Margaret B. Ingraham

Unraveling the Riddle of Our Sphinx:

A Recollection for My Niece

      There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
      The earth, and every common sight,
       Did seem to me
       Apparell'd in celestial light,
       The glory and the freshness of a dream.
                   —William Wordsworth
                   Ode on the Intimations of Immortality
                    from Recollections of Early Childhoodnal, New Mexico

Remember in the haze of summer evening
when the moon was weakly falling back
behind the humid weight of August air,
as we sat talking we sensed some strange
other presence there and heard the whirring
of the wings before we ever saw the thing
dart resolutely toward the purple petunias
cascading over the edge of the planter box.

"Hummingbird," I said. "Ruby-throated
but female, I am sure, it is so pale;
even in this dusky light the gorget
would flash red, if it were male."
Hers was an hypnotic flight that held
us spellbound as she hovered
above each bloom, stealing nectar
from the depths of blossom's core
until, as mysteriously as she'd come,

she turned and flitted at a distance past
nimbus of light around the glass hurricane,
not drawn by candle's rippling flame,
but satisfied enough to travel on.
Then we saw she was not bird at all
but some dull imposter who had
dared beguile us with her flight
not for our pleasure but for herself
in surrender to the thing she was.

Months or years later I chanced to find
a warning in the definitive field guide,
a note that often even expert birders
misidentify those nocturnal visitors:
"Large sphinx moths (Sphingidae)
might be mistaken for hummers,
but seldom visit flowers before dusk."
We were clearly taught that much, but might
have missed the writer's afterthought:
"The routine acts of nature might be
mistaken for a kind of splendor
but rarely are they recognized as such."

Is that what we should make
of our own conclusion, the common
mistake that looks raw splendor
in the eye and then, when it veers
too close to a consuming light,
transforms it into nothing more
than common sight?



What the Mountain Knows

      Three things are too wonderful for me;
      The fourth I do not understand.
                   —Proverbs 28:18

Mountain, there are three things you know
that I have long held in wonder;
the fourth, perhaps together we can ponder:

first, if primal light had a regular pace as it broke
across your face and if there was music when
moon and stars aligned above your brow each night;

second, if it was the wind that taught the wolf
to howl or if the wolf gave voice to the wind
and if could you hear it then—the wind,

I mean—before the low-meadowed places
were filled with the reeds and nimble grasses
it could trill beneath its long green breath;

third, as you watched leaves twist and flutter
and clouds race and rushing currents refuse
to break over the small stones they smoothed,

if you ever longed for what seemed like the power
of wind and water as they made their fleeting prowess
known by moving things and then by moving on;

and fourth, when pulse of light at last grows far
too faint to paint the valley floor and weary wind
wanders off beside the sullen wolf and water leaves

its river beds unmade and saplings and old trees
relinquish every leaf and lake turns into glade,
where will you look to find your still reflection?

After the Diagnosis

there were no arguments
and the house next door
seemed too quiet
to be the place
I had always known
except the evening when
for a few hours respite
my father and his sisters
and their mother left me
there to sit with him
and agony no doctor could tame
wrenched his gut and he let go
a sound I could neither name
nor tell anyone else about
not then not now not anymore
than I can explain how
to parse the strange syntax
of love and pain
of light and dark.