The Lowest Key

“…the poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet”


Lately, I have had a lot of free time. It has been hard to find time to do much, what with all my time taken up in being free.

Passing the slow, quiet days in and around my apartment, treading familiar ground, I am sometimes lucky enough to find my little world grow larger, more connected and fantastic.

At the base of my front door steps a pile of oak leaves has gathered, peppered with broken acorns. I look up at the oak branches, branches I’ve never looked at before, where these exact leaves and fruits must have shaded my first steps to the street, spirit-like, in summer.


Walking along the driveway, too, I notice the Japanese paper fox balloon hanging from my kitchen window. It was taped there a few years ago as an afterthought and forgotten. Now, the fox seems to be staring at the neighboring apartment’s window. How long has the fox stared this way? Have my neighbors felt watched? Watched over? Protected?


Behind the house, one tree is bare of leaves but full of squirrels, although it’s easier to hear them than to spot them. The tree must be full of nests.


Last winter, on a late January night, a Chinese family gathered in the adjacent parking lot and launched traditional New Year’s paper lanterns. One lantern, on its ascent, flew into the tree and caught fire. It burned, the flame growing larger and larger in the wind, threatening to sweep to the garage roof. The lantern became tangled in the bare branches, though, and the fire extinguished there a few minutes later.

It was the last lantern they sent up. But others were still visible in the sky, sailing off at intervals—lanterns with ¨chambers,¨ like those Elizabeth Bishop describes, that ¨flush and fill with light/that comes and goes, like hearts¨:

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

(from ¨The Armadillo¨)