Thursday, August 30, 2012

Al Maginnes

Against the Hard Weather

This weather, dry and cold enough
to crack the skin stretched
across hinges of bone, has nothing

to ask from the streets it empties,
the bars and lit stores where
the shivering seek respite or from

a sky so wide and stark
any light turns intruder,
false as promises of eternal love

littered on walls and notebook covers,
spray painted on the water tower
by each year’s senior class, bodies

giddy with the notion of escape.
The only work for those who stay
comes where lights stay on all night:

third shift at the assisted care
center or loading bags
at the tiny airport for those able

to depart. The summer I was
supposed to leave, someone returned
from prison, the name of a girl,

who dumped him months before
he was arrested, inked and needled
into his arm, a sad bit

of love-graffiti, made sadder
by the bouquet of swastikas
garlanding her name. She was gone,

never saw her name blaze
living flesh or heard his longing
spill across conversations,

spoiled, overweight, assuming
a welcome that did not exist.
After a few weeks, he found work

at the rest home, sloshing
water the color of stone across
moon-dull floors and mopping,

nose curled against the blossoming
odor of ammonia, pale perfume
he smelled hours after driving home.

One night at the bar, when the dry
edge of fall felt like rescue,
sleeves rolled down to cover

the name he no longer mentioned,
he told us about a resident—his voice
more deliberate when he said residents

who had outlived even time, existed
in eternal present tense. On nice days
she walked outside where she stooped

mechanical as a crow, to pick up
pecans scattered over the grass.
She always left her day’s gathering

by the back door, and each morning,
just before light, he walked
the wet grass, scattering her harvest

so there would be something for her
to find. Love is something like that,
its arrival forsaking fire and blood

to bring one piece at a time,
objects that fit the hand or fall
away, all of them alike only

because for a moment we think
they are what we need against
the hard weather longing delivers.


Light from Bodies of Dying Fire

We don’t get long to stand under
            the star-throttled dome of sky, to be
breath paused in the heaving chest
            of the world. Centuries burn
above us so completely it is
            uncertain whether the past
or the future turns to ash,
            then ether, above us. The man watching
the sky through his back yard telescope
            can plot the constructs of Scorpio,
recalcitrant Capricorn, even, if he must,
            angry Cancer, but he will not say
how long since his wife’s touch woke him.
            The telescope can focus
on a single star, fill its lens
            with a solitary fire he mistakes
for loneliness, but the sky has
            no loneliness except what belongs
to the man who must rebuild it
            each night. One conceit says
that in death we ascend to find
            the ones we claimed to love
waiting, reconciled. This might
            be true or we might discover
ourselves floating through
            the universe of lost socks, misplaced
phone numbers, the wrong turns
            and unmatched clothes that are
the lunar debris of  lives, particles
            unclaimed and burning away
so rapidly no telescope can
            register them. He recalls the dust
of freckles across her shoulders,
            tiny constellations whose patterns
he loved too well to memorize.
            She floats in the liquid spell
of morphine, a nurse dozing
            in a chair by the bed while
he orbits the room where
            he no longer sleeps before
lying, near dawn, on the couch,
            one portion of sky visible
though he cannot say from where he rests
            the names of the stars he sees
or how long since light started from
            those bodies of dying fire.


What Becomes Holy

My first god washed from the sea, a shell,
            a chunk of coral, steady sleeping reminder
of how much of creation must remain
            beyond my reach. My second god was
the knife I used to drill my name into
            any surface that held still. Now,
it is the nameless wren nested so long
            in the limbs of our slow-dying dogwood
I believe it sleeps under my heart,
            only to be startled into motion by any
pitch or cough. Once, the painted eyes
            of the man carved on the cross locked me
in a blind stare I could never outlast.
            Noise came from the choir box, sounds
harder to translate than wren-song.
            We labor to believe in salvation
but have no power to choose
            what becomes holy. The afternoon
two friends and I held our silence for as long
            as it took the sun to set remains
eternal as baptism or birth. The naïve ear
            bent to a shell hears an ocean
vast an empty as sleep, itself
            a kind of god, shapeless and mostly dark.
The passengers dozing on the plane
            might have been praying, so resolutely
were their eyes shut, their bodies upright,
            mouths open as if to admit the holy song
of the wren. Sun eased into
            the curve of the earth, ice-heavy clouds
glowing bright enough to offer
            a brief hope for miracles. What was there
to pray for from that height
            but safe return to the earth
of iron and seed, of water and rust,
            but deliverance from our brief naps
of terror and faith. The sleeping wren’s
            single god is sky, but fear takes it
so far into the hollows and thickets of trees,
            it loses the sky, lights among
invisible branches to wait,
            as any frightened thing must,
for the furies of the blood to subside
            into language finally able
to dream a way into prayer.


Report from a Winter Drought

Whatever my life is, it is
slower than the ticking heart
of a watch I no longer wear.
Few lift their heads after passing
A half-century and exclaim,
“Here I am! Right where I meant
to be,” and I am no exception.
Today, the great mystery and joy
of my life kept tugging me
to my feet for another walk
down the hall or outside to kick
through brown leaves and watch cars pass,
engines and radios bumping
asynchronous rhythms that seem
designed to disrupt the heart.
This is the season of short days,
daytime too brief to contain
the energy of not having been
on this planet long enough
to know you cast a shadow.
At night, after sleep claims
the rest of the house, I listen
to jazz over my earphones,
following the reckless path of horns
with attention I rarely use
anywhere else. Tonight, they block
the brush-soft strokes of slow rain,
the first in weeks. Lake beds have become
tramping ground for scavengers
hunting antique fishing tackle
or fossil proof of what lived
before us. In the next county,
officials are coming the shelves
of school libraries for any books
that might offend. Last month,
I showed my daughter the ocean
for the first time, its unfolding
a story that won’t stop being written,
blacks and grays tumbling over
and over one another like stones
in a hopper, all the treasures
of and geographies of the sea floor
hidden, but I recalled a story
of the five Chinese brothers, each possessed
of one unworldly talent. One could
blow harder than the wind. Another
could draw and bring the drawing
to life. The brother I remember could
drink the ocean dry. He promised
a boy who begged that he would
empty the ocean long enough to let
the boy see what the water hid.
The boy promised to be watchful
and to come back at the signal.
Of course the boy wandered too far,
and the ocean-drinking brother—
stories were crueler then—spit
the ocean back in place,
drowning the boy. No librarian
would stock that book today. We want
fiction of softer consequence.
The story I want from each day
is that my daughter has learned
another work on her walk
into English, small artifacts
of breath and sound and, later,
alphabet arriving to serve her
even in a world where books
disappear from library shelves,
where the past can be slipped
into a pocket and borne away.
There are parts of the past I will
wish to keep hidden from her,
but she will learn everything
I don’t want to tell her
as inevitably as the changing
of weather. For so many years,
I longed to know just one thing
for sure. On walking tours
of historical sites, tourists linger
by old jails, seek the gallows,
the whipping pole. Maybe they want
to believe themselves safe from
imprisonment that allows everything
to be said in the clash of steel
against steel, erasure that leaves
only the name, the half-word scrawled
into a cell wall’s paint. It’s possible
to stand too long, trying
to read the end of the message
that began there or in the splash
and fall of waves, the empty spaces
on shelves. Even the soft recitals
of rain deliver an alphabet. Today,
when I tried reading to her,
my daughter, creature of the moment,
seized the book from my hands
and laughed, my giggling censor,
my half-sized future, my unseen
life continuing.


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