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The Slate Roof Poem

Philip Terman

Have you seen a slate roof glisten as the sun rounds the ridge?
Have you seen it shimmer in a splash of a sky full of stars?
Have you ever seen a close-up of slates interwoven on a roof like leaves
on a tree or the way slats of stones will seem to quiver in a creekbed,

or how from a distance they can look like steps ascending toward the sky,
or how they float in mid-air, the way they hang loose on their nails,
or how, roofers will tell you, they make a joyful noise in the way they are tapped and when rain patters like a waterfall as you lie under them listening to their music . . .

Because the rock was here before we came and will be here after we leave.
The earth is the rock that our flesh and bones were formed out of, rock of our ages — our first dwelling and our last, the veins we tap, the secrets we extract. Have you driven by a farmhouse and noticed the roof with its year slated in,

or a chicken coop with a heart-shape or a gravestone carved with a poem?
The slate on my study in Pennsylvania is from a farmhouse in New England.
Would we recognize each other, we who were protected by the same substance? The slate outlives the house under it and the people inside it. Consider

the spaces of time elapsing between when the silt deposited and collected
in the ancient river beds and compacted for millions of years — shimmying
and hopping and bopping to the geologic boogie — into what is now your roof
as you sit shaded from the sun or drying under the rain. Consider

all that mineralogical pressure, the way in our flesh and blood, fears
and desires, bits of memory and insights, can crystallize into some force
that is as magnificent as the roofs of spires and cathedrals, how out of our own crystallized mica we can be a protector and at the same time splendid. Consider

how it must have been created on the first day, with all the other stuff of the earth. Consider how its origins are a mystery, like love and death and the desire to use a material that will last beyond our own lifetimes, like planting trees and making art, impractical and out-of-fashion, we of the long term,

we who have faith in the future, we who play our minor role
in the eternal drama of the significant stone, which will last eternities
without us, we who want to know what our small part of forever feels like.
Because each square of slate is really a petal of a flowering sediment,

a small piece of earth from within the earth. As children we were honored
to be called upon to walk to the large black wall of slate in the front of the room and write our names and drawings and scribble our confused answers
and we were rightfully reprimanded to stay after and erase them.

A slate roof looks like a book before it is bound. All of the pages
are written by a collaborative effort of weather and time. Hold one slate
in your hands. It is smooth and in places crinkled like handmade paper.
You can’t see yourself in the surface, it has lasted and will last much longer

than you will, but it is beautiful, it makes any building — pigsty or majestic dome — like a quaint hut, a cottage in a fairy tale. Because it is so of-the-earth it is otherworldly. Something mysterious about the way it is always shimmering, something perplexing about the way it seems to absorb all history and stay its place.

One cannot imagine a slate roof without farms or woods or flowers around it,
someone baking bread beneath it in a satisfying silence, or simply staring
out a window as dusk tells its story. In one dream we walk on slate
but we slide because it is slick like trying to stand on water. In another

we are in a burning building but we are safe inside our walls of slate.
Someone gives us slate pencils and tells us to mark our messages. Another
perhaps in the next century will decipher its meanings and what we say
and how we say it will suggest something of our lives and the way we lived them.

Even if they have been effaced, even if our most profound secrets were lost,
something of what we held for a short time will be held by others,
what our hands have smoothed will be smoothed by them and set
carefully to bear in their rightful place on the roof with all the rest, fastened

exactly like our own and offering like our own their significant securities,
making again their music and light. Imagine the sky full of pieces of slate.
It covers the earth the way a roof covers a house the way in some faiths
one covers one’s head because we are all in the presence of the holy.

Phil Terman and his lakeside cabin.

Philip Terman is an Associate Professor of English at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of at least two volumes of poetry -- What Survives, and The House of Sages; and he lives under a slate roof in Barkeyville, PA. Above he is seen in deep contemplation at his lakeside retreat.


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