Barefoot, in unaccustomed clouts or skirts of raw muslin, With new tin cup, rattle or scroll held in diffident hands Stripped of the familiar cuffs, rings, watches, the new holy-men
Avoid looking at their farewelling families, an elaborate
Feigned concentration stretched over their self-consciousness and terror,
Like small boys nervous on the first day of baseball tryouts.
Fearful exalted Coptic tradesman; Swedish trucker; Palestinian doctor; The Irish works foreman and the Lutheran Optometrist from St. Paul: They line up smirking or scowling, feeling silly, determined,
All putting aside the finite piercing recklessness of men
Who in this world have provided for their generation: O they have
Swallowed their wives' girlhoods and their children's dentistry,
Dowries and tuitions. And grown fat with swallowing they line up Endless as the Ganges or the piles of old newspapers at the dumps, Which may be blankets for them now; intense and bathetic
As the founders of lodges, they will overcome fatigue, self-pity, desire, O Lords of mystery, to stare endlessly at the sun till the last Red retinal ghost of actual sight is burned utterly away,
And still turn eyes that see no more than the forehead can see Daily and all day toward the first faint heat of the morning. Ready O Lords to carry one kilo of sand more each month,
More weight and more, so the fabulous thick mortified muscles Lurch and bulge under an impossible tonnage of stupid, Particulate inertia, and still O Lords ready, men and not women
And not young men, but the respectable Kurd, Celt, Marxist And Rotarian, chanting and shuffling in place a little now Like their own pimply, reformed-addict children, as they put aside
The garb, gear, manners and bottomless desires of their completed Responsibilities; they are a shambles of a comic drill-team But holy, holy—holy, becoming their own animate worshipful
Soon all but genderless flesh, a cooked sanctified recklessness— O the old marks of elastic, leather, metal razors, callousing tools, Pack straps and belts, fading from their embarrassed bodies!
Stanley Plumly *
The two-toned Olds swinging sideways out of the drive, the bone-white gravel kicked up in a shot, my mother in the deathseat half out the door, the door half shut—she's being pushed or wants to jump, I don't remember.
The Olds is two kinds of green, hand painted, and blows black smoke like a coal-oil fire. I'm stunned and feel a wind, like a machine, pass through me, through my heart and mouth; I'm standing in a field not fifty feet away, the wheel of the wind closing the distance.
Then suddenly the car stops and my mother falls with nothing, nothing to break the fall . . .
One of those moments we give too much to, like the moment of acknowledgment of betrayal, when the one who's faithless has nothing more to say and the silence is terrifying since you must choose between one or the other emptiness. I know my mother's face was covered black with blood and that when she rose she too said nothing. Language is a darkness pulled out of us. But I screamed that day she was almost killed, whether I wept or ran or threw a stone, or stood stone-still, choosing at last between parents, one of whom was driving away.
How many names. Some trouble or other would take me outside up the town's soft hill, into the country, on the road between them. The haw, the interlocking bramble, the thorn,
Most Recent Book: Boy on a Step (The Ecco Press, 1989)
head-high, higher, a corridor, black windows. And everywhere the smell of sanicle and tansy, the taste of the judas elder, and somewhere the weaver thrush that here they call mistle, as in evergreen, because of the berries.
I'd walk in the evening, into the sun, the blue air almost cold, wind like traffic, the paper flowering of the ox-eye and the campion still white, still lit, like spring. I'd walk until my mind cleared, with the clarity of morning, the dew transparent to the green, even here, in another country, in the dark, the hedgework building and weaving and building under both great wings of the night. I'd have walked to the top of the next hill, and the next, the stars, like town lights, coming on, the next town either Ash Mill or Rose Ash.
Then sometimes a car, sometimes a bird, a magpie, gliding. This is voicelessness, the still breath easing. I think, for a moment, I wanted to die, and that somehow the tangle and bramble, the branch and flowering of the hedge would take me in, torn, rendered down to the apple or the red wound or the balm, the green man, leaf and shred.
I think I wanted the richness, the thickness, the whole dumb life gone to seed, and the work to follow, the hedger with his tools, ethering and cutting, wood and mind.
And later, in this life, to come back as a pail made of elm or broom straw of broom or the heartwood of the yew for the bow, oak for the plow—
the bowl on the wild cherry of the table for the boy who sits there, having come from the field with his family, half hungry, half cold, one more day of the harvest accounted, yellowing, winnowing, the boy lost in the thought of the turning of the year and the dead father.
An old mortality, these evening doorways into rooms, this door from the kitchen and there's the yard, the grass not cut and filled with sweetness, and in the thorn the summer wounding of the sun.
The glare's a little blinding still but only for the moment of surprise, like suddenly coming into a hall with a window at the end, the light stacked up like scaffolding. I am that boy again my father told not to look at the ground so much looking at the ground.
I am the animal touched on the forehead, charmed.
In the sky the silver maple like rain in a cloud we've tied: and I see myself walking from what looks like a classroom, the floor waxed white, into my father's arms, who lifts me, like a discovery, out of this life.
To start again with something beautiful, and natural, the waxwing first on one foot, then the other, holding the berry against the moment like a drop of blood— red-wing-tipped, yellow at the tip of the tail, the head sleek, crested, fin or arrow, turning now, swallowing. Or any bird that turns, as by instruction, its small, dark head, disinterested, toward the future; flies into the massive tangle of the trees, slick. The visual glide of the detail blurs.
The good gun flowering in the mouth is done, like swallowing the sword or eating fire, the carnival trick we could take back if we wanted. When I was told suicide meant the soul stayed with the body locked in the ground I knew it was wrong, that each bird could be anyone in the afterlife, alive, on wing. Like this one, which lets its thin lisp of a song go out into the future, then follows, into the woodland understory, into its voice, gone.
But to look down the long shaft of the air, the whole healing silence of the air, fire and thorn, where we want to be, on the edge of the advantage, the abrupt green edge between the flowering pyracantha and the winded, open field, before the trees— to be alive in secret, this is what we wanted, and here, as when we die what lives is fluted on the air—a whistle, then the wing—even our desire to die, to swallow fire, disappear, be nothing.
The body fills with light, and in the mind the white oak of the table, the ladder stiffness of the chair, the dried-out paper on the wall fly back into the vein and branching of the leaf—flare like the waxwings, whose moment seems to fill the scarlet hedge.
From the window, at a distance, just more trees against the sky, and in the distance after that everything is possible.
We are in a room with all the loved ones, who, when they answer, have the power of song.
It isn't the poppies, their red and accidental numbers, nor the birdfoot-violets, their blue lines wasted, nor the sheer, uninterrupted wayside pastures—nor along the river the centuries-faded terra-cotta farmhouses, outbuildings, floatings of iron, iron windmills, pastoral or neutral, like the ancient towns walled-up in sunlight and the failed machinery left abandoned. From a summer I can still see the sidewalk broken by a root and follow, in a thought, the bull-blue thistle wild along the fence-wire into the country. Here the thistle blooms too tall, the color of clover, Great Marsh and Musk, and spiked like roses. Something about its conference and size, its spine indifference—.
We are drift and flotsam, though sometimes when we stop to look out over the landscape, outcrops of limestone and a few stone sheep, the ground itself seems torn, and when we drive along the white glide of the river, the high wheat grass like water in the wind, someone in joy running from the house, the story is already breaking down. The season is ending, fire on the wing, or the season is starting endlessly again, sedge and woodrush and yellow chamomile, anywhere a field is like a wall, lapsed, fallow or filled, a stain of wildflowers or a wave of light washing over stone, everything in time, and all the same—
if I pick this poppy, as I used to pull up weeds, wild strawberries, anything, a city will be built, we'll have to live there, we'll have to leave. Once, and in one direction only.
And the figure on the landscape coming toward us will be someone we knew and almost loved, or loved, for whom this moment is equally awkward, as for those ahead of us it is equally condemned, ploughmen and gleaners, shepherds-of-the-keep, those on the road, those lost.
Bernadette Murphy, 1943-1955
Fat girls have more fun in the woods Is what boys said. What did I know?
An Indian fell from the cliff To name Sally's Rock. This was truth.
What did I know? The Army Camp Was built to keep the Russians out.
This was truth. Ike was President. Bernadette did it if you asked.
To keep Russians out of our woods. Ail day we slunk from tree to rock.
If you ask now what I saw then I have to say what I said then.
Nothing. Bernadette was climbing Sally's Rock. It's what we all did.
From tree to rock to cliff. For fun. She'd found a cave where she could watch
While I looked everywhere for her And no matter how mad I got
She would watch. She would not call out. I saw then that she must hate me,
So I got mad. It did no good. I found the ledge. It did no good.
I hated her. And ran away. And told them at the Army Camp
That a stupid fat girl was naked In a cave high on Sally's Rock.
The Army Camp turned out to look For Bernadette, and found her
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Dead on the stones beneath the cliff, And asked me again what I knew.
Fat girls have more fun in the woods. The Army keeps the Russians out.
Bernadette does it if you ask. An Indian fell from the cliff.
Beneath the cliff the soldiers found Nothing. What did I know? Nothing.
Ike was President. This was truth. Bernadette loved you if you asked.
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