Poems by Julian Hoffman

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by Julian Hoffman

From Canary Autumn 2009

Julian lives above Great Prespa Lake in a mountain valley in the southern Balkans.

The ancients named them the halcyon days, the irrepressible interlude. They arrive in the depths of winter like an unexpected friend, and for an unseasonable week or so a radiant warmth spills over the land. The hours swell with the prospects of spring, the luxurious light notching smiles on the most reluctant of faces. The days then slip out like a wistful sigh, fading as quietly as they came, and winter stills the land again.

The brazen warmth jostles the senses while it stays, upending occupations. There is an immediate change in the air: the hum of rural industry. The tree sparrows prepare nests with gathered chaff; onions are buried up to their shoulders in hastily dug plots; woodlarks spiral high to sing their elusive songs, as if liquid were tumbling from nowhere; and rugs are hung to air like an embroidered gallery. Villagers use sickles to sharpen the fat ends of canes, ready to be sunk into summer gardens for climbing beans. A wall lizard clambers over the old beehive; it is smaller than my smallest finger yet as eager for warmth as I.

The true expressions of spring, though, are few. The trees and meadows are pale with winter, as washed out as a found photograph. The hillsides are sparse, and ice still guards the river-edge. The halcyon days are a conjurer’s season – a sleight of hand or trick of the light – but no less exuberant for their false promise. In their convivial company you would be forgiven for thinking the end of winter was near, that it was safe to sow tender plants and clean out the wood stove, but that would be mistaking their significance. Rather, it is a time of gifts and small miracles - a brief brumal dance between storms.

The morning was already warm when we set off to climb a mountain near our home in northern Greece. We followed logging tracks, some still decked with snow, which corkscrewed through dense forest. It was like swerving along a border, in and out of time. The dark valley clefts and shaded woods were still winter-cold, where only a thin frosted light slipped through the lacework of branches, but when we stepped into a clearing, or along a sunward ridge, we were welcomed into spring like a shared celebration. A drowsy southern wind raked the leaves around us, and stubble fires smoldered on the plain below – the coils of smoke lifting like a kettle of cranes.

A few butterflies swooned in the sun: a red admiral wheeled above a reef of leaves; a peacock shyly showed its colors, as if uncertain of its claim; a tortoiseshell festooned a stone. It was their first warmth in months and they swam in it, draping their myriad designs over the pale places of winter. Around the bend fresh bear tracks crept past us in the crusted snow.

We found the fire salamander in a water tank whose cover had come away. It must have slipped on the stone lip and drowned beneath the fall of water when it couldn’t climb out. Its orange spots floated like fireflies in the dark depths.

The tank collected spring water to supply a village below, and my partner suggested removing the salamander. We looked for something to lift it with, unsure if its skin secretions were still harmful. The beech and oak leaves that surrounded us were too small, but a single maple leaf lay conspicuously near, as though its autumn arc had been intended.

It took three tries to scoop the dead salamander from the swirling water. I cradled it on the makeshift raft; its black skin glistened like oil, tear-dropped with bright flames. A foreleg trembled involuntarily, as if shaking the last of the water off. Then a back leg stuttered forward, followed by the foreleg again. We set it down with a sudden rush of joy. The moment of wonder had been unexpected, a keepsake in the season of gifts. For a few minutes the salamander delicately remembered its limbs, before ambling off with a twirl of its tail into a drift of damp leaves.

On our way down the mountain we heard woodpeckers drumming from the woods. Yellow crocuses had crested the soil to flower in the fugitive light. We walked the last of the valley in wintry shade, knowing the crocuses would soon quiver with cold, or be lost beneath snow. But for now they blazed like a hillside of rare suns.

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