweed" was published in Journal of New Jersey Poets

Winter Sunflowers

by John Smith

From Canary Winter 2017-18

When I take the back road home
and bend around a field of sunflowers,
late summer, it buzzes bright yellow.
Days like this, though, early winter twilight,
windless gray stalks stand so still,
they get lost in the dusk-trodden sky.
The field looks like a cemetery plot;
each charred seedpod, either a disc-
shaped shower head or a black and white
checkered brooch. And up close,
a house fly eye magnified or a wasp's nest
full of empty cubbyholes. Every bloom
that once, chin-up and brilliant,
marveled at the sky as if it were a blue mirror
with its yellow face shining in the center,
now hangs low, humbled, plucked clean
of seed. Last year this time, cherry trees
surprised New Hope with winter blossoms.
Not this turn around the sun. This rotation
evenings descend into nights earlier than ever
and the days are not much brighter.
Yet, to have been granted this bend, this
lucky wheel, and these sunflowers,
once green-stemmed and blazing; now,
blackened. But no less miraculous.
And having done nothing to deserve them.

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