Judith McCombs











Hawk, After Storm


A flash of down-swept wings, maybe,

lost in the woods’ dripping green

as I glanced from my book—what shape did I see,

was it only a swoop of dead leaves?


Then you came over (all day we had sulked)

saying Look—past the lightning tree!

and I saw, just in time—you gave me our hawk,

gliding low through openings of green.






Each year these woods claim the hundred-year path

from farm to farm, brother to son.

Newcomers, desk people, we follow their steps,

saw and drag clear a storm-downed poplar,

cut back the long thorny whips of spent berries,

clip down to stubs the path-choking spicewood.

We are only woods-walkers, not hunters or gatherers.

We only keep clear the path we were shown

by arthritic Rosie, the last of the farm dogs,

plodding stiff-jointed into her woods.




The Space Between: Ice Haze, in a Bend of Woods


Bleak dawn,  yet a glory seen but once before

in this small ravine: a haze alive with light

rests on the winter-stripped young trees, as sun

back-lights the high tree tops, the roofs beyond.


And now you see, against the ribbed upright

of a poplar trunk, how simply clouds are made:

ascending from the sodden, ice-pocked earth,

white climbs and blooms, in a light beyond your reach.


Your breath behind the window glass is scarce

a part of this. Yet is. Upstream is dark,

below unlit; the haze now straggling white.


Voices wake, machines click on. Radiance

dissolves in day. You turn away, and miss

the hawk, broad-winged, who flies her circuit here.






Way before the dawn-dark shifts,

A narrow clearing, like some country

Lane you cannot place  The one

Who paces willing at your side

Pudgy, pale, his face a civil

Glistening smile  His hand a gentle

And relentless pull  You can

Not dodge or stop  You seem to have

No force, no aim  His comfort, stride

Become your own  Somewhere the dawn

Dark clears  Shapes well into your eyes

And now you know, or hope to know

That sweet reprieve  That opening, light



My Father Is Diving


My father is diving, my father who does not swim

plunges down through a glittering rectangle of water;

ticklish bubbles of sun trail at his heels,

in the moving web of light at the bottom he turns,

jackknifes, and rises, flinging his forelock

like a flop-eared spaniel. When he stands on earth

the water slides over his body like summer, like sun;

before I can praise him he dives and he rises again,

spouting the water, in this summer that never occurred

for my father who does not swim

(in snapshots he stands at the edge of the boardwalk,

heavy of foot, heavy of mouth,

eyeing the sea and finding her shifty):

for my father who has just gone under the surgeon’s knife

and who will emerge upright in a spinal brace

I remember this swimming day

and my father, who is old, is young.




from After the Surveyor’s Death


When the man left,

no storm flared forth from the sun, no god

bargained with death, no season trembled

nor stone took notice: no bird failed to soar,

nor weed to blossom: the earth kept turning,

and no number was broken.


When the man left,

weeks followed weeks, and the living kept living;

there was only, in the hearts of the next of kin,

a kind of thickening or scar, a deposit,

as of sediment laid down.


When the man left

the earth he’d surveyed kept slipping, distorting

the heights he had fixed; the faults of the continents

tugged at his benchmarks, undermining his stations;

the grid of his distances shriveled and bellied

beyond dominion.

He would have approved,

he would have welcomed all drift and creation,

new work for his numbers.




In the Year of Your Death


In the year of your death I drove North

alone, with only the child that was there,

no new one inside me. Road drifts and darkness,

coming in too late to the wilderness cabin–

the bay iced over, the track through the woods

ice over mud over ice, the low car

slewing in ruts, no place to stop–

why was I there?

In the year of your death,

at the northernmost spine of land before water,

the old trail to the point flooded over, half-ice,

not safe with the child. In the bowl of cedar

between bay ice and marsh, where no one could see,

the animal’s skeleton, headless, brass casings

beside it, around us the silence. The child

gathered the pelvis and blades of its shoulders,

made masks for her face till I stopped her

   touching your face at the viewing,

Why is he painted like that?

I didn’t say why.

In the rented cabin

the skull on a shelf, a candle inside,

souvenir from the hunters or gatherers before us.

The woodpile wet ice and wet pulp, I couldn’t

stop shivering, in thermals, in down; the bad tooth

broke off in my mouth. Deer tracks by the pump,

ice shouldering old ice out in the bay,

why was I there?

Packing out to the car,

the child balked in the drifts, I panicked

and had to keep going, I didn’t know why,

there was nothing but silence.




 The Traveller


You would have come by car, the old

squared grey sedan, the back way past

the unploughed field, slowing, turning

up the steep dark slope beside the garden

of my first owned home: I was kneeling, pulling

last year’s weeds from clay, when I heard

your car and saw its grey, the driver’s

window open and your elbow out,

your blue shirt fading out in greys,

light on your glasses, glinting, white,

your almost-smile: I saw you there,

that was the way you would have come.




The Inheritor 


September, and these cold hill streets where the Quakers

failed and died out. Beside the old road

spirea goes grey, goes bald, and the tame

barberry argues with gusts, claws

at the cold, useless as grief. Overgrown,

dying back, ivy billows and tugs

at old mortar, old walls. High overhead

blue sheetwinds of cold race for the South,

for the warmth, for the glaring great hill of sand

where my father lies dead and dead indeed

under heaven. Here shelter draws into itself,

crumbles like mortar. Here the great burial hill

pulls down its toothless stones, though the hands

on these soft Quaker tablets point upwards to heaven.

Here memory trails out, useless. Upright

against the cold I push the bundled child

of his bones, child of his eyes, child

of the year of his death. At the crest of the hill

I kneel and hold the bundled child

to warm my hands. Below, the empty

trees, the tame hill streets; the cold

earth falls away. We living build

on hills of sand, on hills of shifting clay.






In this dream that is mine

you are in your right body

red veins in your skin

your heavy head lifted

sun on your face

your worn blue shirt

soft at the sleeves, rolled up

your eyes

blue as mine

You are here, you are real

Your face

turns towards me, you are smiling

There is all the time left

We have all the time left in the world





CREDIT: The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New, copyright Judith McCombs, Washington, D.C.: The Word Works, 2005.

“In the Year of Your Death,” “The Inheritor,” and “Fragment” won Nimrod-Neruda Awards.








I grew up in almost all the continental United States, in a geodetic surveyor’s family. My poems appear in Calyx, MeasurePrairie Schooner; Innisfree Poetry JournalNimrod (Neruda Award), Poetry; and my fifth book, The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New. A former Detroit Arts College Professor and former visual artist, I was founding editor of Moving Out, which survived three decades as the nation’s second oldest feminist literary arts journal. I’ve held National Endowment for the Humanities and Canadian Senior Fellowships, and in 2009, Maryland State Arts Council’s highest Individual Poetry Award. I teach writing workshops at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, and arrange a poetry series at Kensington Row Bookshop in Kensington, Maryland.


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