December 2013 Poetry Feature

Celebrate the year’s end with work by powerful younger poets new to our pages: R. A. Villanueva, James Byrne, and Nathaniel Bellows

Bird of prey flying

 

R. A. VILLANUEVA

 

Albumen

With the name of your first son your mother

speaks of her brothers, stillborn, laid to rest

 

in the family plot. How the southern

provinces flooded full those seasons, fat

 

with novenas and rain. We look away.

You kiss his face, open your gown to nurse,

 

ask for someone to braid your hair. The boy

has lungs like bellows so you make a place

 

for his lips. Then, there is quiet. We stare

up at the TV, where detectives trawl

 

a lake front, trace a body with lights, bare

its bruises and cuts. You close your eyes, tell

 

of his birth in water warm to your waist.

We pray: Holy Family. O Holy Ghost.

 

*

 

Each of us raised by a family of ghosts

and masks and talking gods. That the Good

Lord knew His mother dreamt nightly of boys

cut down for Him—held their eyes inside

her—is certain. And that we know we have

taken air from those we love is sure. In

albumen prints of Hopi dancers, the

men all have snakes in their hands or teeth, sing

for rain with rattles and whips. Faces flush

with clay or feldspar, the sky behind them

is parchment. They touch feathers to the earth.

Think here of hands, noise, of covenant hymns;

how Palm Sundays we spent the liturgy

knotting crosses from branches, swords from leaves.

 

*

Not lime or bleach, but oil and spore; knives, sword-
sharp, left to the sink, catching rust. Each day

it proves more difficult to shrug away
the cracks in the moulding, the clots of hair

in the drain. So I say I love you more
than everything and mean You cannot die

before I do. I mean Every joy
we have nests within these bodies’ finer

rots. According to the numbers, we don’t
have time. Glaciers are losing ground, white smoke

blossoms from a caldera, and your womb
grows tired of waiting for us to talk.

What else do we have? I love you more than
all this. You cannot die before I do.

 

 

Electioneering

Tomorrow we mind the moss

and empire grasses, will tend

to the tiger orchids hanging

 

from the hot-house rafters.

Today we bring ourselves

to matters of the crash and trill.

 

The arrowheads ask to be pulled

from the morning’s quarry,

the plowshares clot with rust and

 

here I think of the soft sinew

which holds fast the heel

to the calf. I think of cataract

 

city-states minting their coins.

At our funeral, the bassoons

and viols played “The Battle Hymn

 

of the Republic” in cut time.

The chorister promised songs

of paradise and disaster half-

 

averted: a house, broken free

of its caissons, kept aloft

on the wings of hawks.

 

R.A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria, winner of the 2013 Prairie Schooner Book Prize and a founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art

 

JAMES BYRNE

 

Multiple Helpings, Yangon (2012)

Buffet the size of Yangon train station

Buffet den-eyes tureening spider soup

Buffet with Tiger and Yunan beersheets

Buffet wives subservient in tinderboxes

Buffet cronies drumming a parquet floor

 

Buffet with a puckery kiss for the boy-waiter

Buffet chopstick karaoke goes nickety-nick

Buffet made in china tipping lip service

Buffet skewered with spit and betel juice

Buffet insect greases kyat for buffet soldier

 

(multiple helpings)

 

Buffet table made of jade-dukkha-teak

Buffet tiffin for the monk’s xylophone ribcage

Buffet gleaming in a foreshore of oyster sauce

Buffet hand-shadows cup the railway awning

Buffet feeding awake the nightmare

 

Buffet stench rising from rotting potholes

Buffet belly ballooning over a loose flip-flop band

Buffet doling out the four-suit flush

Buffet bandwagon the season’s new beige

Buffet cheque arriving on a string of blood

 

 

James Byrne’s most recent poetry collection Blood/Sugar, was published by Arc in 2009. He is the editor of The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine, which he co-founded in 2002. 

 

NATHANIEL BELLOWS

 

The Catch

Something is wrong. Something went

wrong with you. I was listening and I

saw it: a shadow, a blackened halo like

the depths masking the silvery flickers

of the fish in the pond in the woods. My

sister reached into the shallows, snatched

one up in her hand. Much to the delight

of her son. Much to my delight. This is

how she is: quick, deft with the catch, with

getting it, especially when it comes to depth,

darkness. She knows what I mean when I

say: Something is wrong. We ask: When

are we made? When is the mold set and

how many ways can we be broken? The

ground broke to make this pond with its

broad fence of birches, a broken wall of

white. The fish lay across her palm, still

as a blade. A family arrived, a couple and

their son, just in time to see her snatch up

her prize. They stood there surprised, which

delighted me: nothing is better—worse—

than being stunned into silence. You had

silenced me; I wanted to run. The fish lay

stunned. The boy, pale face shallow as a

dish, struck dumb. Just by looking at him

I knew something was wrong. Not his

fault. Who made the crack, the fissure in

his mind? Who sliced the spring to fill

this darkened divot in the forest? When

the boy finally spoke, he screamed—lips

like the fish’s empty mouth, gasping for

air, answers: out of its depth it knew all

was not right. Of course my sister got

this, released the fish to vanish into the

silt. It’s okay, the parents reassured the boy,

nothing is wrong. My sister rinsed her

hand, secured her son against her. I don’t

hold this against you—what I saw when I

listened to you: the shape, the shadow,

the slender silvered thing you use to slice

the world. Some hold blackness, in order

to let it go. Some run and never return.

But what I saw—what you showed me,

extended like an offering, is that you own

it, host this depthless pool of darkness,

but you do not know that you do.

 

The Walled Garden

The gardener asked me if a deer had run out from behind the
wall. He was standing up the hill, against the wind, and with
his thick brogue I couldn’t understand him. But a deer had been
there. They are darker here, built lower to the ground, with up-
right pipe-like antlers. It ran across the daffodils, vanished down
the gulch. The gardener approached, muttering a congestion of
grievances, most of which I couldn’t catch. His little brown terrier,
compact as a loaf, skittered after us as he led me through the gate,
into the walled garden with its library at the top of the hill, a grove
of fruit trees, an expanse of grass—green, bleached gold—at the
base of the enclosure. He spoke in a rapid, lyrical murmur, tinged
with dismay, saying how the deer jump through the hedge, decimate
the fruit trees he’s been hired to tend. He walked downhill, gestured
for me to follow, explaining that the deer I’d seen was about to give
birth. Any day now, he said, scanning the ground, jabbing at the
earth with the hard toe of his boot. The year before, he’d found two
fawns—tiny, enfolded, concealed in the weeds. You don’t see them
until you’re standing on top of them. He said this twice, making
me wonder if he had actually trod upon the fawns—and if he would
do so now—stamp on their necks—should he find one with me
watching. They drop their babies here because it’s protected. His
voice was warm when he said this, an unexpected shimmer of
tenderness. Then, as if for balance, he pointed back to the trees,
named them as one might recite the names of the dead: Apple, pear,
cherry…Wouldn’t your dog alert you if one were here? I asked.
The dog was idly chewing on a flower. He shook his head: The bairns
have no smell—part of nature’s protection. He continued his hunt in
the grass as I edged back up the hill, hoping he’d follow. He did,
turning back to the trees: their compromised care, the poor planning
of their plot, the sparse clover meant to be their beds. I saw the pride
he took in his work. I understood it. I was understanding him better
now—nearly every word. Not that any of us will ever be fully under-
stood. The night before I’d seen a deer by the river. Our eyes met. I
saw the glassy dark globes in its tapered skull. It studied me before
slipping into the birch grove. It’s not something I can explain—not to
myself, and not to the gardener, who handled each ruined blossom on
the branches with a mixture of love and futility. I didn’t want to know
what punishment he planned to exact on the intruders. I only knew I
couldn’t judge or object—and I couldn’t watch, bear witness to how-
ever it was meant to end. I left him there, in the spiked shadow of
the library, that refuge removed, our silent paper tomb, charged with
protecting our innocence.

Nathaniel Bellows is the author of the poetry collection WHY SPEAK? (W.W. NORTON) and the novels ON THIS DAY (HarperCollins) and NAN (Harmon Blunt Publishers). 

 

Julia PikeDecember 2013 Poetry Feature

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