for Horace Pippin, 1888-1946
Beside the field of experimental corn, poppies tip
their cups and turn their crowns to light. Few think
of Flanders or fields seeded with bones and char,
of cordite-crazed horses and air beat black by fists
of mortar bursting over the grave-deep mud, but I do.
My gift, perhaps, after pondering the blue spells
of a broken vet, the desolations of his canvas,
and his life misspelled into a notebook.
Am I altered by imagining a war nearly
a hundred years gone? If I stand displaced by poppies
a-sway beside the stays of a fence? If I imagine
they are gaping mouths, or handkerchiefs ruined
with the bloody-phlegm of gas-seared lungs,
devastation’s emblem grown again, wild seeds
from roots never entirely rent, ringing
their petaled bells unheeded? Poor Cassandras,
poor red poppies, field poppies, remembrance flowers,
but what is mended by their reach? The poppies say
nothing. To witness—is it to burn, to set grief aflame
as poppies do? Red poppies rise between bluestem
and fox grass, amidst milkweeds and coneflowers,
out of place, scalding the unwary eye.
Picture of the Poet and Horace Pippin Before the Perigee
On Prairie Street, a bat folds and unfolds
under the boughs of a sycamore.
The black iris opens, black,
purple-black, a thing of night.
A neighbor says that a whippoorwill called
for three days (early morning and evening) before giving up.
I go out, when it is dark enough,
to see the perigee.
milk moon, clabber moon,
old woman’s saucer.
I see my shadow on the sidewalk, the night shadow
of a night-colored woman, and remember his words:
we went to bed in the dark
and got out in the dark only the moon showing.
before fields of black mud, he looked at the stars.
In darkness always the same question,
how to sway darkness?
Beside the magnolia, I watch the perigee:
sap welling from a milkweed stem,
a Sunday pearl, an infant’s skull.
I think of you
and your long-ago answer,
your small and necessary act, to look
and look beyond.
With your son, you painted
with red fingernail polish,
made a matchbox coffin
(also painted), and lay the corpse
to rest on a bed of grass.
Acetate, your son’s breath
and your petition—
Cicada speak for us.
Let us be gravediggers—
digging spaces for nothing larger
than a matchbox, nothing
than the space
between two cupped hands—
but the cicadas sang in the olive trees,
so loudly, your words were never heard.
In Vernon, the skin-bubbles of cicadas
cling to pine-bark and kudzu.
My father warned me
never to play with the skin-shells.
They carry lice, he said.
(And fireflies cause warts, he said that too.)
But I plucked
the fragile husks anyway, liking
their bulgy eyes and delicacy,
trying to fill the tiny skin-pockets
with sand, learning the uncertainty
of flesh, its brittle integument.
Shed the skin-self. Discard
its porous measure, the cicadas sing.
But I never learned the trick
of sloughing skin’s boundaries,
shedding once and now
for the sake of next—a song,
the wings’ release, another body.