and MOVING THE DEAD RIVER WEST
[two recent book manuscripts]
All contents copyright 2004 by Richard Robbins
In our county, porcelain
grottoes float on the lawns—tipped
vertical, planted halfway—
so now the iron-red stripe,
for years our shame when hosting
houseguests, swings up, a comet
tail vaulting Mary’s low sky,
one geranium to the next.
And she deals her miracles
even here, simple fields turned
to noise large as the world. We
listen some nights to the corn
and in that absolute dark
hear chairs, our barn, our flat talk
all slide below us as we
rise to the right hand of God.
and Lucille Burroughs, Hale County, Alabama”
—a photograph by Walker Evans, 1936
Where the floor planks go,
Where the wall planks go, she goes.
Where the bare feet begin, both
through this door frame to supper,
out to old fields of the earth.
Where his wrist holds together,
where her fingers meet their next
hinge, a place where each second
side of them loves to meet itself.
To My Son in
I love to watch you set out
on your run:
a little hop at the base of the stoop
only I can see, and then you’ve begun
becoming light, your light feet flying up
the microsecond they land, your progress
away from me a streak, a stroke of paint
in the piece made of my first happiness,
these tiny griefs, like now, when you disappear.
You move mile after mile without complaint.
You hardly breathe hard coming back to dark.
I met your mother after poetry,
at a backyard party where beer and Yeats
turned hot July sweet. I took her fishing
the next week at Ninepipe, all those hens, drakes
kicking away from our lines, turning sky,
the whole Mission Range to waves confusing
as you. This is not what you want to hear,
I know. I’m killing you with a story.
But know those trout—hot, confused—kept biting.
We did our best that day, tottering on shore.
And understand I didn’t know I loved her
until later. It was not like with you,
instantaneous, sudden as the blur
across your mother’s stomach when you moved.
We passed through second thoughts and arguments
and months before I knew. We came this far
so we could hold together, cup your temper
in our open hands, hoping it spins away—
but if not, to wait here anyway, no complaint,
so you will know we love you all the same.
Nudged into an inner wall,
to every squabble, there was a nest
where grief lay its eggs. Their footsteps led there,
even walking away. Sorry joists
bulged like ribs. Across humming, ancient
wires, their house talked and talked, the present
they gave themselves for a miracle birth
of something flying, tired, out their chests.
How is it, cutting
pink grapefruit, the bloody halves
rock a moment on
the board, shining up all
the way to the table, all
the little rooms scooped
out, moving your direction
on the spoon, and you
hardly notice what’s going
inside, those hundreds of tears,
hundreds of dams near
breaking, newspaper glaring
back in its dumb way,
your mouth open, the city
moving the dead river west.
Years ago that bloody one,
danced around a settler bending low.
He begged to keep his scalp. And that other
re-enactment: the cowboy face-down
in scrub, and spreading away like oil
the Big Empty, everywhere evil.
A vulture rode the dead man like a raft.
It picked at his ripped back. Even now,
this high place gentle, the sky a church,
I know the weather changes, the lurch
of burn and freeze, the ones behind the wheel
who smile, stop, then hang you on a fence
like so much meat and laundry. I write
beside roadkill, softening under flies.
I’m not sure if, reading this, you’re safe there.
Places have their way with sacrifice.
The Shape of
Iona from the Air
—an island in the Inner Hebrides
The head and shoulders of a
looking west, the front fetlocks gone,
the huge body kissed and swallowed
by the Sound. Whisky huts settle
down the ears and mane, a thin green
place where windows glance back, across
Martyrs’ Bay, toward Mull, and after
Mull the deep cleared glens of Scotland
emptied for sheep. A golf course switches
back and forth at the stallion’s throat.
Its brain full of red stone hazes
with machair. At the hard widening
of its neck, a heart-path opens
through the only loch—and on south,
at Columba’s Bay, where a saint
unpacked the first legend, artery
open wide as a beach, the horse
disappearing green now under
low tide. If we fall out of sky,
what arm or nest could catch us? Not
the abbey clerk’s, busy drawing
the ancient floor plan. Not the cook’s,
not the bike owner’s. Nor, at steep
cliffs, where the raging knees rear up
into western sun—especially there
the guillemots and kittiwakes
will not save us, our eight limbs quick
to tick away at the ledges,
our plane exploding before sea
takes us both in for the mending.
The Women of
After the explosion and the
of fire and linen, after hot steel
cooled on the ground, they buried each neighbor
or son, undertook the terrible
reunion that began with quiet heaps
of travelers’ clothing left on each stoop
by the coroner. In their own kitchens
they picked bits of hair, bone from the slope
of a shoulder yoke, they bleached out soot,
perfume of fear, their tired Scottish dirt
before they washed the clothes for a last time,
dried them on a line in west wind, brought
each thing back inside for the pressing,
the folding, the packing in tissue
before all was sent back in parcels
marked for shipping to the grieved ends of earth.
I’ve been reading his
poems for her,
finding out their various addresses
here and there across the black
transom still as large as forgiveness.
I know the weather on Primrose Hill
the day she stares down a group of
children playing near her favorite
azaleas. Also the absolute
pose of the insane, loving fire,
eating it even as it eats
her hollow from inside. Also
the unrelenting need to see
oneself young again, blind to last
acts, at home or in another
woman’s bed, the need to understand
Ted first, Sylvia already
in orbital decay, just days
before the planet reaches up
and pulls her in. Hard to know, then,
whom Death chooses, or whose clothes he wears
there at the Ouija board, the two
asking Will we be famous? and
Death throwing his voice. He could have
worn owl feathers, the face of a
poacher in the fen, insistent
song of Mother’s ambitious tongue.
He could have worn Sylvia all
along—we would hardly doubt it—
helping her to block sets, lights bright
and garish. Nothing artful,
really, about the way he works,
setting us between dark wings, in
lines of each other’s action. Now
curtains opening, now suddenly
we talk and move and all of it
to demonstrate some Great Idea.
It really doesn’t interest me
anymore, all these rages traced
writer to reader and then back.
The children grow beyond the hive,
the horn, the sex their mother loves
about dying. Grow beyond the
father stopped, picking up fallen
bats on the walk so as to hang
them back in the trees. Only they
seem to know what daylight is, kids
in guarded anonymity,
adults living above the earth’s
surface, man and woman grown now
beyond a grave.
The Martian poet of his generation
does not promote himself as such. He does
not pout when the host does not present his
check by noon on the day of their meeting.
He is a grateful guest, far from the desert
that is both home and sorrow, modest in
his needs without fawning. He does not wear
his anger like the veteran his medals.
He is not proud of being bruised by his
birth, as a rich man is made smug by his
father’s money. He does not wear Eguzh,
the Neruda of Mars, in his poems
like the lawyer dressing in denim. He
does not carry his frown like the man who
carries false teeth in his pocket only
to smile in darkness. He does not promote
himself as such.
The Martian poet of his generation
is more like Q, who doesn’t need me to
mention his name. He has come 141
million miles to read you his poem about
the sad, drunken brother in the middle
of the night. He will scramble eggs for you
if you stop by his rust-colored house. He
will help you wash dishes if he visits
yours. He wears his Martian body like a
manta ray wavering over coral, like
a bear hovering over his bones. If he
growls at you, it will be because he is
proud of his teeth and the bad breath of bears
and the stink of brine—all emblems of the
higher qualities of Martians. It will be
compliment beyond measure
that he thinks enough of you to show real feeling
rather than to wear a mood like the fraying
sweater he put on one afternoon
below zero reading Zerx, the Vallejo
of Mars, and forgot ever to take off.
The Martian poet of his generation
does not make everything of what he had
nothing to do with—although he could, with
the ease of angels, match another’s horror
with his own, even as he erased it
in the dark of your four hands.