poems by John A. Blackard
Copyright 2007 by John Blackard
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Old Woman at the Well 6 Viewing Edward Hopper’s Gas, 1940 8 After The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove 10 Rambler Ambassador 13 Lines Written Near the Lawrence Ranch, Taos, New Mexico 16 A Book of Matches 18 On Hearing Jimi’s Star-Spangled Banner, Georgia Speedway, July 4, 1970 21 My Freedom Lawn 24 Breaking Ball 26 A Worshipful Company of Bakers 29 Her Book of Hours 32 (To Stop Now) 35 Recovering at Crabtree Falls 37 Problem Patrons 40 October Queen 43 Onward, Christmas Soldier 45 Chinese New Year 48 Acknowledgments 51
Old Woman at the Well If I never took Sunday walks with you to the old home place, if I never held you over the well’s wooden edge and guided the cool metal dipper to your lips, if the shaft of darkness wasn’t there in dreams for you to fathom, then you might not feel the rough hole in the bucket and worry about your unquenchable thirst. Let me tell you about the sad little boy who was your father. He waited in the blazing sun with a dipper of water for his mother picking tobacco. Every day she’d tie that boy to the windlass of her spirit and lower him into the merciful darkness. He’d sing out the damn cat’s in the well again.
He’d touch with blind fingers the pickaxe claw marks of the old men who dug down to the deep water. Our bucket runneth over, saith the preacher. But the dirt seeped through our pores, because the land found its level in us. We wove pine roots over our heads, stacked up walls of white flint. There is a story in the Bible about Jesus asking a woman to draw some water for him. I don’t think it happened that way, but still we should learn to have wary faith. There is a sun to parch us, and underground a river of living water to carry us to the end of the row. My memory floods back then sinks heavily to the bottom of the rope’s reach. The splashes of light break the black circle, the rope coils again around the windlass effortlessly. When you poison a man’s well, be very sure of what you’re doing, be very sure.
Viewing Edward Hopper’s Gas, 1940 A country road cools down, joe-pye weeds in the ditch and sultry white pines beyond. A little after sunset—deceptively beautiful— a streak of pink hangs above the earth. The station attendant, a man doing the routine jobs of locking the gas pumps for the night, dragging in the rack of oil and wiper blades, a scene we knew well. We can feel the loneliness of the station in the way the road is empty of automobiles, the way the light escapes the station’s open door, inviting the man back inside. Overhead, in the white sign’s spotlight,
a winged horse still soars, as though keeping watch, invoking the power of the gods. All day something has kept the dials spinning on the pump, dinging the owner’s tiny money bell. All day something has pulsed through the black rubber hose, splashing in the cars’ metal tanks. All day some voice in the attendant’s head has stuttered, Filler up? Check under that hood? That’ll be $1.80 for ten gallons of ethyl, sir. Come again. And finally, some familiar euphoria has lifted off the man at the end of the day, leaving his head achy, body sluggish. Should he not think of the world as a vast engine, purring along under his care? Should he not want to climb behind the wheel and joyride until the wheels fall off? Or should we, the witnesses, point out how the artist chose not to paint oil rainbows or gas stains in the white sand of the driveway, chose not to let us see the attendant’s ash-gray face, his eyes dull as lead? If we didn’t know who we had become, we would almost believe it.
After The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove Let no one hope to find contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. -- Thomas Merton
There’s a root like the root of a mountain that runs out radially from the bamboo’s heart: my old man— no Taoist— had little use for bamboo but couldn’t rip it out of family ground, even with his John Deere tractor. The jade skin, stretching between nodes, reminded me to be virtuous, the hollow core between septa encouraged me to be humble, yet its fruit could bring
rats and plague to ancient China, and maybe to our North Carolina farm. It’s as if I’d forgotten how the seven graybeards toasted the Tao of presence in absence, the yin within the yang, and if I’d never left, the old farmhouse might’ve become a shrine protected by its own sacred bamboo. After a hundred years, an entire stand can flower and die, starving all the pandas on the mountain. And the same sprouts, popping through the ground on a quiet spring night, delighting the gathered devotees, on another night can pierce a prisoner’s body, stretched and staked out above them. The clump brought by an artist-friend in a metal bucket took hold in red clay and inspired the artist in me with its elegant rhythm in the wind, its shimmering color in the southern sun. The threat of foreign growth was too much for my warlord father, raised to poison what he couldn’t control. Like the emperor’s court, hiding corruption and intrigue, the sanctuary of the bamboo grove can hold a nest of giant hornets in its roots, ready to sting the heads and rumps of farmers and wisemen alike. Is that what caused Ji Kang to hope alchemy might transmute base metal into gold, the two Juans to lap up wine from a wooden bowl with the neighbor’s pig, Liu to walk
around naked in his home, which he considered to be the whole universe? The chi of twisted bamboo held the great Min River Bridge for a thousand years. The breath of Liuâ€™s bamboo wife, that beautiful basket cylinder he embraced on sticky summer nights, cooled his sleep all of his long life. If the three nameless ones left the grove, the changes of nature showed them the path onward. Something I read in the I Ching helped me divine my own rootlessness: A flight of dragons without heads. Good fortune. And the silk fan and screen artists painted the truth like loverâ€™s tricks, but these lines, written on green bamboo strips and sewn together with sinew as a book, may lead some reader to see behind dragon leaves.
Rambler Ambassador When you were a boy, a photograph of an Acapulco cliffdiver hung over your bed like a cross. On a dare you would climb, summer or winter, to the Ritterâ€™s Lake diving platform and plunge fifty feet through a black inner tube. Your talent made your family forget for a moment how far you could fall. You were always diving right into things: a fight, a bottle, womanflesh, the aperture of chance. You were the one gossiped about at family reunions, the one who disappeared for years at a time only to return some night ragged, smelly, beat up, cut up, hollow-eyed and eventually white-headed; no money, on foot, with nothing to say for yourself,
expecting Grandmother to take you in. She called Mom to let her know that her favorite Uncle Mix had surfaced in the middle of the night, like a piece of driftwood suddenly let go by the bottom muck. For a while you picked up enough day labor to buy a cheap suit, a new hat at Blumenthal’s, and make a down payment on a used car. Then one day Ruth went to the screen door to call you in from the porchswing for supper and you weren’t there. You had gone down the road: the original rambler ambassador, Dad called you, traveling to places out west he bet, which made them real to us because we knew you were out there bummin’, drinkin’, fightin’, whorin’ around: the original ambassador of the rough & ready, of the intricate alley, of the Mexican clap, of the real deep shit; while we stayed home, paid taxes and maintained the domestic economy. No one would hear from you for a long time, then on Grandmother’s birthday a package postmarked Texas would arrive: usually truckstop gag gift statuettes, awful things like the multicolored porcelain donkey sitting on its haunches, huge genitalia exposed, head thrown back, braying at the universe. Not a word about how or what you were doing. Ruth would shake her head and put them away in the hall closet with your other gifts. On the way to your funeral, Uncle Mix,
I crossed under the bridge below Hamburger Square. Some ragged old men passing a bottle of wine sat by the train tracks in the cold sun. Any one of them could have been you near the end. A Texas sheriff took Grandmother’s name off a postcard in your pocket when he found your body. You must be laughing your ass off (wherever you are) about how complicated it turned out just to get you in the ground: we discovered you had a wife in New Mexico, so by law we had to find her. Finally, a week after your body had been shipped east by rail, (your last ride), we got a telegram from her that simply said: Burn him. Tomorrow afternoon Dad and I will take you in his bass boat out into the middle of Deep River and pour you downstream. I read in the paper the other day that a former astronaut’s satellite company is contracting to carry cremated remains into orbit or deep space. If I had the money, Uncle Mix, I would send you out, but to mix you with water is not a bad idea either. Surely you waylaid the spectre of negation early in life, kicked the shit out of him I’ll bet. That son of a bitch who continues to keep tabs on the rest of us for life left you to your own devices. I wonder, Uncle Mix, if I would be any happier, sitting in my trailer on the edge of timbered land, not imagining my life is in any way special like you must have, accepting all the commonplace satisfactions as the limits of what is possible.
Lines Written Near the Lawrence Ranch, Taos, New Mexico There is something wild in the night wind. It roams sagebrush and pinon, plunges through flowering arroyos, ahead of lightning strikes over the Sangre de Cristos Mountains. Maybe somewhere Trickster Coyote is peering into Jackrabbitâ€™s grassy nest, telling him to be strong, the pain of being devoured wonâ€™t last longer than he can stand: Then you will take on coyote muscle, coyote blood, and see with coyote eyes, he says. If it seems cruel, it is at least the truth. Lawrence could have told this love story:
the solstice moon sacrificed, the black-on-black pottery of the stars holding its light, the mythic Avanyu snaking across the desert toward the source of all waters, and the two of us finding the trail we thought we’d lost. For a week we imagine the small adobe— five miles out a gravel road on a mountain— is ours. Every breeze riffling our pages under the ponderosa pine reminds us that this land has no need for words. Like fire spreading across the high plains, we try to write what burns down old growth, makes black soil for green stalks to sprout. Is this the phoenix moment he offers us? Notebooks fill up with dangerous journeys, untamable horses, and the trembling balance we risk. If our Penitente deathcarts overflow with more corpses from the past than we can bear, perhaps the grievance of growing old alone will one day be ours. That could be the worst that awaits us. And then there you are, Lorenzo, like some masked cacique holding out the ceremonial blade dripping with your own heart’s blood.
A Book of Matches Ephemera hardly worth noticing until a man lights a womanâ€™s cigarette, writes a phone number on it, puts it in his pocket. Then it becomes part of a story, a detail remembered about a certain time, a certain place. Whoever opens this book expects a brilliant beginning, a consuming plot, and a tossed-off ending: a man may be sitting at a bar, staring for a long time at a matchbook next to his glass before absent-mindedly picking it up.
Here the author perhaps tells us the matchbook becomes a door, the way everyday objects sometimes open up and allow us to wander deep within ourselves. Anyone else sees the cover with some advertisement, which he untucks and retucks behind the sand striking bar: did anyone actually go back to the World’s Most Romantic Restaurant— Shangri-La in Sisseton, South Dakota, Learn Basic Computer Programming at Home and become one of the Experienced Men Earning $7-12K Per Year, or see Bill and Fay at Southside Pool Hall in Caldere, Kansas, You’ll Like Their Beer? Opening the cover, he finds stapled inside two rows of ten matches—dipped red phosphorous heads, cardboard tinders and handles—that can be torn out of the book to strike, followed by the familiar scratch and sizzle in the dark, the comforting small glow inside a cupped hand. Twenty little tales to tell, he imagines. Each one beginning a story: one to light a joint an old high school buddy offers, one to illuminate a forking path on a moonless mountain, another to light a candle beside a bed where his lover waits.
Not the light of a firefly, a star, the eye of a cat, but the spark of something just as brilliant, something that makes him feel there is no match like love.
On Hearing Jimi’s Star-Spangled Banner, Georgia Speedway, July 4, 1970 Anthem of Revolution, psychedelic pledge of our youth, carrying in your machine gun distortions, bursting bomb decibels, feedback choked screams, our protests, our cries of love go over the parched Georgia fields and pecan groves with you. Renew this living flag of dirty, hung-over, runaway children of America—hippies, bikers, students, Hare Krishnas, bare-breasted girls— dancing here in this field, with jagged rhythms, deconstructed improvisations, whose wind of guitar riffs lifts us up.
Deliver this snake biting its own tail, this tie-dyed, makeshift camp of refugees, to the country of peace and love it imagines. Where fathers shout, Donâ€™t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out, where leaders promise that Vietnam is over yet send troops to Cambodia, where Baptists call a monkâ€™s self-immolation a Buddhist barbecue, what can truth and wisdom be. Whose new nation gathered in the 115 degree heat, beside a brown river, slow-moving miasma of field discharge and industrial flush this Fourth of July weekend, welcomed cooling racetrack fire hose blasts while sheriffsâ€™ deputies smiled at our brave nakedness shining like new peaches after a rain. How could Gov. Madox arrest 150,000 peaches in the state of Georgia. Midnight whippoorwill of our generation, whose call echoes through this festival in the pines, can your music keep us from dancing, our minds from building an invisible university, bodies from living on light and dust, meditations from focusing on nothing much. Whose love brings us heroes then makes them burn-outs, tragedies at twenty-seven. Then the sky exploded in falling blue rivers of independence day stars, shrieking firebirds gold and green spiraling toward the moon, and a sustained guitar note climbed the night sky, a final taps-like warning.
No playing behind his back, no burning his guitar tonight, Jimi unplugged and left the stage, an after image in the darkness, ground-thundering detonations vibrating every eardrum every sternum.
My Freedom Lawn --the flag of my disposition— is full of chickweed and wild violets the way a child’s mind is full of games. I say to my neighbors, Let’s play hide and seek or roller bat sometime, but all I get are sighs and headshakes, their leashed dogs pulling nervously past the waist-high wilderness that surrounds our house. To think that a blend of fescue and rye, unmowed and unedged, says something definable about the self is a riddle I answer to suit myself. To think that a plot of lawn grass is me to neighbors is more than I hoped for. I give my yard its freedom as a father gives a child a box of crayons and paper, hoping it will discover Eden. The lawn is not the glacier nor the ocean
that once covered the ground here with its secrets. The self is not a green pasture to lie down in nor a graveyard of unmarked regrets. You canâ€™t step in the same lawn twice, or so they say. If my neighbors erect molded concrete yard art and birdhouses, must I do the same? What would it be like to find a satyr in every blackberry bush, a wood nymph behind every kudzu leaf?
Breaking Ball How great to believe that fried chicken for early supper was a strike, Mom fussing about clothes scattered on the floor before a big game a ball. Just listen to the whomp against the brick wall of our house, my fastball hitting the sweet spot inside the chalk-drawn strike zone. Just imagine the skinny, freckled southpaw, aged eleven, hoping heâ€™d be the next Sandy Koufax. Will the day come when a baseball seems like the ghost of someone he used to know?
And what was Uncle Richard thinking, even if egged on by my dad who called him the Babe, when he grabbed the catcher’s mit and squatted. From the first pitch, I loved a new game ball, skin soft as a pumpkin lily, but not more than a ball in play, discolored by dirt, grass stain, maybe even blood, slightly warped by blunt trauma with a blonde Louisville Slugger. In my dreams I counted the miracle of 108 waxed red cotton stitches: 108 to make Hindu pitchers remember their mantra; 108 to make Taoist pitchers thank their sacred stars; 108 to make Tibetan pitchers repent their evil deeds. Every game the dirt pile I would stand on in the middle of the diamond felt like Mt. Olympus. Every wind-up felt like being sucked up in a tornado— pulling the right knee to the right elbow, turning the chest toward first, hiding the ball below the left knee— while riding a pogo stick. In a vacuum, the terminal velocity of a baseball and a body are the same. Should I also throw my body in parabolic kamikaze flight toward homeplate? Get the hips free by pushing off the front of the rubber. When the right leg stops
the torso, the left arm uncocks like a pistol shot. Duchamp’s nude descending the stairway from heaven should have been a big league pitcher. Then, resting my middle finger, like a lover, inside the ball’s long seam, I pulled down hard to make it rotate thirteen times, and not reveal its true nature— that it was a killer, that its color was black—lights out—until the final two-foot break. In the front yard, we heard Sam the Sham sing Wooly Bully on the kitchen radio. Chicken sputtered in the frying pan. And blood from the Babe’s nose flowed between his fingers, dripped off his white shirted elbows into the grass.
A Worshipful Company of Bakers Zombified, two white-capped bakers, my dad and his father, shuffled into our kitchen for morning coffee after their shift. Mom should worry that sleep deprivation is a tempting defense for crime in this state. That school year, I drew a picture of an Egyptian discovering leavened bread in 4000 BC. He left a pot of gruel out for the sun god Ra, wild airborne yeasts blew in from the Nile, and the mystery mash started to bubble. Thatâ€™s pretty much how I began to rise. A high school girl surprised a bakerâ€™s son
one morning with a howdy and the news: Hon, we’ve got a little bun in the oven. The bread of Wonder, of Little Miss Sunbeam, of Holsum, of Merita, of Bunny, the Twinkies of Hostess, the Pies of Moon, the Cakes of Little Debbie, minus the wrappers, filled my metal lunchbox each school day. Culled hosts of my fathers. While Dad tried to sleep, one eye open like a duck, and dream up a better life, Mom listened to women tell their hard luck Queen for a Day stories. Her mother taught her how, against the odds, to achieve oven spring and a golden brown crust. Emptying the hot pan, she felt the vantage loaf of a forgiving heart. Glory be to a worshipful company of bakers, she prayed. For they prepare its body carefully, roll away the pin of stone or wood, keep vigil outside the tomblike oven throughout the night, and in the morning give praise for it is risen. Later on, our hard luck story might’ve registered high on the applause meter. Our brown house no longer looked like a house made of bread. After work, Mom cracked open a can of biscuits and bought day-old loaves at the outlet store. She told me that children who couldn’t be quiet and play in the yard might be lead out into the woods and lost like Hansel and Gretel. I learned to drop the nightmare crumbs of want.
When my own child wakes from a bad dream, I will tell her a worshipful company of bakers makes hot cross buns full of grace every night. I will hope her life rises like a flock of birds above a harvest field of golden wheat.
Her Book of Hours 1. Her marriage had been like the Euplectella, a tropical sponge of transparent silica columns and calcium lattice, a protective cylinder for tiny bioluminescent shrimp who enter and feed on whatever passes by— and each other—until they are too large to leave. Finally, only two remain in their glass house, mating and consuming their own offspring to stay alive. 2. An old survivor waiting in the maw of darkness, she dips raw calamari pieces— cold, slick, slightly sticky slivers of meat— in a special marinade and has a cocktail before her guests arrive. She looks forward to the silence of serious conversations amid 32
the general party noise, the aquatic echoes and shimmering reflections from the surface. She always thought that distraction— not meditation—would become the abiding habit of her life. 3. The night rises like the ocean at high tide, filling up the kitchen window with sand and shell detritus. She remembers how the Sixties filled her with a kind of madness— she was called the Kim Novak of Old Irving Park— how the half-drunken company men, with their bourbon breath, their beard stubble rough on her neck, their groping hands in the poolside torch light, excited her. 4. Our faded beauty lights lamps of Himalayan salt crystals, balancing positive and negative ions, bearing the burden of balance against the turning night tide— and the burden of memory suddenly dredges to the surface the time he pulled all of her lingerie from the bureau, cut it up with a fishing knife, then sailed off to Maui with his young office-wife. 5. The lucid interval of romantic love passes as she leafs through the jewel-toned, postcard illuminations in her life’s book of hours and nibbles a sprig of mint, the bitter taste of his sex on her tongue. If it is the Hour of Vespers,
it is the Hour of Solace—or at least the Hour of Mojitos—to wash away what none of us would choose. 6. Against her still wet skin, the silky antique kimono reminds her to dress before her Spiritual Cinema Circle friends arrive. The film tonight features Azurus, the Polynesian tantric siddha who reads soul frequencies and charts horoscopes. Is it fated that her grand-daughter will ask for breast implants for high school graduation? Of course she remembers the urgency to be desired when who you are is not enough. 7. To leave her children a few beliefs instead of the ruins of an old courage, an empty palace beneath the sea— is that too much to hope? Let them find wild manzanita, purple jacaranda, and a view of Big Sur— like the one from the deck of Nepenthe, crowded with seekers, drunk on the wine of God.
(To Stop Now) When the breakup comes like the four-note song of the morning dove; when she walks out and leaves the sidewalk stained with mulberries dark as blood; when she tires of you, the man asleep in his car on Sunday morning with the radio playing Otis Redding’s I’ve been loving you too long (to stop now); when she starts meeting someone else for drinks after work and you feel like the crow pecking over something between the train tracks and asking yourself: at the end of the day, isn’t love all about the food-chain and the thrill of the hunt? And so you keep your eyes open as a man watching an approaching thunderstorm,
and you predict the splayed white petals of the magnolia heavy with rain, and you wear, like fear, the sweet-sour milk smell of wet ligustrum, tea rose, and boxwoods on your skin, and you think of your loss as a dimming of the sun, which they’ve measured as a fifteen-percent decline since you were born, and each twilight a memory of her body numinous but lost at waking, and each daybreak a dewy path crisscrossed with webs of heartache that hold you up to yourself, not a pretty sight. When it’s over, you sit on your front porch and welcome your neighbor’s orange tabby, Miss Day-Glo, who uses your jeans for a scratching post then jumps down. You look at the uncanny pinpricks in the fabric she left without hurting you.
Recovering at Crabtree Falls Because my love of something I cannot name has become my affliction—real as broken ribs, as a missing limb—we drive by reservation casinos glowing at night like war camps in the mountain valley, ignore the rubber tomahawk crowd at Chimney Rock— and instead stretch our legs where we walk down in the earth to remember an eden. Whether we believe it has been covered up by layer upon layer of human need— like cities built on top of conquered cities— or didn’t listen well enough to grandparents’ stories of a world that remained about the same
from the time they were born until the time they died— this is a place to live in the moment— like my Cherokee ancestors who had no word for yesterday or tomorrow. If only this place would let us shed our worn-out bodies, descend into the gorge and stand purely spirit by the river, help us accept that once inside a laurel hell we can lose all sense of direction without losing a sense of who we are, delight in the carried sound of rushing water without worrying we are nowhere near our destination, slow down enough to find the best awkward footing on stones and roots without wondering why we are even going. Aren’t we all just wounded animals needing the sanctuary of healing mountain waters? I found out the hard way that the steepest descending path can always be steeper. One time I saw a blind couple dressed for church being led down the river gorge before Easter sunrise, another time I saw a family clustered around its young soldier home from war on one leg— still awkward on his crutches— but for every four hundred people I’ve ever met on this path, I’ve heard sixteen will lose one or more toes, five will lose one or more fingers, two will lose an arm or a leg, one will lose even his head— and lucky me—I had only to break a few ribs,
shed a couple of pounds of skin like a snake sloughing last season’s self across a chestnut log. Hearing in the roar of the falls a voice like my own— yelling out my own dumb luck to have made it— I want to cast an Elwood Perry spoonplug, watch the light on its silver face as it arcs into the plunge pool, or break the surface in the deep dive of my vicodin and lie down in the river bed among forty rainbow trout.
Problem Patrons Morning— You are working at your desk when the security alarm sounds: a woman is squeezing past the checkout gate. What would you do? Would you ask her if she has been in tight situations before and did she get away? Who hasn’t felt they deserved more and shitty when the break they were expecting didn’t happen. How desperate do we have to get before we panic and make a run for it? When it hits us hard— the breakup, the lost job, the lump— we may be anywhere, even in a library with a book in our hands, and all we want to do is find the nearest exit and get outside ourselves. All we want to do is take a deep breath. 40
Noon— You are rounding up unshelved books, and you see a young woman in a study carrel razor-blading prints out of an expensive art book. She defiantly stares back at you. What would you do? You see the straight-line scars on her arms, the pierced nose, eyebrows, lips, then tongue which she points in your direction and vibrates before telling you that you can’t possibly understand. She needs beauty in her life, and you try to remember what Picasso said: something about art destroying beauty? Ask her. It is late afternoon— You are working the reference desk alone. A man doesn’t give you enough information to let you know what he is looking for. Your questions make him angry. He begins to shout obscenities and threatens you. What would you do? You feel the world slow down, that you can dodge the flecks of spittle spraying from the man’s mouth. You want to tell him it will be alright if he sits in this chair and looks out the window at the cherry blossoms blowing across the courtyard and into the street, if he remembers someone he loves waiting for him to help them bear their sorrow. Evening— You are shelving books.
As you round a corner, you see a man take something from a backpack on the floor, slip it into his pants pocket, and walk rapidly away. What would you do? You follow him and find him sitting in the stairwell, looking at the letter he didn’t leave behind, weeping and telling you about a daughter who won’t talk to him since the divorce. She mustn’t know he followed her to the library and watched her study, she is so grown up now ready to go to college. He isn’t just another dirty old man hanging out at the public library, he wants you to understand what it feels like to lose a daughter. Near closing-time: The woman again, crying and distraught, finally tells you that when she was looking for a book in the stacks a man took out his penis. What would you do? You ask her where did this happen, and she holds out her hand. You ask her to describe the man, and she wants you to know his penis was smooth except for the veins along its shaft. The tip was purplish pink and spongy while the balls were covered in a down of red hair and were lighter than they looked. Yes, but which way did he go, you ask— when you know there was no man.
October Queen It’s hard to deny how October makes a woman want to burn a man because she can, as if by formula or witchy spell— how the month is a room in an old hotel with a mountain-view where their clothes drop off like brightly colored leaves—how goth girls go berserk at the county’s harvest fair in the big-box parking lot, and strippers make their living in a dark tent on the edge of town, setting fire to corn husk dolls between their thighs. There is no carnie’s finnegan pin to make the season click into gear and hum along like a ferris wheel— only the decorative dried cornstalks, hay bales, and pumpkins in front of the grocery store, disguising something on sale
that will slowly kill me— only the shelf-shout of black blood and guts hanging slick and stringy in yellow poplars on the Trail of Terror— only fear’s effortless effort chilling every step along my six miles of nerves as I go out of my way to find the one I know I cannot find—only the infinity pool of constellated stars plunging me to the bottom of some older, darker anarchy. A wine moon illuminates the nightly harvest of decay. My poor heart wishes it were as dry and empty as a bean pod. October, my queen, with your silky fingers of frost, rip open the seed sack of the world, spilling what can never be gathered up again, and I will tell you my ghost story that ends with the lines, Know that the moon’s yellow face is fixed in an old yellow book, the lord of every story holds the shepherd’s crook. How many times will I look through the eyes of your death mask before the final walk down the hill, the final turn on my street toward home?
Onward, Christmas Soldier To lure the sun back on the longest night of the year, ancient people kept bonfires going. I meet my neighbors in the street to place white bags filled with a scoop of sand and a tea candle for the annual lumieres. Before the night has ended, the battery-powered light of three less-than-wise men will give out in their snow cave near the summit of Mt. Hood. I canâ€™t tell you why the early Christians chose December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but I can guess it had something to do with the power of the flame, a kindling of faith that a new day will come, an angelâ€™s sword flashing this way to heaven. And I remember thirty years ago keeping a log on the fire throughout
those December nights in an old farmhouse we rented, the covenant the body makes with the soul to carry the light, the soul’s gift of the body’s brilliant nakedness. Had you looked in a window one of those long, cold nights, you would have thought you saw a young woman ironing a coat of many-colors, a hooded robe of a monk, a soldier’s camouflaged battle fatigues. Had you followed her toy soldier as he joined the moon’s mad march across the night sky, you would have felt their trackless arc, the spear of their white light. Look how the light in his eyes mirrors the exploding roadside bomb of the sun at daybreak. Watch as she vacantly sorts through the tangle of coat hangers on the floor of an empty closet, drops the mouse king’s corpse on the porch for the cats. That sad season I was under house arrest for speeding down Main Street, DUI at the wheel of the Steppin’ Out Dance Studio Christmas float with nineteen people holding on for dear life, and I did not care about the fly named Rudolph buzzing against the parlor ceiling or opening a window to let it meet its frosty morning death. And I did not smile when it dove into the fire and burned to a crisp black star.
I did what a man does when heâ€™s born several thousand years too late for the Roman festival of Saturnalia. I lit up like an altar boy and quietly got stoned.
Chinese New Year Husband, how will you celebrate all the ways that I please you and promise to obey you in the year of the rooster? I will honor your purest deceptions with a flock of frightened bird aerial repeaters and a score of musical pyramid mines, my wife. Husband, will you hold me in your arms like the moon's brightness is held within the spaces of the parking lot across the street? Yes, I will send out some black diamond missiles that climb at least twenty-five hundred feet and finish with reports as loud as our ecstacy. Husband, I'm listening to a symphony
by a composer that I do not remember. Will you come in from the porch and conduct with me? No, but I will perform a duet of peacock fountains and golden snowflake candles for you that will help you put on the master's wig? Husband, I found a lock of our baby's hair in this book and I thought about that old stucco house... do you ever think about...? No, I only remember the crazy jack ground spinners and catherine three-drive moonwheels that kept me on the rim of night. Husband, when you leave for the plant in the morning and walk beside the piles of dawn-streaked mud, will you write my name there for me? I will launch whistling gemini missiles and light marching cicada comets at the bus stop so you will know the wild flower of my heart.
Poems in this collection have appeared in the following journals: Ace Review, Buffet, Crucible, The Decolletage Poetry Journal, Evensong, Glanz Artz, Hindsite Review, Lyre, The Nameless, Quarrel Journal of the Arts, Satinwood, Veronica’s Lace, Zig Zag Zipper. Thanks to the editors for allowing the republication of these poems. Photograph credits: pp. 1 & 50--“Hell’s Belles Again” by Paul Duane at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club p. 4—“Old Well” from The Hinton Family Collection, Irving Public Library Archives, Irving, Texas p. 7-- photo of the author taken by Valentina Gnup p. 10—“Hokoku Temple, Kamakura, 2002” by Michael Schubart p. 14—“Diving Tower, Camp Wallkill” postcard p. 18—“Adobe, Taos, New Mexico” by the author p. 21—“A Book of Matches” by William Parker III p. 24—photo of Jimi Hendrix, Atlanta Pop Festival, July 4, 1970 p. 27—photo of a rural scene (public domain) p. 29—photo of old baseball (public domain) p. 33—photo of fresh bread (public domain) p. 36—“Glass House” by Janis Mara p. 40—photo of orange tabby (public domain) p. 46—photo, Blaine S. Kern Library, Holy Cross College p. 53—photo of a ornament (public domain) p. 56—photo of fireworks (public domain) Back cover photograph of the author taken by his grandmother, Ethel Wade Reece