When watching old men releasing their caged birds at dawn in New York City or a ladder of cranes rising from a field in Manitoba or even willow catkins in Alaska, Sexton is a keen observer of the interconnectedness of the natural and human worlds. Here we meet the wolf of Gubbio when he is old and lame and Li Bai chanting to a Yangtze River dolphin centuries ago, but no matter where he takes us we always come back to the landscape and people of Alaska; to cloudberries in a marsh and a wedding in the village of Ninlichik where he held a crown of gold over the head of the bride. Sexton carefully notes it all in his familiar practice of traditional forms and free verse. The tensions of his formal influences, Chinese and European, force the reader to experience these spare lines and tight observations in new ways.
First Anna’s Hummingbird Sighted in Newfoundland
“At first I thought it was a glint off the taillight
of a car on the road that runs along the bay.
It was dusk and I was about to make our tea,”
the older sister who was first to see it told
the reporter. “Then in the morning we saw
it at a feeder we’d forgotten to put away,”
the younger sister said. “It wore a bright red toque
and the greenest jumper that we’ve ever seen.”
“If we believed in the little people, I’d say it was
one of them,” the first sister said, “but we don’t
and they’re not seen until November anyway.”
Sleepless, I watch our birch trees glowing
even though it’s only 3 a.m. Not a sound
is coming from the snow-covered road.
How can snow be like light coming down?
This must be how angels once appeared
to the willing, their great wings silent,
filling the room with otherworldly light,
taking their hands, whispering, “Have no fear.”
Outside the cabin’s window, the November
snow is so deep it seems Li Bai’s frenzied
Immortals have left the safety of his poems
to grind all the clouds in the world to a fine
powder that they’re dumping on the marsh,
burying the black spruce, even the tallest.
When spring comes, the spruce will reappear
tilting in every direction, unsteady revelers,
green jackets glistening, wearing halos of pollen
while the last of the snow at their feet disappears.
Swans on Cook Inlet
After an early October storm, I watch a pair
of swans forced to take shelter on the inlet.
I’m late for supper, but I linger on the trail
remembering when my marriage was on thin
ice. I had left two of our tent pegs behind
and called my wife’s offered blueberries bitter.
I was angry. Our camp stove wouldn’t stay lit.
“Half a continent from home,” she sighed.
When a swan appeared in the darkening sky,
she said it was the Swan Maiden returning
to her father’s house. Our stove sputtered, died,
but I managed to keep our wet fire burning.
Her eyelids and hair were white with frost by dawn.
The tide’s rising. The inlet swans will soon move on.
Copyright notice: Excerpted from A Ladder of Cranes by Tom Sexton, published by the University of Alaska Press. ©2014 by University of Alaska Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Alaska Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Alaska Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)