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The World of the Ten Thousand Things
By Charles Wright
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1990 Charles Wright
All rights reserved.
THE SOUTHERN CROSS
Homage to Paul Cézanne
At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts
To stay warm, and litter the fields.
We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth.
Like us, they refract themselves. Like us,
They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.
Like us, the water unsettles their names.
Sometimes they lie like leaves in their little arks, and curl up at the edges.
Sometimes they come inside, wearing our shoes, and walk
From mirror to mirror.
Or lie in our beds with their gloves off
And touch our bodies. Or talk
In a corner. Or wait like envelopes on a desk.
They reach up from the ice plant.
They shuttle their messengers through the oat grass.
Their answers rise like rust on the stalks and the spidery leaves.
We rub them off our hands.
Each year the dead grow less dead, and nudge
Close to the surface of all things.
They start to remember the silence that brought them there.
They start to recount the gain in their soiled hands.
Their glasses let loose, and grain by grain return to the riverbank.
They point to their favorite words
Growing around them, revealed as themselves for the first time:
They stand close to the meanings and take them in.
They stand there, vague and without pain,
Under their fingernails an unreturnable dirt.
They stand there and it comes back,
The music of everything, syllable after syllable
Out of the burning chair, out of the beings of light.
It all comes back.
And what they repeat to themselves, and what they repeat to themselves,
Is the song that our fathers sing.
In steeps and sighs,
The ocean explains itself, backing and filling
What spaces it can't avoid, spaces
In black shoes, their hands clasped, their eyes teared at the edges:
We watch from the high hillside,
The ocean swelling and flattening, the spaces
Filling and emptying, horizon blade
Flashing the early afternoon sun.
The dead are constant in
The white lips of the sea.
Over and over, through clenched teeth, they tell
Their story, the story each knows by heart:
Remember me, speak my name.
When the moon tugs at my sleeve,
When the body of water is raised and becomes the body of light,
Remember me, speak my name.
The dead are a cadmium blue.
We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes.
We layer them stroke by stroke
In steps and ascending mass, in verticals raised from the earth.
We choose, and layer them in,
Blue and a blue and a breath,
Circle and smudge, cross-beak and buttonhook,
We layer them in. We squint hard and terrace them line by line.
And so we are come between, and cry out,
And stare up at the sky and its cloudy panes,
And finger the cypress twists.
The dead understand all this, and keep in touch,
Rustle of hand to hand in the lemon trees,
Flags, and the great sifts of anger
To powder and nothingness.
The dead are a cadmium blue, and they understand.
The dead are with us to stay.
Their shadows rock in the back yard, so pure, so black,
Between the oak tree and the porch.
Over our heads they're huge in the night sky.
In the tall grass they turn with the zodiac.
Under our feet they're white with the snows of a thousand years.
They carry their colored threads and baskets of silk
To mend our clothes, making us look right,
Altering, stitching, replacing a button, closing a tear.
They lie like tucks in our loose sleeves, they hold us together.
They blow the last leaves away.
They slide like an overflow into the river of heaven.
Everywhere they are flying.
The dead are a sleight and a fade
We fall for, like flowering plums, like white coins from the rain.
Their sighs are gaps in the wind.
The dead are waiting for us in our rooms,
Little globules of light
In one of the far corners, and close to the ceiling, hovering,
thinking our thoughts.
Often they'll reach a hand down,
Or offer a word, and ease us out of our bodies to join them in theirs.
We look back at our other selves on the bed.
We look back and we don't care and we go.
And thus we become what we've longed for,
past tense and otherwise,
A BB, a disc of light,
song without words.
And refer to ourselves
In the third person, seeing that other arm
Still raised from the bed, fingers like licks and flames in the boned air.
Only to hear that it's not time.
Only to hear that we must re-enter and lie still, our arms at rest at our sides,
The voices rising around us like mist
And dew, it's all right, it's all right, it's all right ...
The dead fall around us like rain.
They come down from the last clouds in the late light for the last time
And slip through the sod.
They lean uphill and face north.
They bend toward the sea, they break toward the setting sun.
We filigree and we baste.
But what do the dead care for the fringe of words,
Safe in their suits of milk?
What do they care for the honk and flash of a new style?
And who is to say if the inch of snow in our hearts
Is rectitude enough?
Spring picks the locks of the wind.
High in the night sky the mirror is hauled up and unsheeted.
In it we twist like stars.
Ahead of us, through the dark, the dead
Are beating their drums and stirring the yellow leaves.
We're out here, our feet in the soil, our heads craned up at the sky,
The stars streaming and bursting behind the trees.
At dawn, as the clouds gather, we watch
The mountain glide from the east on the valley floor,
Coming together in starts and jumps.
Behind their curtain, the bears
Amble across the heavens, serene as black coffee ...
Whose unction can intercede for the dead?
Whose tongue is toothless enough to speak their piece?
What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint,
Or messages to the clouds.
At evening we wait for the rain to fall and the sky to clear.
Our words are words for the clay, uttered in undertones,
Our gestures salve for the wind.
We sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs,
Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts.
Someday they'll find me out, and my lavish hands,
Full moon at my back, fog groping the gone horizon, the edge
Of the continent scored in yellow, expectant lights,
White shoulders of surf, a wolf-colored sand,
The ashes and bits of char that will clear my name.
Till then, I'll hum to myself and settle the whereabouts.
Jade plants and oleander float in a shine.
The leaves of the pepper tree turn green.
My features are sketched with black ink in a slow drag through the sky,
Waiting to be filled in.
Hand that lifted me once, lift me again,
Sort me and flesh me out, fix my eyes.
From the mulch and the undergrowth, protect me and pass me on.
From my own words and my certainties,
From the rose and the easy cheek, deliver me, pass me on.
Mount Caribou at Night
Just north of the Yaak River, one man sits bolt upright,
A little bonnet of dirt and bunch grass above his head:
Northwestern Montana is hard relief,
And harder still the lying down and the rising up ...
I speak to the others there, lodged in their stone wedges, the blocks
And slashes that vein the ground, and tell them that Walter Smoot,
Starched and at ease in his bony duds
Under the tamaracks, still holds the nightfall between his knees.
Work stars, drop by inveterate drop, begin
Cassiopeia's sails and electric paste
Across the sky. And down
Toward the cadmium waters that carry them back to the dawn,
They squeeze out Andromeda and the Whale,
Everything on the move, everything flowing and folding back
And starting again,
Star-slick, the flaking and crusting duff at my feet,
Smoot and Runyan and August Binder
Still in the black pulse of the earth, cloud-gouache
Over the tree line, Mount Caribou
Massive and on the rise and taking it in. And taking it back
To the future we occupied, and will wake to again, ourselves
And our children's children snug in our monk's robes,
Pushing the cauly hoods back, ready to walk out
Into the same night and the meadow grass, in step and on time.
Charles on the Trevisan, night bridge
To the crystal, infinite alphabet of his past.
Charles on the San Trovaso, earmarked,
Holding the pages of a thrown-away book, dinghy the color of honey
Under the pine boughs, the water east-flowing.
The wind will edit him soon enough,
And squander his broken chords
in tiny striations above the air,
No slatch in the undertow.
The sunlight will bear him out,
Giving him breathing room, and a place to lie.
And why not? The reindeer still file through the bronchial trees,
Holding their heads high.
The mosses still turn, the broomstraws flash on and off.
Inside, in the crosslight, and St. Jerome
And his creatures ... St. Augustine, striking the words out.
Begins with the ooo ooo of a mourning dove
In the pepper tree, crack
Of blue and a flayed light on the hills,
Myself past the pumpkin blooms and out in the disced field,
Blake's children still hunched in sleep, dollops
Of bad dreams and an afterlife.
Canticles rise in spate from the bleeding heart.
Cathedrals assemble and disappear in the water beads.
I scuff at the slick adobe, one eye
On the stalk and one on the aftermath.
There's always a time for rust,
For looking down at the earth and its lateral chains.
There's always a time for the grass, teeming
Its little four-cornered purple flowers,
tricked out in an oozy shine.
There's always a time for the dirt.
Reprieve, reprieve, the flies drone, their wings
Increasingly incandescent above the corn silk.
No answer from anything, four crows
On a eucalyptus limb, speaking in tongues.
No answer for them, either.
It's noon in the medlar tree, the sun
Sifting its glitter across the powdery stems.
It doesn't believe in God
And still is absolved.
It doesn't believe in God
And seems to get by, going from here to there.
Butterflies blow like pieces of half-burned construction paper over the sweet weeds,
And take what is given them.
Some hummer is luckier
Downwind, and smells blood, and seeks me out.
The afternoon hangs by a leaf.
The vines are a green complaint
From the slaking adobe dust. I settle and stand back.
The hawk realigns herself.
Splatter of mockingbird notes, a brief trill from the jay.
The fog starts in, breaking its various tufts loose.
Everything smudges and glows,
Cactus, the mustard plants and the corn,
Through the white reaches of four o'clock ...
There's always a time for words.
Surf sounds in the palm tree,
Susurrations, the wind
making a big move from the west,
The children asleep again, their second selves
Beginning to stir, the moon
Lopsided, sliding their ladder down.
From under the billowing dead, from their wet hands and a saving grace,
The children begin to move, an angle of phosphorescence
Along the ridgeline.
Are counting cadence, their skeletal songs
What the hymns say, the first page and the last.
The pictures in the air have few visitors.
Sun drops past tie-post in the east shallows,
Moon rises to camera range. Over the zodiac,
The numbers and definitions arc,
Hiwassee at low tide, my brother one step up the cleared slope.
Winter on top of the Matterhorn,
Sun-goggled, standing the way our father stood, hands half in his pockets.
Behind him, the summer Alps
Fall down and away, little hillocks of white on the noon sky
Hiding their crosses, keeping the story straight.
Like Munch, I languish, my left cheek in my left palm,
Omniscient above the bay,
Checking the evidence, the postcards and the photographs,
O'Grady's finger pointing me out ...
Madonna of Tenderness, Lady of Feints and Xs, you point too.
Excerpted from The World of the Ten Thousand Things by Charles Wright. Copyright © 1990 Charles Wright. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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