Saturday, 14 February 2015

from Blackwater Quartet, selection 24

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?

… Away.

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.

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