On the Banks of the James
Again I walk the fields.
I follow a run-off down to the James.
The prairie here
tilts one down to the river.
The water barely moves.
It is muddy, almost thick.
Beer cans here on the bank.
Discarded plastic-wrap packages
of tackle, a tissue.
A few firs, some large boulders
scattered along the edge.
The water meanders across
a quiet landscape
and carries a leaf
dropped by a leaning cottonwood
slowly away. Strange
I should take you
where I go for loneliness.
If I should outlive you
there will be time enough
to sit on a rock beside
a dark river and reflect
on our lives together.
But for some reason I feel,
now, that we have made a home
on this river, that this river
is like our bed and that we
have stretched ourselves out in it
and lay on it touching side by side,
that we have turned ourselves face down
in it, got lost, at times, to each other
because of our immersion.
The stream of this reflection engulfs me,
and I am afraid. Afraid
that we have been carried
without our notice
to unaccustomed banks.
That the river has deluded us.
That this our bed
has really not been kind to us,
but has instead been trying
to wash us out to sea.
I must go home,
I must go home and somehow
try to find a way to tell you
about this river,
and what it has been doing to us.
You grew up the only boy in a family of girls,
constantly compared with your cousins
by a worrying, overprotective mother
and a temperamental father who beat you.
In Viet Nam you suffered permanent injury.
Knee blasted. Heart blasted. Soul blasted.
Valley Forge gave you repairs and a wife.
But you had to discard your first
and disown your son. The beginning
of a habit that has plagued you
for more years than one wants to count.
How many wives and children? Four
and four? New York, Florida, California,
a stint in Iowa. Not that the custom
today outlaws such inconstancy but
that for you each one was a remaking
of your blasted soul. Mother and father
rejected in each abandoned face.
Yourself blasted in each rupture.
The joblessness. The re-emergence.
The emptiness of owning only clothes.
Now you sit in my house,
after two heart attacks, overweight,
and stare at me with confession in your eyes.
I touch your forehead
and you are burning with fever.
Burning, with your life's aimlessness.
I am moved by the gratefulness in your eyes.
Your big, lumbering body expresses
resignation and defeat.
The heartpains of a life that never started
nudge you closer to the grave.
We are all aimless drifters, our lives
as meaningless as the stars
or a drop of beggar's blood on a crust
of bread. Only, you have lived to learn
this as your personal fate.
Advice to John and Henry
Beckett said it a long time ago:
There is nothing to express, no one
to express to, nothing to express with,
and a deathly obligation to express.
It's a formula for Wall Street"Obsession,"
A blue entanglement of naked limbs.
Words get paralyzed by such appeals.
Even violence adds to profit margins:
Lethal shadows, vice, bondage keep us
enthralled, and paying for it, like coke.
Nothing to express, no one to hear.
Everything bears the smudge of usage
and overhandling even the soul. Why
make poems anymore? Because we still die?
To blot this last weakness with words?
A deathly obligation to express!
I do not want to hear of love.
And do not vivify the senses out of
some minimalist dogma to restoicize the art.
Only a true stoicism might work.
But I think of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor,
at the head of his troops meditating
the rational order as he burned with fever,
playing out his last hours like cold rain
trickling in the run-off from the fields.
When you take a walk at night
be prepared to think each shadow hides
the intimate blade or feverish eye.
Learn to fear each wavering of
the moonlit branch you walk beside.
No soul. Don't waste words on it.
No order. Save your pencil stubs.
Don't bore us who are no longer children
with all that indulgence in your dicks.
And stay away from animals and vegetables.
Not another cormorant taking the plunge,
or bunch grass on the prairies or dunes
symbolizing the new humanity in a stark waste.
Or worse, a silver trout striking the fly.
Give me, instead of submersive, subversive effects.
Show me the mania of dustcaked Achilles.
I'd rather have the hard stroke
that cleaves the collarbone, and that rough
man standing there to watch the black
blood spoutor tossing bodies in the Skamander.
Or give me something bettera gutted building
with blackened windows and broken glass,
slush in the streets, a slanting rain.
Vapor puffing from a black man's mouth
at two a.m. The threat unsheathed.