You Who Pull the Oars

You and your friend Absalom are keeping your ears open for stories. You’re open to anything, on this particular weekend, when you’re thousands of miles away from the north country where you grew up, the north country where the funeral of a friend is taking place without you.

You’ve got a notecard stuck in your back pocket, a card that contains a letter describing the kind of person your friend was, a check from you and some folding money from Absalom, gifts in honor of that friend and his wife that you decide should be given to someone neither of you have yet met but will, at some point today.

The two of you get in the car and drive the 22 miles into the nearest town, which is tiny, contained in the curves of the bay. On the way in –straight shot on a road surrounded with sand and pine barrens– you tell Absalom that your friend was a busy man, with places to go and things to do and people to see.

“But the thing is, you wouldn’t know it,” you say. “When you were with him, you felt as if he had all the time in the world for you.”

You decide to live, for at least this weekend, as if you have all the time in the world for whoever you find yourself with.

Absalom puts down his window and you do the same. You roll slowly up and down the back streets of the town until you find an old cemetery, where the gravestones are hundreds of years old, half-toppled marble, almost illegible. You and Absalom wander among the gravestones, which go back to the Civil War.

Across from the graveyard is a community garden: raised beds full of feathery-topped carrots and onions and sugar snap peas and spinach and chard. So green, so lush. You and Absalom wander among them. You resist the urge to steal some sugar snap peas.

“Look,” you say to Absalom. “If someone doesn’t pick these they’re going to get fibrous and nasty.”

You’d be doing the gardener a favor by stealing these snap peas. The only thing that keeps you from thievery is the lone gardener weeding his raised bed a few yards away.

Faint music reaches your ears. It’s the annual Black History Festival, held in a little park on this day of overhanging clouds and threatening rain. You and Absalom get back in the car and meander your way over.

“Welcome,” says someone standing at an entrance gate made out of orange plastic honeycomb fencing. “Welcome.”

“How you doin,” says someone else.

Unlike other years when you’ve come to this festival, you and Absalom are not the only white people here, which strikes you as a good thing. You talk about the times in your lives when you have been the only white people, not that there have been many of them. They’re memorable though, because you were so aware of it.

Absalom is hungry and so are you. Shrimp? Ribs? Homemade corn dogs? Fresh fudge? Shrimp and beans and coleslaw for you and a barbecue sandwich for Absalom. You sit on the bleachers eating, surrounded by members of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, who are all wearing red t-shirts and nodding in response to a girl onstage with a microphone, urging the crowd to be unique, to know how beautiful and individual each one of you are.

You jeer at Absalom’s “sandwich,” which is a giant slab of ribs with a piece of Wonder Bread tossed on top. He jeers at the way you eat, which is one thing at a time, in order, the way God intended food to be eaten.

The girl with the microphone steps off stage and the Tallahassee High Steppers take her place, three of them, moving in a choreographed dance. Their white belts flash as they step and sway back and forth.

You and Absalom clamber off the bleachers and wander some more. It’s a tiny festival, relaxed and slow and full of smiling people chatting in little clumps. The notecard is still in your back pocket. You walk up to one of the red-shirted Mt. Zion congregants. He’s a tall, gentle-looking man. He smiles at you and you smile back.

“Are you the pastor of Mt. Zion?” you ask him.

“No ma’am,” he says. “But the pastor will be here soon. He’s setting up for our gospel choir. Y’all should stay around until we perform. One o’clock.”

You and Absalom are both fans of gospel music. You look at each other and communicate silently. Yes, one o’clock will work just fine.

“We’re small, but the pastor brings out the big in us,” the man says.

He shakes your hand, and then he shakes Absalom’s hand. You wish you were as gentle and generous as this man is.

At one o’clock you and Absalom climb back up onto the rickety bleacher and listen to the Mt. Zion gospel singers. There’s the pastor off to the side, playing the keyboard and calling out for a response and directing, all at the same time. The gentle tall man in the red shirt was right: they’re small, but they’re loud.

When they’re finished, you pull the sealed notecard out of your pocket and you and Absalom go in search of the pastor, who’s already folded up his keyboard and is lugging it back to the trunk of his car.

“Pastor?”

He turns and looks you up and down and says nothing, but nods. He’s a little wary.

“This is for you and your church,” you say, and hand him the notecard.

He still doesn’t quite know what to make of you, but you thank him for the gospel performance and then shake his hand.

Later, you and Absalom get in the car and drive out of town onto the unmarked sand roads that branch onto and off the river from which the town and the bay take their name. The headwaters of this river are in the Appalachian Mountains, far north of Atlanta, and it gathers itself as it flows south, becoming a wide, brown, slow-moving river that eventually empties into the bay. This bay and its estuarial waters produce 90% of the oysters eaten in Florida and 13% of the oysters eaten nationwide.

Absalom and you are in search of what are known in these parts as fish camps, places where people who want to disappear from the world can disappear into. You’re in the mood to disappear from the world for a little while, and Absalom, adventuresome soul that he is, is perfectly willing to go along with this.

“See, this is the kind of thing that he would do,” you tell him, speaking of your friend whose up north funeral it is today. “He was always calling up my dad and telling him things like, ‘I heard a rumor that the largest cat in the world lives three hours away, are you in?'”

Yes. Your dad was always in. Back they would come, laughing, full of stories to tell.

Absalom and you wander the back roads until you find your way to a fish camp where a man can take a shower for $1.50. (Women? Good question.)

Beyond the fish camp is a boat landing: dark clear water, old motorboats tied to the dock, chain-link boxes half-submerged in the water. You don’t know what those boxes are for, and you ask an older man with carefully-combed silver hair what they are.

“Those? You can put your fish in there if you catch too many to hold in your bucket but you want to keep on fishing,” he says.

You wonder what kind of fish can be caught here.

“Anything,” he says. “Catfish, mostly. Bass, too. All kinds of fish. Sometimes a bull shark if the tide is high and the river turns salty.”

He eyes you and Absalom.He knows by your accent alone that you’re not from around here.

“Where you folks from?”

You tell him. He nods. He tells you more about the river. He was born and raised here. Joined the army and spent a lot of years living all over the place, then retired and came back here. He has a camp up the river.

“You can only get there by boat,” he says. “There’s electricity, but that’s it.”

“No roads?” Absalom says.

He shakes his head. “I go up there for three-four weeks at a time,” he says.

You tell him that you would do the exact same thing, which is true. The older you get the more you want to disappear, for three-four weeks at a time. Longer even. Unplug. Retreat. Live in silence for a while.

Suddenly he gestures to his boat, an old green boat with a motor hanging off the end.

“Climb in,” he says to you and Absalom. “I’m going to take you upriver.”

You and Absalom climb in. You’re going upriver. One hand on the tiller, the other pointing here and there, the silver-haired man shows you the river. He tells you about cypress trees, ancient and permanent, how the stumps you see here and there were probably cut 100 years ago, but that cypress doesn’t rot. He points out cypress knees to you, roots pushing up above the loamy ground so that the tree gets enough air. Those other things, the ones that look like stalagmites? Those are new cypress growing up out of the roots of the old ones. And those other trees, they’re sweet gum. You should see this river about a month from now, he tells you; you won’t believe how beautiful it is right about then.

You and Absalom sit quietly and listen. Here and there along the wide brown river, on either side, are old houseboats tied to trees with long ropes. Camps hauled in by boat, one load at a time, and built right there on the banks of this ancient river. This is a place you could go to disappear.

When he brings you back to the dock he shakes your hands and tells you to give him a call next year; he’ll take you out and show you some more. You promise to do that.

As you and Absalom are leaving, another boat comes putting up to the dock. In it are three older men that, you swear, could be transplanted to the diner you grew up eating in. You can see yourself sitting in a booth with those three fishermen and your father, trading stories.

When Absalom stops to take a picture of the $1.50 shower you close your eyes for a second and send the image of those men to your dead friend. He would have loved this adventure. He would have climbed right into that boat and stayed out on the river all day.

On the way out of the fish camp you and Absalom spot another cemetery, up on a bluff, nearly invisible. You would have missed it entirely if you hadn’t raised your eyes at just the right moment. Out you go, to wander around.

Of all the headstones, maybe twenty, in this tiny cemetery, only one has a name on it. All the others are nameless, unengraved. Blank headstones to mark a life once lived, by someone who wanted anonymity.

You remember your dead friend standing with you on the country road where you grew up, spreading his arms out wide to encompass the valley that held both your houses.

“This is God’s country, isn’t it, Al?” he would say. “There’s no place more beautiful.”

Unlike the souls buried in this sandy patch of land, next to this dark river, it was never his wish to disappear. He wanted to be surrounded by those he loved.

But he would have walked this cemetery with you. He would have said a prayer for those buried within it.

* * *

Charon

You who pull the oars, who meet the dead,
who leave them at the other bank, and glide
across the reedy marsh, please take
my boy’s hand as he climbs into the dark hull.
Look. The sandals trip him, and you see,
he is afraid to step there barefoot.

ZONAS, 1st century B.C.E. (translated by Brooks Haxton)

Poem of the Week, by Philip Levine

You Can Have It
– Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.



For more information on Philip Levine, please click here: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/philip-levine

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Three Small Conversations from the River

 

 

 

You and your old friend, a friend of thirty years’ standing, get in the car and open the windows and put on the music –Etta, Nina, Tina– and drive to the primeval river seeking its wide brown waters and everything held within and without: the cypress rising like sentries on either side, the sweet gum trees, the scrubby pines.

Your friend had spent the weekend hoping to see an alligator, something he’d never seen in the wild, and his hope became yours too. It had been a weekend of adventuring up and down the unmarked sandy offshoots of the river, finding the fish camps into which, if you were a person who wanted to disappear from the world, you could haul the shell of an old camper or school bus and put it up on cinder blocks and do just that.

You’d seen pods of pelicans and pods of dolphins in the ocean and, here by the river, either an eagle or a hawk trying to scare another eagle out of its high, silent orbit. You’d seen snakes in the water and the skeletons of unknown animals littering the banks of the river. As the sky grew light at dawn you’d looked out the window and seen the elegant droop of a sleeping peacock on the high branch of a high tree across the road.

The day before you had rambled through an old campground in search of the two-headed palm that was said to grow there, and you saw that too. Your friend had brought two fine cigars down with him and you stood at the entrance to the campground and smoked them and took photos of each other smoking them.

Now you were back in the car and traversing the byways, seeking out boat landings and fish camps and the denizens of the river, both animal and human.

* * *

“If I write you into the story, do you want me to use your real name or your nickname?” you say to your friend.

“If you write me into the story you may refer to me as Absalom,” he says.

* * *

You and Absalom are sitting on the concrete piling of a boat landing at Howard’s Landing. The sun beats down. The river is wide here, dark and placid, bending its way around a far curve lined with sweetgum trees, dotted with the occasional rowboat.

You watch the two closest to you. Each holds a fisherwoman wearing the kind of hat that you used to see on the heads of field workers in China. They are calling to each other, a slow, lazy conversation that winds and curves like the river.

“Every mornin I praise the man in Jesus,” says one.

“As Jesus is in the man, I praise him too,” says the other.

“I’m not phrasin it right–”

“–I know what you mean.”

(Pause.)

“Sing it,” says one. “Sing that song about the road.”

“What song?”

“That road song.”

“I don’t know it.”

“You know it,” says the first, and begins to sing: On the road again. . .

“Oh yeah. I know it. Skinny long ponytail down the back man.”

“Tha’s right. Sing it.”

(Pause.)

“Y’all got any wuthwhile crickets over there?”

(Pause.)

“They’s some crickets here but they’s not too lively.”

“I got to bail this river out of my boat then I’ll be over.”

* * *

Back in the car, windows open, Gear Daddies singing about a summer kind of sad. Dusty, sand-rutted road lined with pines. Why are none of these landings marked? Never mind, you know why. Places people go to disappear aren’t usually well-marked.

A car approaches from around a bend. You frown and glance over at Absalom. He’s also frowning. You know exactly what’s on his mind.

“Look at that car,” he says.

“I know.”

“It’s not right.”

“I know,” you say again. “We should be the only car on the road.”

(Pause.)

“It doesn’t take long, does it, Absalom?”

“You mean to get used to being away from everything?” Absalom says. “To being the only car on the road? To the silence and the solitude and the slowness?”

“Yeah,” you say.

“No,” he says. “It doesn’t take long at all. It’s surprising just how little time it takes.”

* * *

Poem of the Week, by W.H. Auden

Funeral Blues
– W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.



For more information on W.H. Auden, please click here: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/120

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What Was Really Happening

Late last night you drove three hours in deep darkness on the highways and then byways of a nearly-forgotten southern coast.

What was really happening was that you were thinking about another trip you took at the tail end of last summer. One of your youthful companions was with you, the middle one. Her belongings were jigsaw-puzzled into the trunk and the back seat.

She sat in the passenger seat, or rather she reclined in the passenger seat, and slept. She slept almost the entire way, over a thousand miles, as you piloted the rental car through the highways and byways of Minnesota and Wisconsin.

On the car ferry that crosses Lake Michigan the two of you made your way to the top deck and dragged lounge chairs over to the side. She reclined hers fully and fell asleep for most of the four-hour journey across that vast lake, waking up when you pressed half of a giant chocolate chip cookie into her hand.

Once in the car again, on the other side, she fell asleep again while you drove through the vast forests and hills of Michigan, a remote and, in your opinion, highly underrated state. When you crossed over into Canada –blessings on Canada, that vast and beautiful country– she fell asleep again.

She came awake when you spontaneously steered the car toward Niagara Falls –where you hadn’t been since you were a child– and the two of you got out and walked the length of the stone-walled path, cooled and softened by the ever-present mist rising from those enormous falls.

“Why am I sleeping so much on this trip?” she said.

“You’re tired,” you said. “It’s been a busy summer.”

She nodded. It had been a busy summer. Travel and socializing and working, all busy things, things that could tire a person out, but not so much when you’re her age.

One of the things that was really happening was that she had spent the summer not thinking about what was coming at the end of it, which was this long trip that was carrying her away from the city of her birth, the city she loved. That was carrying her away from the place that held her childhood.

But here she was, and here you were, getting back in the car for the final few hours of the trip which would bring her to a new place, where you would leave her. You decided to say something true.

“You’re sleeping so much because I’m driving and you feel safe because your mother’s taking care of you and it reminds you of being a little girl, so you let go and you fall asleep,” you said.

She smiled. There were only a few hours left to this trip and she didn’t fall asleep again. It was too late now not to think about what was to come, all the newness, all the unfamiliar people, all her friends back home.

All her friends weren’t back home, not really. They too were dispersing, if not to places a thousand miles distant then to places closer. But still: different. Different places. New places. New lives.

The thing that was really, truly happening was that she knew, fundamentally, that the life she had lived up until now was over. Still part of her, as it would always be, but over.

You glanced at her, gazing out the passenger window. She was the second of your three youthful companions. Her brother had two years of being the only one, before she was born. Her sister would have three years of being the only one, now that she was leaving. She was the only one who had never had a single stretch of time with just you.

For some reason this had never occurred to you before, and as you watched her looking quietly out the window at the woods and lakes of upstate New York, the knowledge smote your heart.

Something else you knew but didn’t say was that she slept so much on that trip because what was to come was inevitable. There was nothing she could do, at this point, to prevent it.

Choosing where to go to college, whether to go to college, who you’ll live with when you’re there –none of these decisions were the catalysts of the change she was facing. Time was. The simple fact of years, years that go by, that ferry a person from one stage of life to another.

Sometimes you’re aware that it’s happening, other times it just happens.

There have only been a few times when you yourself weren’t trying to influence the outcome of something in your own life. When you weren’t striving for something, urging yourself on, making lists, working on something that would not see completion for a long time, if ever.

What all this busy-ness means, ultimately, is that you count on there being a future. You count on there being days and weeks and years ahead of you. How often has it happened that you just. . . stop? Shut down the planning, the thinking?

Rarely. Almost never. Two times come to mind.

The first: you were a child, riding in the back seat of the station wagon with your sisters. Your mother was driving. It was winter in upstate New York: snow and wind and black ice on the road. The car began to slide. It was sliding sideways and you were looking out the window and you knew it was going to slide right into the ditch, right into that wall of snow on the side of the hill.

There was nothing you could do. You let go and let it happen.

The second: about an hour after that girl, the one looking out the window on the final leg of the thousand-mile journey, was born. She was a long time coming, like her brother before her, and by the time she was clean and swaddled you were so exhausted you couldn’t speak.

When everyone was gone –the nurses, her father, the silent smiling man who brought you a plate of supper– there was only one lamp lit in the room.

It was night. It was winter. She was sleeping in a plastic-walled box on wheels next to you.

You don’t know why you turned on the t.v., but you did, muting the sound. There on the screen, bombs were falling on a distant country. Your country was bombing another country. You had brought another human being into a world full of bombs and violence and terror.

For the first and only time you can remember, this didn’t matter to you. You didn’t start planning and worrying and shaking your head.

Here was a quiet room, a lamp, a sleeping baby, a plate that held baked chicken and green beans and buttered toast. You let go and let it happen.

Then you closed your eyes and went to sleep.

In the end, is this the way it is? From one life into whatever, if anything, comes next, does there come that sleep? That letting go?

Between two unknowns, I live my life.
Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am
by coming before me, and my child’s wishes, older than I am
by outliving me. And what’s it like?
Is it a door, and good-bye on either side?
A window, and eternity on either side?
Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.

(excerpt from “The Hammock,” by Li-Young Lee)

Poem of the Week, by Ross Gay

Overheard
– Ross Gay

It’s a beautiful day
the small man said from behind me
and I could tell he had a slight limp
from the rasp of his boot against the sidewalk
and I was slow to look at him
because I’ve learned to close my ears
against the voices of passersby, which is easier than closing
them to my own mind,
and although he said it I did not hear it
until he said it a second or third time
but he did, he said It’s a beautiful day and something
in the way he pointed to the sun unfolding
between two oaks overhanging a basketball court
on 10th Street made me, too
catch hold of that light, opening my hands
to the dream of the soon blooming
and never did he say forget the crick in your neck
nor your bloody dreams; he did not say forget
the multiple shades of your mother’s heartbreak,
nor the father in your city
kneeling over his bloody child,
nor the five species of bird this second become memory,
no, he said only, It’s a beautiful day,
this tiny man
limping past me
with upturned palms
shaking his head
in disbelief.


For more information on Ross Gay, please click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_Gay

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Things of this world

Last week you had a vivid dream in which the lyrics to a beautifully sad Willie Nelson song you’d never heard before went scrolling through your head. When you woke up you went to the computer and googled the first line: I have a thing for the things of this world, but no such Willie Nelson song exists. You took this as a sign that you needed to write a poem that began with that line. But you put it off.

Yesterday, while you were driving in the pre-dawn dark to a tiny airport on the Panhandle, you went through a drive-through to get a cup of coffee. You took the coffee from the nice girl, so sweet and patient there at the drive-thru window at 6 a.m., and said thank you. Before you got back on the road a message ticked into your phone. You checked it. Then you pulled off the road and sat there and read it again. You sat there and thought, no. Not possible. This was a man you have known all your life. He and his wife knew you before you were even born.

You sat there in the car and called your parents.

? you asked your mother, and . . . was her answer, and ? and . . .

I’ll put your father on, she said, he’s right here.

— and then your father was on the line, your father who managed to say He was my oldest and best friend before he burst out into those awful, heartbreaking sobs when he heard your I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, and had to hang up the phone, and you sat there in the car for a while before you started it up again and pulled back onto the road.

Why is this so hard to write? Because it’s not a poem, you can hear your father’s oldest and best friend saying, although he was far too gracious ever to say such a thing. Poems rhyme, you can hear him saying, although that, too, he would never say. You think of that sad song you dreamed last week, the one you put off writing.

On the way to the tiny airport, there in the pre-dawn dark, animal eyes glinting from the ditches the whole way, you could picture them in your head: her, short and stout and devout, and him, smiling. You could hear his voice, hear the sound of his car door thunking shut in the driveway of your parents’ house, hear the songlike melody of his deep voice. You could hear the Swiss relatives yodeling down the valley when you were a child lying awake at night. You could see their Christmas tree, lit and glowing through the window. You could see him in the barn with the baby calves, in the farmhouse before it burned down that awful year. All the way back to the frozen north, from airplane to airplane, he kept appearing in your head.

There he is, walking through the kitchen door. Walking into the diner because he heard you were home. Behind the wheel of a big old car on a dusty rural road, pulling off to the shoulder and waiting for you, the eternal walker, to run up to him so he can roll down the window and find out what you’re up to. Telling you how special you are, how beautiful you are, things you know damn well he says to everyone he loves but which always, somehow, when you hear them from him, make you feel that way.

This is hard to write. It’s not a poem unless it rhymes, you can imagine him saying –he never would say something like that, but he wrote a lot of poetry, and every line of it rhymed.

There is no time of your life that you can remember without him in it. He is threaded into everything that has to do with the place you still call home. There he is dancing the polka with your mother on the dusty second floor of the dusty rural dance hall. There he is standing in the field, telling you about the beaver pond and how gradually, over the years, the beavers have come to trust him, and how he will take you out to see them one of these days. There he is showing you the soft ice cream maker that they kept in their pantry, the magical soft ice cream maker that used to make a half-gallon of vanilla every night until he had the emergency triple bypass. After the triple bypass you wrote him a letter that must have said other things but all you remember is the one line that made you sit down and write it: Do you have any idea how much I love you? You remember how tight he hugged you next time you saw him.

When was the last time you saw him? Last fall, it must have been, when you were sitting in the booth at the diner with the men, all his friends –was anyone not his friend?– while he sat on the red stool opposite you until you got up and sat next to him on another red stool so you could talk just to him. Oh this is hard to write. You have begun and erased this at least ten times since you sat down at this table.

Poems aren’t big blocks of words, Al, you can hear him saying, even though he would never say such a thing. Poems rhyme. This isn’t a poem, Charlie, you imagine saying to him. Make it a poem, Al, you can hear him saying.

Long ago there was a silent rift between you and someone dear to him, and you didn’t know he knew about it, and you would not ever have brought it up, and you retreated, you backed up and away, you thought you might not have anything other than polite conversation with him for the rest of your life, and that should be all right, that should be enough, you were a grown woman for God’s sake, you lived a thousand miles away for God’s sake, but late one night when you were home visiting your parents you saw his car pull into the driveway and you leapt into bed and told your parents I can’t talk, I’m asleep already, tell him I’m asleep, but –so utterly uncharacteristic– he went past them and came into the room where you were hiding and told you how sorry he was, and you could see it in his eyes, on his face, in the way he leaned toward you, huddled stupidly on the bed with the blanket pulled up around you. You hadn’t ever seen a look like that on his face, his always-smiling, always-interested, always-calm, never-judgmental face.

This taught you something, which is that when you see a rift, repair it. Or at least try. So that you know that at least you tried. This is very hard to write because there is too much to say. There is too much to protest. Is there anything good here? you said to one sister last night, anything at all? You could feel her silence over the phone. Um, they were not young? They never saw it coming? They went together? They went instantly? No. None of these are good enough to make anything about this good.

This is going to be the biggest funeral that Steuben has ever seen, you said to her. There will be no place big enough to hold the mourners.

You want to write about him, to honor him, but you can’t do a good enough job. Try some rhyme, Al, you can hear him saying, although he would never say such a thing.

Okay, Charlie, I’ll try some rhyme. Here you go. This one’s for you.

The news came that Charlie had died
his loved wife – his “bride”– by his side
I tried to write a poem in rhyme
but I knew there was not enough time
to say anything that needed to be said.
Too sad. Too many memories in my head.

Poem of the Week, by Maria Baranda

(Excerpt from) 1
    – Maria Baranda (translated from the Spanish by Joshua Edwards)

Everything begins with the moon and a desolate sky,
a place of frail words to open
the native prose of dreams. Calm
country poplars, Indian laurels
rise up, anxious on this island of memory.
There go the men who sail into port
when the word burns like a suburb
of truth, a mark on the page
that formed the earth. They approach too quickly.
They have lost the light and now break open a sea curd
in which time crackles.
They want to erase their names, to plant scams
in slow spirals of foam.
They recite a verse in an exiled country
like a clear net around infinite oceans.
There is blood between the rocks.
You listen to them. You wait for their silence.
You know they constitute an era.
Who will defend them from themselves?
Who will endure their eternal burden,
their first night of wind?
They’ll remain in books forever.
Syllables of gratitude, sentences where the remnants
of their century glimmer.
They are a sliver of light within the atlas of time.
You pray for them.
You open a coconut and you drink from it.
Bells ring where birds chirp,
where fish throb with the calmness
of a heart that’s on its own.
Once again the dream flows beneath your palm-thatched hut.
Who delights in you? Who says such prayers for you?


For more information about Maria Baranda, please click here: http://www.shearsman.com/pages/books/authors/barandaA.html

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