An old white ash in the backyard of the abandoned house next door. It was a dry, cold, still day, weeks after the maple and walnut trees around it had lost their leaves but this tree still had hundreds which had not fallen, very large leaves bigger than your hands. I was out in my backyard with the dogs. With no cause such as a gust of wind and in the space of a few minutes, almost all the leaves of the ash tree fell to the ground. They were dry but heavy and dropped straight down like a bundle of mail or a suitcase, without the ceremony of wafting or drifting. As if the tree had just gotten the worst news in the world, perhaps that another tree it loved on the other side of the world had died, and dropped everything about itself onto its home’s floor that morning upon receiving the news. It was over in a hundred seconds. If I had not seen it I never would have noticed, or I would have noticed and not believed that something so sudden could have happened and thought simply Oh the ash tree finally lost its leaves while I was not paying attention. Not as if everything in the world had suddenly changed for it. In fact afterwards the tree essentially looked the same to me. I stood there a bit stunned watching those leaves fall, and then awhile longer watching the tree, still standing there, anticipating that it might shrug or even uproot itself and go marching off toward the mountain, but it looked unchanged to the rest of the world just as perhaps the rest of the world was now entirely foreign to it, and I remained there as rooted as anything in the yard, realizing how little we witness any of these moments in others, feeling that somewhere around the corner is a phone call or a letter or a conversation where we’ll each know exactly what it’s like to be that tree, and have the same chance to stay, rooted in what we most deeply are, unchanged to others even while dropping everything.
The half moon rides high in the ninth hour of morning.
The leaves on the ground are raising their hands
As if they all have the answer
To a question I am not ready to ask.
Through this small city most of the river is submerged
But I see it just past the fire station emerge like the ground
Hog nobody was waiting on and sniff the grass and its first
Frost. Then it dives back under a chunk of rock and
The express hotel beyond. Standing on that same grass,
Listening to its reminders, I almost reach down
To touch the silvered signature, but don’t. I know it will
Not be the last frost I see. But if it were
Would I want the thaw of the first and last
Of anything on my hands? Nor will
This memory melt, nor river run over.
Suddenly awake, writing in the dark, an hour
Before dawn this Thanksgiving.
The air outside as brittle as the century-old window
Above my bed. Out there light has receded into the stars
Like a dream catapulted away by waking
To a place you will never reach again
Though you were there, so far away,
Just moments ago, and were sure you awoke
Yourself to write down something about it
As quickly as possible, which is why you are
Writing in the dark, suddenly wide awake
And with a mind as blank as a black window.
Outside, stars have settled in the empty branches
Across the street. Pausing on their migration
To someplace warmer. A handful of others glow
On the ground, and I could be led to believe
They are really the brightly burning spirits
Of this world instead of street lights.
Up high, at the top of the window
The brightest, most distant ones sit.
Long dead, probably. Living in the moment’s
At its most relative when the moment’s brightest
Nick in the blackness is millions of years extinguished.
Living in the moment, I understand, can be
Living in the light of a source long gone,
In the words of a life ended in fire.
It is more than not forgetting; This light from the past,
your voice, these words—I will take it, I will demand it.
NOTE: It was about this time last year that I found out that an old friend of mine from college, Peter Liotta, had died in a car accident a year earlier. I knew Peter way back over two decades ago, when I was a senior at Cornell and he was an older grad student–already married and in his mid- or late-twenties–in the MFA program. I had printed a pamphlet of one of Peter’s poems, and we kept in touch for a few years as I went into bookselling and he published the wonderful Learning to Fly, as well as a book of poems and a novel. Picking up those books, and a newer title called The Graveyard of Fallen Monuments from 2007, I could discern Peter’s distinctive old-soul voice as clear as a bell. For awhile that voice remained with me in a particularly strong way, and I awoke in the dark of a Thanksgiving morning thinking on these things, and the result was this poem. //JSS
Note: Rambling through some old stored documents earlier this year, I came across a college literary journal from my Cornell days, and found in it a poem by a friend from those days, Gabe Spera. I wondered if he was still writing, and an online search quickly turned up that not only was he still writing poetry, he’d published a few books of verse and was alive and well and living in the city of angels. I touched base with him, and we’ve been trading poems back and forth since then. Recently he asked me to write an introduction to his work for publication in a catalog next year. The paragraphs below are the output of that effort. –JSS
There is nothing formal about this world. Our increments of measure can’t parcel pain or characterize a calm moment of love; the most advanced machines can keep us alive but not living. But still we measure. Like no other poet working today, Gabriel Spera happily explores this emotional arrhythmia of life, maintaining a wary lightness while understanding “all we are is what we’ve kept / of what we’ve touched.”
Like the skateboarder in Spera’s poem “Skate Park, Venice Beach” needs a man-made and challenging surface to rise to the occasion, the poet himself builds his work up out of and against gestures to imposing poetic formalism. He does so with an ease of wheel, with the grace and good humored fatalism of the skateboarder in his poem—knowing every great leap ends in gravity, every fall is the starting point of the next ride, that they are frustratingly and joyously entwined. It would be easy to write here that Spera negotiates passage between these opposing forces—the chaotic world and the reassuring rules of language—but that would assume an opposition that’s just another easy formality itself. Not opposing forces but aspects of a singular landscape to navigate, one that is often personal and subjective while subject to all the pitfalls and peaks of the objectively measured world.
For this voyage’s charter he claims those moments of wonder authenticated by difficulty, bringing them down to earth in a self-effacing way that makes us see the feat and not the featured acrobat. It’s the type of poetry that rewards and strikes personal depths without feeling personally confessional.
At heart Gabriel is a nature poet, and nature poets at their best perceive literal truths in ways that resonate without resorting to simile. He writes of “The Decorator Crab”: “He has made a landscape / of himself … / too poor to walk away from all / he’s hauled this far”; in a poem detailing the ravages of battling cancer he notes “though more and more / there was less of him to sacrifice.” You can scan the phrases above a few different ways, find enjambed and entombed pentameters, and it can enhance and color your reading. The formal qualities are not the trick, just the ramp’s angle that launches a message connected to nothing but the wild air itself, and your own reader’s ear.
There is nothing formal about this world. The seasons don’t care for the solstice, nor the trains for timetables. So how do we trust this verse that comes to us with the reliability of the metronome ticking out a time we can never quite keep in rhythm with as we pluck out the notes of our days on these imperfect instruments we are still learning to be? Because it’s more than a sound we set our clocks by. Gabriel Spera’s poetry runs the ragged banner of being up the flagpole of language and because of that we can see more clearly those things we’d give our life for.