by Mark Burke
Who was the first to speak out loud,
call to the sky, invent a name
for the lord of light?
Was she in the mountains when clouds
came so low against the slopes
she dreamed she could walk across
into the other world where her mother had gone?
Was it when she tucked the stiffened hands
into the shallow crevice,
put the stones on her eyes?
Was it when she wanted to lie down
once more with the man she slept against for years
or in the shadows of a cave
when she begged for her baby’s breath
to thread the night again?
Was it when a man lay in the grass
floating an ocean of stars;
when he walked with his clan through the woods,
the sun beginning to devour the fog,
birds darting the air as he imitated
how they addressed the light?
Or was it a day like today
when she walks down the steps
with the last of her things,
her little dog dancing beside her leg
as if he was my soul reaching for her body,
jumping, staring up at her,
pleading for her touch again?
We’d lay on the sand around the fire,
the solemn, mumbled roar of the ocean,
watch for shooting stars, pray for warm weather
and the women it would bring.
Cast-offs from city, high school drop-outs
done with physics and the Roman empire,
each hermit had come during late April rains,
squatted in the government forest.
Zen searchers, learning the true way,
a case of beer in town, a salmon at the docks,
hitch back to the trance of sky and water.
I’d hike the days scouring for fire-wood,
read in the late afternoon light, fried tuna,
potatoes and onions over my little fire,
trek the rocks for the lies
we’d tell ourselves at the beach-fire.
Burned down to embers, each climbed to his claim,
tent hidden with boughs, high enough in the woods
to dodge the rangers and the morning sun.
Late spring brought women in twos and threes
and paths wore between the ferns, electrons
revolving each nuclei, doomed to repel and attract.
I learned a forest-courtship etiquette,
gifts of firewood, mother-of pearl,
the taste of ocean salt on skin,
how her voice braided the ocean wind.
Early evening, climbing her path with my gift,
I saw another supplicant
slip from her perfect blue tent
and paradise cooled.
The laws of thermodynamics foment instability
a harsh truth that must be accepted.
By nightfall, an extra electron flung off
seventeen miles down the coast highway,
I began to understand the classroom drawings,
the power released when a charge is thrown
from the nucleus, the flux of magnetism,
this way of rushing through the world.
Days are not as they were.
I clear the new field alone,
fill the wheelbarrow with stones, broken roots,
what I should’ve said.
I lift and stagger with the weight,
push the load, spill it in a row of piles,
the stone border I’ve made to keep you here.
I’m always losing trees,
limbs taken by the weight of the snow,
deer reaching for shoots, cankers grown on the trunks
in the months of rain.
At night, I’m lost spinning with what you’ve said.
I lose to the shambling bully
who prowls late-September nights,
smashes fence planks, shakes the trunks
until the trees give up their plums,
his black pit-filled scat piled near the gate.
I lose when the scar in your voice
scrapes mine, the stricture of years
tightened around longing.
Orchard voices seep into the air
as I talk to the trees, prop up
what’s been bent but not broken,
drift out on the plains of regret.
I practice again what I will say.
But there are mornings when a dream
clears the night, the pillow smells of your hair,
your singing rises up
from the rows of blueberries
and I am found.
He penciled out his plan on a grocery bag,
cut the staircase timbers from what he saw
in the fir when it stood with its crowd.
Lumber stacked to cure through the winter,
each Sunday he’d go to the drying shed,
run his hand over each ragged grain,
breathe the cinnamon-fennel scents,
listen for her voice.
Gone for so long, he talks to himself, the birds,
the dogs, careful with his voice at the stores.
Building is his last solace,
making what will not go away.
He milled stringers and treads from the timbers,
planed them smooth, mallet nudged
the tread ends’ chiseled tongues
tight into the mouths cut in the stringers.
Promises only work once,
they lose their shine with each offering
and wear away.
Worn out, he left for town with her desk and books.
Still, he lathed the railing to allow her grip,
eased the spindles’ nippled dowels into the holes,
fitted the carved gooseneck insert
into the staircase railing’s turn.
Though each day her voice weakens with eleven years gone,
it drifts the room like perfume.
Cut, tried and trimmed again,
he shaped the pie-wedge treads
into a fan of steps to negotiate
the staircase turn at the landing.
Left long ago to his solitary strategies,
he has made a bandaged peace with his station,
grown the habits and compensations all must
to make their truce with time.
The staircase pieces glued not nailed,
wedged into one soul, he sits
at the foot of the stairs with his glass of rye
sailing the summer they met.
LEARNING TO DANCE
The year before I left school, I started
going to dances at the church hall.
Hooked on the two-four sorcery of bass and drum,
I’d hold up a wall for an hour
before I could ask the one whose eyes
turned ice to water.
Walking home, we danced the dark,
played hide and seek and I was lost for a year.
I woke as the plane eased down into Luxembourg.
My father would say, go where you want,
just tell me where you are.
I still tell him, evenings by the ravine
watching the juncos flit up to the feeder,
wisps of his voice falling behind my eyes.
That morning at the hostel I tried to remember
why I’d gone so far, rode the train to Zurich,
found the copy of Tolkien jammed behind my seat
I’ve kept all the way to now.
Four days later, near Chiasso, I hitched
across the mountain border pass into Italy,
traded my boots to the driver for a knife.
He talked to me like the brother I never had,
took me to his family on the high meadows,
two bedroom stone house, small barn
packed with sheep at night.
For a week I was a shepherd, scavenging the slopes with the ewes,
back by dusk, we ate rabbit in garlic and fennel
and I began to see what was important.
I had gone away looking without knowing
what was beyond the room I’d painted teal,
the pointless school, moody priests.
He took me back to the fork and I didn’t want to get out,
walked the dirt road until a flatbed
carried me all the way to Venice.
I slept the first night in the sand out on the Lido.
After four days I started hitching south again,
headed for Florence, slept in fields,
accepted what I was, that I was looking.
No rides for a day, evening staining the light,
I laid in the grass off the two-lane road,
ate my crushed bread, cheese and jam,
read until the stars came out,
watched for ring-wraiths, conjured
how I’d dance now not so afraid.
About the Author:
Mark Burke’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Sugar House Review, Nimrod International Journal and others. His work has recently been nominated for a Pushcart prize.