June Field with Fireflies (Wyman Park Dell, 2014)
For Carol and Ruth
When they have gone extinct,
As some say they will,
Who will remember this darkening field,
The slow rise of their lights
Out of the grass, each one alive
And signaling; then, as the earth leans
Further into shadow, how they go forth
And multiply, like houselights in the dusk,
Cities in the shimmering air of a vast plain;
Sparks, there and gone,
Riding the first breeze of creation
High up among the leaves?
Even now, as I brush your hand,
We hold each other, and your lips
Touch mine, they are already out
Under the sky, distant galaxies
Dragging all of time and darkness
With them off into a summer night
Which will soon itself be less real than a dream.
Madman Among the Fireflies
I had promised a friend I would write a poem about fireflies for her and I had tried and tried, but the poem would not work. It was a collection of beautiful details with no real focus, no reason to exist. One June evening I wanted to reimagine it, and so after dinner and a few glasses of wine, I decided to go back to the dell, a park just a block away from my Baltimore rowhouse. At dusk, I knew, the fireflies would rise above the grass all around me like a floating city, ascend to eye level riding the tide of evening, then scatter among the trees into the darkening sky. I expected quietness and peace, a few dog walkers and maybe one or two lovers of fire flies.
I parked myself on a bench and waited as the sky paled and darkened, enjoying those lovely moments when the air itself seems to glow a lucent violet and then gradually shades into purple, the lull of traffic and the city lights partially screened by the thick leaves of June; the dog walkers whistling softly to call their dogs as they left the dell for home. In the broad quiet, only a few scattered unidentifiable silhouettes were sitting on the stone retaining wall surrounding the grassy lawn. I imagined I heard the rustle of the lightning bugs as they climbed to the end of each blade of grass. Soon I saw the expected blur of their wings, their sparkle against the grass–a hundred thousand living messages signaling loneliness, lust, or hunger. Some males flashed a secret message to a potential mate, while some females preened and winked to lure in the male of a different species. It was raw survival, a carnival of life and death, I knew, but something in me nonetheless responded with a rising, widening joy.
Then a savage sound bit right into me. What in Hell was it, the roar of a wounded beast, a groan, a strangled scream? It repeated itself in the darkness under the trees. On the oval blacktopped track around the edges of the park, that guttural, throat-tearing roar sounded about every five seconds. One could feel the constriction in the throat, the raw pain in it. Was it some terrible suffering? Was it rage? Was it meant to intimidate? Was some tortured hell inside a body trying to open the gates and flee? It was one of those cries when the animal and the human combine in a way that chills the blood.
As I sat on my bench, I saw him emerge from the shadows as he followed the oval track past me. He was a scrawny man likely in his forties with long brown hair and a thick beard in a T-shirt and jeans. He looked like an aging hippy, like a starving, undersized lion on the loose as he tilted his head back and let out his growl about every five paces. He did not glance at me as he passed and went round the track. I tried to grab hold of the shreds of my serenity, to refocus myself. The night was still adazzle with ascending light–but I tracked his progress cry by cry in spite of myself as he went about his orbit like a bad moon.
He passed every five minutes or so, his growls growing fainter then louder and clearer as he approached on his circuit. The few other barely discernible human shapes in the park seemed to pay him no mind as if his journey was a nightly occurrence as was the cawing of the crows that were assembling in the tallest poplars like pieces of darkness– Now I am somewhat jaded to madmen, given the cast of regulars in my neighborhood, and a sweet breeze was in the leaves; the evening star was high and bright as a molten nickel. But the poem had slipped away again and I gave it up. Something very near was bleating and growling. Something was eating itself alive.
As I struggled with myself, he went by me for the seventh or eighth go round, made the tiniest nod and tossed off a Hello as he passed. Startled, I quickly returned the salutation as he veered on his way. This broke some of the tension in me and it all seemed a bit less terrible. Maybe it wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounded. Perhaps he just had this impulse to roar and had come to the park so he could tear his heart out in peace. I still had a little of the glow of the wine in me, and I felt sort of sympathetic and friendly toward the strange fellow. I had noticed that some of the local madmen who shouted and ranted on the street would pause suddenly to say hello and talk quite politely, calmly and lucidly to those who greeted them before going full- bore back onto their rants again. Maybe– the afterglow of my wine said– it was possible to have a conversation.
Possibly it was out of a perverse curiosity, but I was still lingering a bit when I heard the soft laughter of a small group of young people– probably college students, and I like to think, out to see the last of the fireflies– as they came down the steps into the park and squeezed onto a bench not fifty feet from me.
It was now almost completely dark and being older and a long-time resident of the neighborhood, I felt a little protective of this hushed but animated little group of girls and guys. So as the madman arced by on his relentless orbit, I stood, leaned toward him, and said softly, confidentially, so only he and I could hear, Please don’t scare them; motioning my thumb toward the group of young people huddled on the far bench.
Ever so slowly, he lifted his face – – Out of a maw not two inches from me came a searing wind. The gates of hell suddenly flung open. As his rage bubbled and frothed, I was the FBI, the CIA, the Nazis, the Secret Police, the Narco squad, SAVAK, the KGB, every kind of jailer, torturer or cop known to man. I cannot remember the most horrible curses or the host of terrible things he called me, they were burned up in the super-heated air between us. But the list went on and on and on and might have been insanely comic, but for that incandescent wind of rage –like no anger I had ever known — which blasted my face. I was scalded inside and out. He ended his boiling stream of invective by insisting that I leave the park immediately, raising his arm and pointing toward the path out of the park like an Old Testament prophet.
When I finally recovered myself, fists tightening in my palms, I had the strongest desire to sucker-punch the little devil—being almost twice as big as he was. But then I thought, You want to punch a madman? You know it will only end in shame. Then the coward within me sniped …And you never know what a madman might do. I thought of arguing with him. What right do you have, fruitcake, to tell me to get out of the park? I thought next of discussing it rationally with him, Hey, what did I say that you find so terrible?
I could see myself, one of two shadow figures in the gathering dusk among the fireflies, tussling, shouting, arguing, appealing to desperate reason. Who, then, would know which was the madman?
I stood stark in the middle of that stillness and said nothing.
Then– in what seemed the dramatic end of a play in a great silent theater– I turned away and made toward the steps to go out of the park.
When I had nearly reached the top of the stairs, I looked back and down through the leaves. There he was in the middle of the wreath of branches, erect as a stone by my empty bench, hands on his hips, watching me– the fireflies circling, scattering, fading now far above our heads.
For a while afterwards, I could still feel the hot blast of wind as if something within me had been badly burned. Some terrible, mad suffering had singed me. Gradually, I began to see some humor in what had happened—But then, some weeks later, when I had nearly forgotten him– he passed me in the street, growling under his breath and carrying a broken violin.
At one end of Wyman Park Dell, on the northwest slope, among the hundred-year-old oak trees, there stood– until very recently– a bronze double-equestrian statute of the Confederate Generals, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. It had become a flash point for the angers provoked by Confederate monuments and so has been removed. The rectangular reddish marble pediment on which it stood is still there, an abandoned altar.
On the southeast corner is the Union Soldiers and Sailors’ Monument–a Union soldier urged forward by a pair of angels bearing laurel wreaths. Just behind this bronze memorial on rose marble is an arc of flowering cherry trees.
One could imagine the line dividing North and South ran right down the middle of the dell, as it does through the heart of this divided state and city. Mobtown, Monumental City, Charm City—where the park benches once read: Baltimore, the city that reads– quickly transformed by the city’s sardonic wit, into Baltimore, the city that bleeds. No wonder, ever since they emptied out the asylums in the late sixties, the schizophrenics, split personalities, and psychotics feel at home in this neighborhood park– in this city so divided against itself, between North and South, Black and White– where the sundry angers are always threatening to rise up.
The Dell is actually a dry streambed. From above, it looks like a large oblong bowl, slightly larger than a football field. What better place to watch the fireflies than at the bottom of the wooded slopes when darkness begins its advance across the wide grassy lawn.
One June evening, about four years ago, my wife and I had watched the fireflies ascend, the air full of blackwinged silhouettes, pale yellow lights like a phosphorescent tide rolling in, higher and higher over our heads. We were strolling the three blocks toward our Baltimore rowhouse–when we found Carol, our neighbor, out watering her garden. We overflowed with enthusiastic descriptions of the vision we had just beheld. So it was that Carol challenged me to write a poem about the fireflies, especially since a biologist had recently told her that they they would soon be extinct.
This is what sent me back to the dell on a June evening with half a belly full of wine to further the poem–where I encountered the madman who shattered it. Over the next few years, I wrote instead, Madman Among the Fireflies, to exorcise his rage. Though, still, on some summer nights, I have heard his animal anger echoing at three in the morning above the roll of thunder.
It took me three years to put the broken pieces of the poem back together. I wanted to keep the madman out of it, but then all I had was fireflies. I could finish the poem only after I put my wife back in it where she had been at the beginning. I didn’t realize that it was a love poem, and when I finally did, it became whole.