’s Free Union (2009) and For the Mountain Laurel (2011) are part of the VQR Poetry Series from the University of Georgia Press. His poems have appeared recently in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and other magazines, and in Best American Poetry and The Rumpus Poetry Anthology. He lives in Earlysville, Virginia, and teaches poetry at Sweet Briar College.
Like the Springtime Gander
First of May: noontime and the pen makes its clicks
to say ready. Coffee and pale sun along the sill.
The perfect metaphors of rivers, perfect metaphors
of shore, adjacent ascensions from the real into
O best beloved abstraction. If the windowpanes were clear
their glass would be no use to me at all; the smear
and haze is all I need. Through the casement, in sepia, a box
of old photographs, drifting up the sky like arcing swifts.
Today I walk beneath tall poplars, reading Doug Powell
and the Psalms. Eating slowly, and knowing nothing lasts
but what you make out of love. Those were us, I think.
This is me, looking for a mule to ride. This is me, playing it
straight. Maybe just a good morning’s work, maybe just
lighting on the only thing I knew I knew how to make happen.
—He was a burning and a shining light, and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in it—
I know what will be asked of me.
How grief blunts the senses
selectively. In its ochre silences impenetrable.
But the world seems made of colors.
If only, if only. In morning traffic’s snarl and shunt,
an eliding diphthong in the slow, bent note;
fall smolders in an after-wash of done rain,
forty degrees, & we shall not see his like again.
Insufferable & commonplace, the prescriptions
of memory. Low bridges over the flat Nansemond,
gleaming like a dream of Jesus. Shaky winter light
like pale liquid seeping through loblollies;
on his desk, an array of old papers, scattered
in the shape of some thought he’d had.
By the grave’s edge, old stony lonesome line
of arborvitae; I watch an egret wheel and soar
and grayly wither. The shovel-faced preacher
gets too familiar with himself. I’m waiting
for good news from a season it isn’t, thinking
of the blue Shenandoah in its somnolent bawn.
I call myself a name my father gave me,
& his father before him, and his before,
walk ellipses in the poems like a lost sailor
in a strange port town. When thought flickers
from one end of its sky-blue sphere
to the other—a shift in wind, perhaps,
or a fast occlusion on the grass that means a bird—
watch the way emotion stumbles, intellect balks.
His mind was imperfectly bright. From a relative dusk
without, all was illuminated within; it wavered,
now incandescent, now clogged with wrack and wreckage.
Stroke rowed across his river’s mind & rendered him
inert. Near the end, he lay like an instrument de-tuned,
too-loosely strung, still reverberant. After symbolic language,
the insouciant, the grateful, the real. He needed
no illusion, borne slowly across on the slow wherry.
By the canal of his baptism in his robe and garments,
Washington’s ghost gazes southward through its brass theodolite.
John, go unafraid. The water is living. In a blinkering twilight,
homeward-driven, the green moment when meaning seems
within one’s means. Act like you been there before, I think. Who stood
in line with the living, & bore a right man’s name and pall.
—for John T. Casteen, Jr.
Creature of Need
Beneath low cloud, cold pastures full
of burnt and silvered light. No one walks
alongside in the night field but you
& deer who sigh among tall grasses not yet
high enough to hay. Far whistles bawl across
the rail-trough of the valley. Don’t let the sun set
on your anger. Tomorrow hitched by common law
to never. Go easy, my brother. Go easy
down the narrow way. My shadow falls
face-first among the waves of moonlit grain.
Incrementally, the wind-tide runs & heaps itself.
Incrementally, night takes us each to one side.
It seeps between our bodies and our sometime
clothing, refusing us its little pleasantries. Stand tall
now, toss a handful of dust where dust alone pertains:
the mind’s country, no wrong act no right consequence,
no need to apologize for doing what it was
you meant to do. I want to know the true truth,
that finest of fine lines between being and becoming.
& then, in sight of where we pitch and yaw,
the pipe-gate astraddle the hoof-hard trace’s top,
the shackle of the cold stiff lock whose key lies cold
in my pocketed hand. O go and be what you are, one thinks,
at the end of the very end, ending these late-century blues.
Photo of Mr. Casteen by Anna Williams