Farther up the road you gonna reap what you sow
Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor—impossible to kill.
Take it as given round this big river that nearly
every neighbor has sliced off a rattler head,
watched the headless rope’s shivering frenzy,
become transfixed on the moment the line was crossed.
Like a bad 70s bIack and white photo, that last boy scout
excursion in swampy Southern Illinois. Us kids
walking railroad tracks, leaving pennies to be
smashed flat by the trains. The elders with cigarettes
and whiskey, managing the fires, preparing coffee,
never dreaming two pygmy rattlers would pour
from the sleeping bag recently inhabited by Jeff Schultz,
the marshmallow kid with bad karma who should
have stayed at home on his couch watching cartoons.
In that weekend’s lore we stoned the two six inch
deadly wrigglers, then later in the heat of the afternoon
killed a large timber rattler in a wild dance, then
sat by the fire, shivering in evening cool, still re-living
the dream, making sense of what kid eyes let us see—
already crafting a story we could share over
and over for decades, how we reacted when we
needed to, stared head on at writhing chaos,
looked close at the poisonous, understood how
the extraordinary alien lives, then later in a strangely
sacred calm we preserved the stark evidence,
creating a souvenir marking this rite of passage
cured with time—the rattle cut from the tail,
the decapitated head with the mouth pried wide open,
fangs exposed, now fingered a thousand times.
So we could peer into lidless eyes, touch again
the crude wound. Undeniable, how adults are capable
of believing so little. But the rattle still works as
a satisfying warning, proof of what awaits. Separated
so cleanly from the twisting body, the head still
dangerous with fangs pressed hard against the palm.
The fool’s mask
Remembers the pepper on the tongue
reverie that deepens into solitude
in the half-imagined but real sounds
in the remnants of the day disappearing.
Remembers, like these are essential memories,
the mouse before the fireplace,
the dog padding in the quiet dark,
the cat alert to an entire developed community
now recognized as truth. Remembers when
the day’s door opened to the cold wind,
that startling raw violence exists,
maybe half accidental but still cruel and so vivid,
like that time clear as day in Turkey
when a donkey was slaughtered mid-bray
before it could have its say. But layered with meaning,
like that day I pushed away with a stupid aside
the dark-haired woman I was meant to love.
Remembers in this tentative air it is best
to not map out the trail—to pretend to live
like we know ahead the steps. Remembers
in the Yeats’ vision women were carried off
and ravished by clowns—and round here
the carnival is long gone. Only the river remains
rushing before us carrying the overwhelming
history of the tribe. Best not believe in labels,
for the sediment forms artful new patterns,
rearranges what once seemed firm.
Welcome, the half-seen smile in this breath,
as if again I could be solid, one whole
with time stopped, so that what was read last night
remains wise. Surprising, a kernel distinct,
still real beyond the babbling voices in
the competing romance. Surprising, a future’s
uncertain turning—the vanilla/lilac smell
coming from some ancient civilization—
a fresh day not yet congealed. So quick,
boundaries dissolved when my head was turned.
The day still light and clouds and wind.
While we danced
we tell the story we’ve memorized by heart,
we know when to insert facts and what emotions
are better left in our bodies.
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa (Poetry (13), Vol. 289, number 1, Spring 2020
The black cat’s wide oval eyes memorized the moving skin
of our lives not at all predictable except in our monthly tragedies.
A year ago on one my tramps round the vile haunts,
I discovered this kitten sleeping,
half stupefied in a den of infamy. When
I reached to pet behind her ears she crawled close
then readily came home, and for some time
pretended to be domesticated, kind of like my lover
at the time who latched on, insisting on sex
that hurt (me). Because all that pounding takes its toll,
soon enough time jumped and rolled with
speedups and voids until a narrative page
turned over, my life beginning again with both the cat and lover gone.
Right now, I regret her absence, how she brushed against
my legs as I recreate moments of peace,
relishing how so little happened before this
recent invasion when the universe turned over,
concrete and the concertina wire counteracting
explosions and bodies in the park.
Who knew in that urgency that when we blithely excused
torture we were killing what we loved.
In some different future we might well go back
and live by our animal names—mouse pig rat dog
cat mole donkey instead of hiding in camouflaged clothes,
creating little movies, then lurching on all cleaned up
ready to perform. Waiting for the lull before our opponent
realizes he has a winning hand revealing today
the stuffed carny animals have again come alive.
Living as if we don’t hear the awful quiet before
the next language assault, every syllable annunciated
in a power game insisting on some bully’s great win.
But knowing like Robert Creeley it’s only a matter of miles,
that we get elsewhere and wake with a mysterious smile,
ignorant again about everything yesterday we felt
was real. Ready for more.
Stand So Close
When we touch even from a distance,
the powerful connect both delicious and frightening.
Like last week immersed in a club’s packed synergy
the ache we felt reaching for each other,
sure if the audience didn’t give all
the singer would stumble, fall silent.
Or us kids stifled in Sunday’s purging constraints,
how the hymn soaring high with the organ
and trumpet freed us—made us shuffle
standing as one beast, then released us
into the outside sun. The many pathetic attempts
to arrange and layer these moments when
so much came together. Like when the family
in the photo studio posed shoulder-to-shoulder
in the contrived scene, the futile attempt
to freeze all we were in one perfect smile,
the poignant awareness of being both separate
though bound in love. How the connecting
etches in memory like the singular precious photo,
like the handholding peace as a friend’s
seemingly permanent story disappears
into death’s room, her fresh grin becomes
half ethereal, shadowed, mutates into
something not yet defined. Remembered,
us together in a wedding’s strange chemistry,
the magnetic attraction/repulsion pinned in the pew
smelling spring flowers, feeling the baby
gaining weight, becoming real, the little arms
already waving. Or later, closer to home,
us humans wandering, the instant bus stop
connect, eyes rushing to fellow travelers,
acclimated to layered smells, scuffed shoes,
the palpable sagas shared. Impossible to predict
when next we will be glued tight—maybe
again that magic in the just right song,
restraint falling away—the move toward
each other—the musical huh, huh percussive
voice brushing close, James Brown (yeah yeah)
funk sliding in a groove, expanding
then contracting, a tiptoe dance growing comical
with the sense of wonder. We touch,
and the familiar explodes. See See See—
swirling air erasing boundaries,
the world again brand new.
Mark Vogel lives at the back of a Blue Ridge holler with his wife, Susan Weinberg, an accomplished fiction and creative non-fiction writer, and two foster sons. He is an Emeritus Professor of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.