Horatian Shuffles

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 39.)

By Jack Phillips

Our morning teachers bid us write odes light enough to be quickly reclaimed by nature and to make art that threatens to disappear altogether like mindful footsteps and traceless presences. After hearing odes by the fire we leave our sock-foot cabin to russet shuffles of oak and fallen bodies making gingerly our descent into favorite ravines on left-over snow.

Of Odes I prefer the Horatian variety so-described irregular in gait and contemplative in posture but no less exuberant of nature long ago recited with music and dance. All poems of path are walking words sending before us inscrutable turns making sense to deer anyway and possum and stoat and no bother to birdsong agnostic to rules of meter and feet. Wildness travels the matrix of spaces, the poetics of place.

A young woman draws and writes on a bed of moss or is she a well-maiden or woodland nymph? Figures climb a slippery ridge to extoll their goatly feats like children natively here. An open book releases voices, rising they mingle with daylight twisted and bent under weight of mulberry shadows, brambles. I rest in a hackberry buttress to wonder: can there be soul without body or a poem without a walk?

Something hidden slinks ahead each touch a cup or couplet, draws down eyes to earth herself a muddy muse. Climbs and slides, stride requires ponder among pussy-toed fungi. Everywhere scarlet-cups open some blush barely parting and brightly red, come so fragile gummy blood-drop vowels and soft consonants like fff… and shhh….



Sarcoscypha dudleyi in Iowa’s southern Loess Hills, January. Photos (from top left) by Billie Shelton, JoAnna LeFlore, and Becky Colgrove.