Counting Time in Sticks (For My Ancestors)
People I never met but who must have known I was coming
have dreaded winter just as I do.
They too would ask release
and count perverse blessings
of lighter days as the air grows colder
the ground harder whiter harder
and fear itself envelopes,
being a real thing.
Before I was born they were
counting time in sticks
bundling the seconds
though not knowing these divisions
only knowing without divisions
there are no endings and no beginnings
and sometimes you need both.
They had no mittens and no books or catalogs of mittens
and no down throws with lofted ticking
and no monogrammed leashes because the dog himself
had not been invented and the wolves could and gladly would
eat your children (count them).
Which great-grandfather lying in the tired dirt of late November
invented the four strokes and then the slash
while looking at his hand
perhaps missing a finger?
Did a woman break twigs into equal lengths and line them up equidistant
to measure the days since last she bled?
(Each tilting stick a small death,
a slanting wedge of light above her.)
In the Book of Hours
sits at forest’s edge
and dries his boots above the fire.
The ghosted chapters on reverse
whisper August, harvest, maidens surely
and in the margins gold
laid by monks
drunk equally on purpose and absurdity
flickers like summer
in the heatless monastery.
How earnestly they lay the leaf and burnish,
my Irish cousins
their breath the perfect warmth
Yet in the museum
of the darker pages
in the basement where the docents never go
there you’ll find the wooden plank
where scratched the days
with a gilding knife,
in sets of five chased always by a ragged few,
Poem and drawing © Iskra Johnson
Above, charcoal and pencil, “The History of Counting”