Rules of Engagement
No snow now, only the memory of it,
yet April, insufficient still
except to tease each tree to leaf
then black the scent, infers a present
old enough and no older, the future stalled,
in a ditch-water sky the sun a hawk shape
faint above the cedars.
I came this far returning, from a cold spring
this close remembering why I came.
My flight to a lost world
claims back twenty years, a deep breath
held and held until I surfaced, just once,
back home, until then
a place where the dead and living stood unchanging,
all of one house in one memory,
the way memory remains
unchanged, faces and lives left standing
clear-edged in the mind
asking directions to a voice, its echoes.
Below the Mason-Dixon
everything and nothing changes.
The 19th century slinks by the Chevy showroom,
the lakeside condo views.
The maples are bigger now, vast canopies,
a tendril vastness of shade
dwarfing the old house— Mother in the yard
with the dead she counts on one hand,
on the other the living counted down
one by one to last addresses, cancer, each divorce,
a reconciliation no nearer
for the names recalled across time and these states.
These rebel towns are all the same:
the courthouse lawn, divot rednecks
arguing the war— the Civil War—
the shadow bronze of the Confederacy
a birdshit glaze all summer.
The past, its terrible beauty,
decorates each volunteer.
Where you been?
The sun-break of oak along wide lanes,
in the stands pretty girls
baring midriff tans, at the field’s edge
the immaculate diamond’s early innings—
‘If I knew then…’, but what do I know
except that pretty girls are harvested,
boys now lean and quick move slower
every game, that the world itself slows
and no one can replace the day
within a field of bright days.
A white timber house, its shutters
closed against the heat, by the porch
the rambling reds of roses, reminds me
someone I knew lived here, in war time,
in a fragrance of pain, TV deaths less real somehow,
in a child’s throat
waves of jellied fire
burning through a million boxes
as we watched the Superfortress passing,
remote as a god.
Outside the town, old redoubts,
the old betrayal of armies from an older war
met in abstract time, each soldier’s soul
commended to a retrospective heaven
North or South—
I read about it in a book, the cemetery
stripped of railings for a prisoners’ stockade.
Salvation was sudden for civilians at their rest.
Beyond age, or childbirth, or the cholera
that set them deep in iron perimeters,
paradise came open-plan.
Maybe Jesus saves,
but in the rules of engagement
tomorrow is a land cured of memory,
where death means breathing easy
and time sanctifies and frees.
Here is yesterday, the secret slave,
the earth cleared grave by grave
along the path I took, the name
made for it but never shared—
in the mouth a kept coal,
its bitten heat.