ROTTEN WOOD, BAD SOIL
A line. A long line. A long account of a line.
Not being one for graduated response I severed
My right arm and shoved it northward. A long
Account of an arm as a line. Maybe you think
The truth is ridiculous and nothing ever grows there.
You may be right, but yesterday roots shot
Out of my right stump like the branches
They would become. A long line. And what that
Proves is the northernmost star is never always
Northernmost, and yesterday's distraction is today's
Perfect artifact. Listen: a longish account of the earth
In my shoulder. Throwing water on it
I never thought this would petrify. Never thought
The leaf itself would become a star, passing for its
Permanent dying impression. A vein then, in response.
A vein as a line thrust up as if to reach.
ANOTHER WAY OF SAYING
The sun ripens only to estrange you.
T. R. Hummer
RAIN DOWN RAIN: SUITE FOR MABEL LOUISE “BIG MAYBELLE” SMITH, 1924-1972
With the uncanny ability to be a fist-shaking, house-rocking vocal flamethrower . . . [and] frustrated by love and life, Maybelle poured her heart into the performance of every song. . . . --liner notes, Big Maybelle: The Complete OKey Sessions 1952-1955
MY COUNTRY MAN
Hoe-chop and axe-fall. Night, and the big voice grows.
Moonlight on galvanized barn roof. Wind over cutter-bar and cow.
Somebody owns this wasteland of rusted-out pickups
And leg irons. This ruined jail: somebody holds the deed.
In culverts under bridges, whole villages lie sleeping,
Children piled in muddy eddies, mothers washed away.
Somebody's in charge of the pig farm and the stink
Of the paper mill. All night chainsaws rehearse
Their clutched melisma in the piney woods, and the moon
Revolves its doomed searchlight in the sky.
You'll never find him. He's always where you aren't,
Changing his keys and his signatures, breaking your idiot heart.
RAIN DOWN RAIN
Soaks into humus, backs up against the turn row,
Rips in a quick meander through the middle of the bridge.
In the galvanized road house you can't even hear yourself drink.
Leaks over the threshold from the lake of the parking lot,
Seeps into sheetrock, shorts out the neon jukebox, the inevitable
Blues--you already couldn't follow it--breaking down.
Molds feed in the half-empty silo. Enters the abandoned church
Through its ruptured roof, razes the dry-rotted pulpit.
Landscape in a black and white coma like a gelatin-silver print:
Thunder flattens the scene toward an early twilight. Mercy
On the pitch-pine, mercy on the shed, mercy on the tractor tire
And the swelling corpse of the cow. Mercy on the archetype:
Everybody talking, nobody doing a blesséd thing.
WAY BACK HOME
Pastoral? The folk who lived here loaded up their trucks
With the garbage that was their birthright and high-tailed it
North, each a jazz musician or a future rhythm and blues star.
That's as true as saying How beautiful the copses,
How gentle-eyed the sheep. The angels know
The destructive power of a myth. When they swept down
To squat in the abandoned shacks and tune the tractors,
No one believed in them. They couldn't get a bank loan.
Pretty soon they too were fronting ferocious swing bands
In the honky tonks of Kansas City, oh fortunate fall,
The will of God, who booked them there. The story of us all.
SEND FOR ME
Let it be by starlight code or the Rorschach of thunderheads.
Pentecostal lightning will get through even here.
The hedgerows choke with bramble-vines impenetrable as lead,
But radiance will leak past every seam.
Don't let the distance fool you, acres of nothing but acres--
We've been down this dirty tract a thousand times before.
Let it be by cattlegram, the dits and dahs of crows.
The armadillo is your messenger boy, opossum, civet cat, vole.
Send the ticket etched in the ink of cistern water
Hidden in the false bottom of a buzzard's wing.
Whatever you do, sweetheart, do it soon.
We're hypnotized. We're wasted. We won't last here for long.
YOU'LL NEVER KNOW
This place has borders: trailer park, brick plant, drive-in.
It suffers churches, three stores, a motel with a slot machine.
Its exact description depends on your metaphysics:
What weather do you vote for? Which angel gets your laundry clean?
From here it looks subatomic. Just when you understand
How the speed limit works, they change the geography.
The quark in a mayor's suit knows what a force uncertainty is--
Having no mass and a negative charge can set you free.
Welcome to The Local, a billboard reads. Discover your Sense of Place.
The police chief comes out of the whorehouse. What a screamer, he says.
AIN'T NO USE
Hitchhiked or hoboed freight trains. Went on buses. Went by boat.
Walked if they had to. Begged for bread. Got here and found out the truth:
There is work in the crotch of the slaughterhouse, a bed in a cardboard box.
The night streets rumble with garbage trucks--how can you sleep on a bench
When airbrakes squeal and grinding wheels downshift into your dreams?
No turning back. The pillar of flame turns into a pillar of salt.
And no use praying. God lives uptown in the middle of the block
With a cane and a can and an old blues harp, tunes a penny a shot.
For another penny he'll do a dance, for a nickel the second verse.
It's all the same wherever you go, but some places it's even worse.
YOU'LL BE SORRY
The wreck of a tractor rusts in an empty lot
Behind the abandoned laundry, across from the burnt hotel.
Somebody pulled the plug and this whole side of town
Flicked off. Pigeon in the mailbox. Skunk on the cornice, scrambling.
No ghosts. The dead never had a deed here. They're evicted--
Their ectoplasmic junk tossed on the sidewalk, exorcised.
The landlord torched the building while the band was tuning up
In the parlor off the lobby, O miserable ballad of essences,
Angelic body of smoke with a guitar hidden in it,
Usless siren, useless song, the working girls of the provinces
Lit up at last, divas riffed in firelight against the stars.
DON'T LEAVE POOR ME
They know where the angel hides: in the other closet
At the back of the house, where greasy overalls molder
And newspapers rot into gnostic dust. The angel is easy.
Money is different. Its lineaments vanish
Like piano chords into air. It hides its radiance.
If they pray, they get the angel--his mothballed magnificence
Shuffles into the kitchen with a checkerboard and a stool.
But the deus absconditus of the checkbook is untouchable,
Mystical, cool. Rain down, great mercy. Manifest. Shake this house.
They bear the ark of emptiness, they mumble the nameless name.
Like a grand opening at a pawnshop: no merchandise so far,
Just a stack of blank tickets and a universe of desire.
NEW KIND OF MAMBO
In front of the church, a Nativity scene, camels and a lonely donkey;
By the library door a crumbled lion, a plaque, and a Civil War mortar.
At the bootlegger's house, a squad car. The sheriff gets his Sunday fifth
And a grocery sack of dollar bills with the gift of a fried fish sandwich.
At midnight the music of the spheres stumbles and changes key.
Christmas Eve: granted the gift of words, the camels tell pointless jokes
While the Buddhist lion resigns himself to the seedy passion of the donkey.
The sheriff grins at his flashlight. He knows the shifting of the gyres
Is nothing a riot gun can't handle. Nobody leaves the scene.
In the grocery bag, in his newspaper robes, the greasy fish is speechless:
The rough beast has a nightstick now, and bellies up to the killing floor.
OCEAN OF TEARS
Start walking. It's a long way to the crossroads,
Long way to the roadhouse, long way to Easy Street.
Around here, the pastures are going bankrupt,
The stock market of the cornfield crashes and burns.
Take a look around, then wave goodbye.
Nobody cares what happens when the drainage ditch
Where you launched your navy collapses, or the copse
Of scrub-oaks you prayed in goes under the wrecking ball.
Acre by acre this landscape sputters and darkens.
Nothing left but the cutting of losses. Liquidation. The bottom line.
It's filthy with salt, the water rolling in. Fathoms deep. It stinks.
You've still got time to disappear, but it's too late for an ark.
THE OTHER NIGHT
Emptied out now, as after the Rapture,
Or post-apocalyptic. You can call and call,
You can scream a chord: no angel will answer.
Not a particle of your childhood remains,
No gravestone or broke-back ruin of your desire.
It's wiped up now, sucked into tornadic vacuum,
Clean and lean as the surface of a proton.
And it's not so bad, no genealogy, no story--
You're nobody anyway, and you always were.
The new darkness is not unkind, however unholy--
It's comforting, the mythless sky without stars,
Your clarified position in a stripped geometry.
What breaks your heart is the music: choirs
Without blue notes, vanished syncopation,
The squareness, a hideous purity.
Monday, and the humerus slips out
from its cradle of shoulder bones while
you are reaching for linens
in the hallway closet, the ligaments
unraveling like yarns in an old sweater,
finally giving way to holes.
Between the ice and the aspirin, you describe
the breeching moment of clarity,
a place the old poets talk about:
where pain is only noise and the self
is overwhelmingly magnetic, a dead star--
compacted, pulled away from a thin shell of skin,
but still in the emptiness between.
But before you could consider this paradox,
the bones uncrossed and you, dropped from the jaws
of impossibility, gasped: for order, for anatomy,
for the plausible.
the week unhinges as you file away
the aftershocks, the collarbone
protesting quietly--but you're lost
here in the wellspring of the soul,
in the minutiae, the neglected details:
the mantis gripping the dry stalk of wheat, a wineglass
ringing, its rim rubbed with a wet fingertip,
sound purling the waters.
FROM RED HILL
Filled with scents, meaning, the wind
Blows all about and over; from Red Hill
On this spring day, I hear birds
On all sides carolling from the trees--
Down the valley bottom, by the waters
Flowers are opening in mild weather.
When I was young, whatever the weather
It was winter with me: trees
Were bare, I saw nothing of birds,
Could not walk carelessly by water,
And far and unreachable were the hills,
And cruel-cold and mocking the wind.
It is for us to love the whisper of wind,
To walk by the great ocean, the waters,
And to look up to the grey-distant hills--
The sun's first light catches the trees,
Gentle rains and sun the weather,
And through leaves the song of birds.
How many in this time do not hear birds,
Cannot walk on the encircling hills,
And put it down to nature, the weather,
Think it natural to live without trees,
Without, everywhere, the sound of waters,
And are buffeted by all the cruel winds?
It is the case for most that the wind
Brings news of disruption, that birds
Sing not at all, that the rim of hills
Is clothed in smoke, that water
Carries disease, that no-one reckons the weather,
That chain-saws consume the trees.
Yet even so, perhaps it is that trees
Speak of a wider world and milder weather
That shall be, where people take counsel of birds,
Take strength and courage from their hills,
Listen to the thunder of the many waters,
Do not fear what is brought by the wind.
Until the message of the wind is peace, birds
Speak everywhere from the trees, from the wide hills,
By the many waters--time of kindly weather--
What but to hold to our truth, our heft?