Little Crown for the Alentejo

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Who wouldn’t fall in love with a spendthrift landscape
that decks out its entire self in rock rose,
garland upon garland upon garland,
as, one charmed April, the Alentejo’s
hills and valleys, with a thousand thousand
of these outsized milky blossoms welcomes me,
festooning every highway, every road?
Who knew a place could do this on its own,
without a host of gardeners? Maybe God
has had change of heart about Eden,
dismissed his angel – let people back in,
who, this time, are a good deal less unruly,
contented to leave well enough alone,
except for a few cork trees and some sheep.

Except for a few cork trees and some sheep,
it’s all woods, wildflowers, nightingales
and, overhead, a pair of circling storks
so regular they might be on patrol,
their high, unkempt nest a clear landmark
on my first walk (between a graceless leap
across a creek and the abandoned station
where I take a sleeping barn owl by surprise).
Emboldened, curious, I learn to bushwhack
through tangled brush, slip down a steep ravine
then up the other side, gauging the progress
of sprigs to buds to blooms. The thickets shake:
a wild boar, who tears off with a thwack;
I only ever manage to glimpse his back.

I only ever manage to glimpse his back
but I’m intimate with his telltale snuffle,
louder and faster as he hears my footfall
as if he’s gearing up for an attack;
I don’t think I breathe till he takes off,
though local boar have done no humans harm.
If there’s a troublemaker here, it’s I.
Even the loudmouth frogs go quiet
the minute I approach the water’s edge — .
though how they hear me above their racket
is anybody’s guess. The birds seem calm:
the nightingale enrapturing himself
and the storks deigning to keep me company
as I cross the abandoned railway bridge.

Me! on an abandoned railway bridge
that doesn’t even have an intact guardrail!
(Perhaps the storks suspect my fear of heights?
glide beside me to give me courage?)
It’s my only access to the cliffside
where there’ve been sightings of an eagle owl,
though not in a few years: just arcing swallows,
a huge pink patch of wild carnations
and cliffs, hills, creeks, cork groves, meadows
as far as you can see in all directions,
pastureland and wilds side by side
set off nightly by a fiery sun.
(These last days, I often catch the sunsets;
my walks get later, with the heat, come June.)

My walks get later, with the heat, come June,
which means I return in near darkness,
know the path by smell when there’s no moon
(wild lavender means halfway there ).
On one return, I’m pricked by quaking thorns
from a bramble harboring a snuffling boar.
I guess, in the dark, he holds his ground.
Paradise, it turns out, makes you reckless.
But what’s this? rising up from the ravine,
right in front of me, without a sound:
wings, level with my torso, opening
so very close to me, they might be mine.
Even from the back, I see his horns.
So this is how an eagle owl takes wing.

So this is how an eagle owl takes wing.
My host will doubt me, but it is he,
our shared split second in the semi-dark
(there is a bit of moonlight this evening)
a fleeting glimpse of everything beyond me,
like the after-echo, all flash and arc,
of a Perseid, half witnessed, come and gone
in sky half sky, half magician’s cape.
I’m left with the specter of a wingspan
so vast I think it might have carried me
had I been quick enough to clamber on.
He’s out there somewhere, too far to see
even a speck of his beloved landscape,
already dreaming of his swoop back down .