Fumbling with a Field Guide on the Back Arroyo Trail, by Matt Donovan

September 22, 2007

Fumbling with a Field Guide on the Back Arroyo Trail

I write ash in my notebook & think less of leaf-shape or branches
below me on the ridge than of acoustics, monosyllabics,
the need to evoke what remains, even if none of it corresponds
to this morning’s lit particulars: sage clumps & clustered indigo petals,

juniper & yucca blooms. Or what I’m guessing is cottonwood now.
I can name so little of this world & have been trying, hopelessly,
with a field guide again, to affix nouns to what’s within reach. For now
it’s even all I ask. To unfold my pocketknife, cut a single blade of grass,

to walk deeper into this silence & have it fill with words. Years ago,
during a performance at a church, I heard 4’33”,
a piece composed of nothing but silence that seemed to be only
a joke. The pianist bowed ceremoniously, then sat motionless,

poised, his fingers merely resting on the keys. A cough, mints
eased from cellophane. A snicker. Some wind-flung dirt.
And then the sounds from a practice room below rising up
through the floor: the opening notes of the Moonlight Sonata,

barely recognizable, barely played at all, hands cascading
in a bungling forte that lurched the melody a little further along
before the chords collapsed & whoever was playing pummeled the keys
& bellowed For Christ’s sake! Shit! & began again. Which made

the silence bearable. Which made the silence his & filled the room
with inaccuracies that gave us a reason for praise. Were it not
for these raven wings quickening the air, or the riverbed trickle
from yesterday’s storm when flash floods washed out whole roads,

this moment might approach silence too. This is only another walk
in which I try to learn words for whatever’s in my hand, in which
I’ll skim drawings of quackgrass & sprangletop & six bluestems
& recognize none of it & give up this gray-blue bit of scrub

&, despite today what I’d promised & planned, thread down the path
a few miles more where it dead-ends in a field of shot-up cars.
There, at least, amid the metal’s ruin & a sea of broken glass,
are the wild, indelible loops of graffiti, the retrievable,

effortless names: Oz Sucks Dick. Popper on the Loose. Dibz.
The Good Son. Sack D.
Many miles from here, trying to waste
an afternoon, I once found a deer collapsed near a lake — sleek,
immaculate, & unmoving except for its antlers, which swarmed

with orange-&-black-speckled butterflies that obliterated
the velvet beneath. Whatever word explains this,
I don’t want to know it yet. I only watched them open & fold
sporadically, or in what looked like unison at times,

& when even more flickered across the grasses & collected on its rack,
the deer became, because of their gathering, something else
entirely, & the insects became, too, as soundless & implausible
as the accents & breves that once covered a man’s book while he watched

from across a café. This is, at least, how it’s told. In Berkeley, in exile,
he glimpses a woman working, pen in hand, through a book of poems
he recognizes as his own. She seems almost frantic, scribbling
annotations & scanning each syllable, oblivious of the crowd

& plate-clatter around her, darkening everything she reads.
When finally he rises, & stands behind her, & watches her hand
now quicken across an elegy for his cousin, he sees the words,
as he put it, devoured. And knew that what he’d written — smoke,

a pair of trousers, quicklime, & clover
— was all wrong & would never last.

— Matt Donovan

One Response to “Fumbling with a Field Guide on the Back Arroyo Trail, by Matt Donovan”


  1. Elegant and beautiful.


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