A Map of the Night

A Map of the Night

by David Wagoner

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252075674
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 06/12/2008
Series: Illinois Poetry Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 168
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author


David Wagoner is the author of eighteen collections of poems, including The House of Song, Good Morning and Good Night, and Traveling Light, as well as ten novels. He has received numerous honors and awards, including an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Sherwood Anderson Award, the Fels Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

Read an Excerpt

A Map of the Night

Poems
By David Wagoner

University of Illinois Press

Copyright © 2008 David Wagoner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-07567-4


Chapter One

    My Mother's Poem


    Redwing blackbird, sitting on a stalk,
    What would you say if you could talk?


    She showed it to me shyly
    after I'd been away for a long time.
    She said this was the only one
    she'd ever tried to write, and of course
    it was only the beginning.

    She'd written it on her own stationery
    with an anonymous pastel flower
    in the upper right-hand corner.
    I'd seen it often before. My father
    had never needed his own.

    She said she couldn't quite decide
    what to say next. She wasn't sure
    how it should go on or maybe
    it shouldn't, and she was showing me
    because I was supposed to know about poems.

    We stood there together
    by the kitchen sink, looking out the window
    at the swamp for a moment, both of us
    wondering how to be inspired
    in spite of feeling maybe it didn't matter

    to anyone except ourselves
    who could both see those birds hanging on
    sideways to cattail stalks and singing
    the one song they seemed to be sure of,
    already knowing the end and the answer.


    The First Movie

    I walked with Jessamine, the tall black lady
    who did our dishes, all the way downhill
    to my first movie because my mother and father
    were playing cards with Presbyterians.

    We bought two tickets and ate our popcorn balls
    while Tom Mix wore a hat and jumped off a horse
    and shot white smoke at the bad men who shot back.
    He was so important and huge, I believed in him.

    I explained to Jessamine all the way uphill
    what he'd been doing and why, and she said, Yes,
    yes, that's right,
while I explained his boots
    and where the white horse slept and why he was wearing

    a badge and those funny pants, and up the steps
    and into the living room, I started explaining
    to people sitting at tables what had happened
    in the dark, how wonderful it had been

    to see horses and ropes. So many words
    came out of my mouth, they bumped into each other
    and wouldn't fit the pictures I still saw
    across the back of my mind. The people stared.

    They sat across from each other, holding their cards
    close to their chests like little fans and trying
    not to laugh, but laughing anyway
    and eating peanuts and winking and taking tricks.

    I tried to tell the story no one had told me
    or turned the pages for, but was telling itself
    all by itself if you just looked and listened
    and could sit still and remember what was before.

    And then my mouth went shut. And Jessamine
    led me up the stairs and put me to bed
    and touched my lips in the dark with one dark finger,
    saying, Hush, hush, but I'd hushed myself already.


    The Other House


    As a boy, I haunted an abandoned house
    whose basement was always full of dark-green water
    or dark-green ice in winter,
    where frogs came back to life and sang each spring.

    On broken concrete under the skeleton
    of a roof, inside ribbed walls, I listened alone
    where the basement stairs went down
    under the water, down into that music.

    During storms, our proper house would be flooded too.
    The water would spout from drains, through the foundation
    and climb the basement stairs
    but silently, and would go away silently,

    as silent as my father and mother were
    all day and during dinner and after
    and after the radio
    without a murmur all the way into sleep.

    All winter, the frogs slept in an icy bed,
    remembering how to sing when it melted.
    If I made a sound, they stopped
    and listened to me sing nothing, singing nothing.

    But gradually, finally April would come pouring
    out of their green throats in a green chorus
    to chorus me home toward silence.
    Theirs was the only house that sang all night.


    My Snake


    By the railroad tracks, on cinders,
    at the feet of brown cattails,
    I found a snake stretched out in curves on its back.

    Its belly was the color of clear water,
    a green I could see through
    to a place on fire.

    The cross-hatched bruises near the tail
    and the broken head meant a boy like me
    had killed it. That was how

    everyone I knew
    told snakes to go away. I don't know why
    I ran home then, found an empty jar, and ran

    all the way back to it,
    but for the first time in eight years,
    I held a snake in the air with my own fingers.

    It was almost as tall as I was and beautiful.
    It swayed with me, then coiled
    tail-first down into that mouth

    and around the inside of the glass as evenly
    and easily as if it was meant to be there
    all along. I wanted to keep it

    from more harm and from grown-up men
    who killed them too. I wanted it to be mine
    and still alive. I carried it home slowly

    to a shelf on our back porch
    where no one could quite see it
    unless they looked on purpose. It sat there

    coiled tight around itself and melting
    for three whole days. For three nights
    it coiled and melted in my dreams and half sleep.

    I walked to school and came back. I ate my food.
    I felt afraid. I couldn't look at it again.
    I slept. I dreamed

    I shivered out of bed
    barefoot, carried the jar along our alley
    in the night through patches of sandburs,

    and poured the limp, uncoiling body
    and all its rusty matter
    into the rustier water of the swamp.

    Maybe I really did. It was gone in the morning.
    Or maybe my mother did it or my father.
    None of us ever said a word about it.


    The Fan Dance


    I was seven and Sally Rand wasn't wearing
      anything. She was up there
        dancing with two quivery pink fans
    like ostrich wings, and she was holding one
      around in back of her and the other
        in front of some of her, but was taking turns
    switching them back and forth as she peeked out
      like a bird who'd lost her feathers but had found some
        others and wasn't quite sure where
    or how to put them on—did they belong here
      or there?—but they wouldn't stay there
        or here while she was turning in slow circles
    to violins, and if you were quick, you could see
      through the rosy light something
        like one breast from halfway
    behind and half a rose-pink behind before
      another side of another breast
        and the other half behind had come around
    to disappear at the rosier pink ends
      of feathers. And then she was gone
        offstage, and my small mother was leading me
    and my big rosy-faced father up the aisle
      and out together onto the Midway
        of the Century of Progress and saying,
    I don't think David should have seen that,
      and my father with his head down saying, It was
        rather suggestive, and I, who hadn't suggested
    anything, ate Jack Armstrong candy
      in the back seat, with my Buck Rogers Ray Gun
        going Zap! and Zap! Zap! Zap! all the way home.


    Whistler's Mother


    My father said his mother bought it for him.
    In each of the seven houses where I grew up
    she hung in a hallway. She was sitting sideways,
    looking like she'd been told to please get ready
    to have her picture painted on Sunday
    and had put on Sunday clothes as colorless
    as the wallpaper and been told she should sit
    still, and she wasn't used to being told.

    She looked like she had pork and sauerkraut
    in the oven and could smell it starting to burn.
    She looked like she was listening for the doorbell
    or the telephone to ring any minute now.
    She looked like she didn't feel very much like being
    anybody's mother today, thank you.
    It was the only art my father owned.


    The Red Hat

    The lady had come right through the front door
    to visit Grandma without being asked in.
    They sat in the living room and talked and talked
    about false neighbors and how sad it was
    that nobody told the truth to anybody.

    In the next room, I sank deep in my chair,
    trying to read the Bible which would be good
    for learning how to think and my education
    and growing up and being morally upright
    and better than comic books and private eyes.

    Gradually Grandma had fallen silent.
    The lady was telling her about bad things
    years ago that were happening again.
    Then slowly she backed out onto the porch
    and let in flies and scurried away still talking.

    Grandma touched my hand. She apologized.
    She said the lady was old and had turned older
    sooner than her friends and felt afraid
    they'd forgotten who she was and were making up
    bad stories about her and telling them to each other.

    They thought she wasn't all there, though she was, she was.
    They were all false witnesses and Pharisees.
    A half hour later, in Deuteronomy 20,
    I found false witnesses paid eyes for eyes
    and teeth for teeth back then. I went to ask Grandma

    why, but she only said, "She forgot her hat"
    and held up a red felt thing with a red feather
    and a black veil, like a bird caught in a net.
    "Take it to her," she said, "or she'll come back.
    Her house is right over there," she said and pointed.

    This is too long a story. Here in the middle
    I'm worried I'm telling it like an old lady
    or an old man who can't remember exactly
    what to say or which part to explain,
    who should spend a lot more time just keeping quiet.

    So here's the rest in a hurry. I went to the house
    I thought Grandma had pointed at. I knocked
    on the screen door. When nobody answered,
    I opened it, threw the hat inside, and ran.
    Almost a block away, Grandma was yelling,

    "Wrong house!" I went back. An angry black man
    came out of the door and threw the hat at me
    like something dirty. I grabbed it and trespassed
    through his garden to next door. The lady was standing
    smiling behind her screen with her clothes off.


    The First Touch


    You sat in the two-seat wooden swing in the park
    under the latticework of the moonlight
    side by side with Sarah Downey your lips
    a part of hers your good right arm gone numb
    around her shoulders your good left hand at its first
    touch of a breast becoming no longer hers
    but yours in the heady distillates of the night
    suspended in misty air by Lever Brothers
    and the Union Carbide and Carbon Company
    around you in and out of every breath
    you took from each other you had only one
    close encounter like this you lived too far
    apart the storage tanks and the cat-crackers
    of the largest oil refinery in the world
    were fenced and barbed between you two forever
    beyond the reach of your arms and bicycles.


    Elegy for a Safety Man

    In memoriam Richard Bell (1925–45)


    He was our safety man, our last defense,
    but off the field, he didn't believe in safety.

    He was the first to sleep all night with a girl
    and get caught, the only one who could stand

    on the edge of a building roof at night in the wind,
    who could siphon gasoline and not throw up.

    He could drink a 12-ounce Pepsi in eight seconds,
    the time it took to pour one out on the ground.

    At the swimming pool, he'd stay under water so long,
    we'd panic before he did and haul him out.

    We had to hold him back one night when, drunk
    on a single beer, he tried to tackle a car.

    He was lanky and raw-boned and curly-haired
    and smiled about as often as Gary Cooper.

    He didn't worship heroes or act like one.
    He didn't quite flunk any subject in school.

    He joined the Marines, was shipped to the South Pacific
    where no one close could be afraid for him.

    He jogged with a tank across a broken field
    and was the first of us to disappear.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from A Map of the Night by David Wagoner Copyright © 2008 by David Wagoner. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents

Acknowledgments....................v
My Mother's Poem....................3
The First Movie....................4
The Other House....................6
My Snake....................7
The Fan Dance....................9
Whistler's Mother....................10
The Red Hat....................11
The First Touch....................13
Elegy for a Safety Man....................14
How Johnny Nolan Rescued Me....................15
Passing the Road Gang....................17
Curtsy....................18
Talk....................19
Crane Fly....................20
Homework in Social Studies....................22
Castle....................23
My Father's Dance....................24
The Invitation....................27
What Do I Know?....................28
A Lesson from a Student....................30
An Assignment for Student Playwrights....................31
In the Green Room....................32
The Heaven of Actors....................33
A Visitor Calls on Joseph Conrad....................34
Catfish....................35
Mr. Bones....................37
On Being Asked by an Assistant to the Governor of the State of the State of Washington for an Appropriate Quotation from a Native American to Conclude an Inaugural Speech....................38
An Assignment for Senior Citizens....................39
Trying to Write a Poem While the Couple in the Apartment Overhead Make Love....................40
The Moth....................41
In Youngs Creek....................45
Stopping along the Way....................46
Blind Instinct....................48
That Bird....................49
Meadowlark....................50
A Pastoral Elegy for a Pasture....................51
Watching a Boa Constrictor Yawn....................52
The Escaped Gorilla....................53
Judging a Hog....................54
Thoreau and the Mud Turtle....................56
The Elephant's Graveyard....................57
Falling Behind....................58
The Hunters....................59
For the Man Who Taught Tricks to Owls....................61
On a Glass of Ale under a Reading Lamp....................62
Owning a Creek....................65
Up against the Sea....................66
The Right Way....................67
On an Island....................68
Rescue....................70
Upstream....................71
Letting the Grass Grow under Your Feet....................72
Cemetery Grass....................73
The Heart of the Forest....................74
Free Fall....................77
The Presumption of Death....................78
For an Old Woman at the Gate....................79
Being Taken for a Ride....................80
The Driver....................81
The Follower....................83
At the Scene of Another Crime....................85
Stakeout....................86
Changing Rooms....................87
In the Dark Room....................88
What the Houses Were Like Then....................91
Man Overboard....................92
Moving through Smoke....................93
Unarmed Combat....................94
Attention....................96
At Ease....................97
Under Fire....................98
Night Reconnaissance....................99
The Stand-up Cell....................100
What the Stones Say....................101
On First Looking through the Wrong End of a Telescope....................102
The Center of Gravity....................103
An Old Man Sitting Down....................104
An Old Man Stacking Firewood....................105
The Old Men....................106
The Hero....................107
The Eve of the Festival of Venus....................111
Between Neighbors....................117
On Deck....................119
Fighting the Blizzard....................120
What Billy Graham Said to Me at the Fair....................121
In the Emergency Room....................122
Weeds....................124
An Informal Elegy for Neckties....................125
Looking Respectable....................126
Doing Six Impossible Things before Breakfast....................127
What to Do All Day....................128
Thoreau and the Quagmire....................129
At the Deep End of the Public Pool....................130
In the Graveyard of Major Appliances....................131
The Solution to Yesterday's Puzzle....................132
Knots....................133
Cell Division....................134
A Snap Quiz in Body Language....................135
For a Man Who Wrote Cunt on a Motel Bathroom Mirror....................136
Night Song from the Apartment Below....................137
Desire....................138
The Spider's Eye....................140
The Day I Believed in God....................141
A Congo Funeral....................143

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