When a cormorant perched on a roof aboard ship,
my father, though his face was reddened and parched
from years at sea, did not know what it was,
and took camera to catch the question for his wife,
out on the roof as close as the bird might allow.
It looked around, shuffled its wings, but stayed posed,
while he clicked the shutter, wound the film,
stepped twice as close for a second picture,
three times as close for the last frame on the roll.
As if the bird sensed his attitude change
after the cycle of images was complete,
it flexed its legs and hopped into flight from the ship,
beating its wings on a straight course close to the waves.
My father stowed his camera, went back to work,
had the roll developed at the next port,
was surprised at how well the bird came out.
My mother got a letter with “What is it?” clipped
to three pictures of a bird she could not name.
My mother paints a canyon from
a picture in a calendar.
I watch the square end of her brush
fit and shape magenta rocks,
two cliffs with an opening
to green hills and a purple mountain.
She says this place is called the Garden
of the Gods, this desert valley
with a dark-brown twisted tree in front.
The names of colors in oil paints
are different from colored pencils:
chestnut brown is called burnt umber,
magenta, alizarin crimson,
and there is no peacock blue.
Every few days or once a week
I come inside and smell turpentine.
My mother keeps toning down the rocks
though I told her I like them bright.
She works so hard, changes so little,
waits so long for it to dry.
I can only watch her paint
if I don’t ask too many questions.
She makes a sudden decision,
scrapes all the white and yellow ocher
off her palette and makes one stroke
with her palette knife under the rocks,
telling me that this is the sand
and now she has to let it dry
for at least a couple of weeks.
I like that stroke. None of her other
paintings has anything like it.
Frank Raffel worked for Republic Steel,
a gravel-voiced man with a bald spot
he called the hole in his head.
He was a friend of my parents
who came to visit after work.
Linda and I called him “Uncle Frank.”
He took me to Pittsburgh
while she was still a baby
and showed me the Carnegie Museum.
After bright rooms of Greek Statues,
the corridor got dim.
A small but noisy waterfall
moistened the air with mist.
In a big glass case was a coal swamp,
lepidodendrons and calamites,
a shallow pool made of clear plastic,
a sprawling lifesize eryops
which looked so real, but there was more,
a great dark chamber with
five huge dinosaur skeletons,
apatosaurus and diplodocus
with long necks and longer tails,
stegosaurus with big plates and spikes,
allosaurus and tyrannosaurus
with open skulls and pointy teeth,
and on the wall behind,
a lifesize painting
of a dark gray tyrannosaurus,
mouth agape in a thunderstorm.
While all of us crouched in a basement corner,
I thought about my belongings upstairs
and wondered whether our house would be torn
from its foundations and swirl into the sky,
or would suction pull out the windows.
Static garbled the radio’s voices;
I had to be quiet, not ask questions.
I felt disappointed when it sounded
like only another midnight thunderstorm,
and fell asleep between lightning flashes.
In the morning when I saw the frightening
soot-black insides and jagged contours
of broken chimneys, the piles of rubble
and whole trees uprooted, I couldn’t believe
this was not enough to close the schools.
The damage was cleaned up so quickly that
I didn’t get to see much of the work.
By lunchtime the trees were cut up and removed,
and just a few more trips to school later,
the chimneys all torn down to be rebuilt.
Somewhere on the west side
of Rocky River Gorge
was a parking lot,
a lawn with picnic tables,
a way uphill through the woods
where Uncle Frank and I walked.
I don’t remember if this
was his idea or mine,
or if Linda was with us.
Everything looked big to me then.
The old trees covered the sky
with domes of leaves.
Over the edge, I saw
a cliff with layered rocks
on the gully’s other side.
We climbed beyond the gully.
It wasn’t exactly a climb,
we never had to hold on with our hands,
but it was a long walk uphill.
The farther we went, the wilder
and more beautiful it seemed.
When we reached the top,
I was so disappointed
to see houses and yards.
The park filled the valley.
We were back up in the city.
The car was at the bottom.
From here I could see all the way
down to the river and road.
Going back didn’t seem so exciting.
As a child, I had an accidental goddess,
a personification of evolution.
The books I had about natural history
said that Nature created or designed,
capitalized like a person’s name.
The boys next door and across the street,
all Catholics, tried to tell me
God created the heavens and the earth.
I told them Mother Nature did all this.
I didn’t understand their unfriendly Father
obsessed with sins and souls, but I was scared
and asked my mother about Nature and God.
I don’t remember her answer.
When I was nine years old,
kneeling on the rug, trying to pray,
I strained my mind to remember
what I was before I fell asleep
and dreamed this life.
Outside, the crickets chirped
in the summer starlight.
I thought of red giant stars,
huge as the orbits of planets,
with names like Epsilon Aurigae.
I thought of trilobites and coal swamps.
I’m here and here is vast, space and time,
but is it too vast to be a dream?
copyright © 1979 - 2005 Carl Miller
A scrapbook from my parents’ house enables me to date the first Pittsburgh museum visit to July 24, 1957. Drawing, “Home in Cleveland”: 2004, gel pen on paper, 6 x 10 inches. I lived here till I graduated from college.