A Stand of Cottonwood

Carl Dennis

I’m glad to be here, amid these cottonwood trees,
Feeling the wind from the lake on my face,
Sniffing the marsh smells and lake smells
As I listen to the calls of unseen shorebirds.
And I’m glad as well to acknowledge my civic coordinates:
To be standing fifty yards from the Coast Guard Station
Barely half a mile from downtown Buffalo,
At the western edge of the Empire State,
Which might have taken more care of its shore line
Had it been ruled, now and then, by an emperor.Self-seeding cottonwood that began to root
Some forty years back, I’ve read in a pamphlet,
After the beach shacks were torn down and dredges
Stopped dumping the sludge from the channel here.
Trees that like their feet to stay wet while I
Am thankful for the boardwalk path
Lifted a yard above the cattails.Of the dozen birds named on the sign
Beside their outlines, I can barely claim to know one
By sight or sound. But that doesn’t mean
I’m too old to learn. Already I can distinguish
Their calls from the traffic noise blowing in,
Now and then, from the Skyway, and the ship horns,
And the lunch-time bells from the Cathedral.Maybe when I learn to listen, I’ll hear
The tree toads scratching, or the tree roots
Gripping the stone-rich soil and drinking,
Or the termites tunneling in the logs—
All oblivious to how close they are
To what used to be numbered among the top three
Grain ports of the western world.So what if the grain is stored elsewhere now.
It’s time to focus on the life at hand,
Which explains why I’ve donned my safari hat
And brought my binoculars:
Because it’s now or never if I want to become
Familiar with the residents of my neighborhood,
Including these pioneer cottonwood
Rising above the boardwalk
And the birds unseen at rest in the canopy.And why not include the three fellow pedestrians
Now approaching at a leisurely pace,
Who nod when I nod, as if they knew me
Or knew my kind. “Look, here’s another
Late-blooming, cottonwood-loving creature
With a northerly range.” Or, “Here’s another
Self-appointed surveyor of urban wetlands
Who hopes to learn on the job
All he needs to know.”

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Carl Dennis’s thirteenth book of poems, Night School, which contains the two poems included in this issue, will be published by Penguin Books in April 2018. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2002 and lives in Buffalo, New York.

New Letters

Volume 84, Number 1

Kansas City, Missouri

University of Missouri-Kansas City

Editor: Robert Stewart
Assistant Editor: Ashley Wann
Administrative Director: Katie Taylor

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—Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio book critic

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