Last Lake

Last Lake

by Reginald Gibbons

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


From Ritual
A slow parade of old west enthusiasts,
camp song and hymn, came in along the winding
way where rural declined to suburban, slow
riders and wagoners passing a cow staked
to graze, some penned cattle looking vacantly
up—not in vacant lots the ancient icons
of wealth they had been in odes, prayers and epics,
in sacrifices and customs of bride-price
or dowry.  (It’s good people no longer make
blood sacrifices, at gas stations and stores,
for example, and in the crunching gravel
parking lots of small churches—oh but we do.)

“The evening forgives the alleyway,” Reginald Gibbons writes in his tenth book of poems—but such startling simplicities are overwhelmed in us by the everyday and the epochal. Across the great range of Gibbons’s emblematic, vividly presented scenes, his language looks hard at and into experience and feeling. Words themselves have ideas, and have eyes—inwardly looking down through their own meanings, as the poet considers a lake in the Canadian north, a Chicago neighborhood, a horse caravan in Texas, a church choir, a bookshelf, or an archeological dig on the steppes near the Volga River. The last lake is the place of both awe and elegy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226417592
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/10/2016
Series: Phoenix Poets
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 96
File size: 956 KB

About the Author

Reginald Gibbons is a Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University. His poetry collections include National Book Award finalist Creatures of a Day and Slow Trains Overhead: Chicago Poems and Stories, the latter also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Last Lake

By Reginald Gibbons

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-41759-2


    A Neighborhood in Chicago
    from a line of Gwendolyn Brooks

    In its last halogen hours,
    the evening forgives the alley-
    ways ... wherein,

    Every June morning, again,
    here are new leaves, viridian.
    They'll come to,

    Tremble toward the brightening.
    Instruments without musicians,
    they will play

    A silence, soothing last night's
    bruised pianos and exhausted
    horns. For your

    instruction, each meager leaf,
    shaped like, more intricate than, a

    accompanies rats and moths
    into the dawn, and a cougar,
    hiding, with

    wounded eye, a torn paw: in
    halogen night, no escape — but
    there's luck, grace.

    Memorial Day
    after Walt Whitman

    A last formality is
    running late, as a life can't,
    this hot day. The final
    ethereal glow of
    the sun seems to come up from
    underfoot in this parkland
    of polysyllabic death.

    These deep graves, two this time,
    neatly cut into the earth,
    await the arrivals,
    and two adjacent heaps of
    damp fertile glebe are half
    blanketed by reticent
    dark tarpaulins. After
    the full moon's first moments of
    fact and risen largesse, it
    has contracted as our
    heaven has passed it by and now
    it floats above the crowns
    of the inky trees and
    well beyond bare roofs. It has
    always been an entity
    born dead — not a phantom, as
    must be this son, a muddy
    part of whom soared from cratered
    waste lands far away before
    landing here, and also
    this veteran father,
    whose heart staggered into
    an ER and failed after
    he heard what circumstance
    had done to his one boy.

    No horses — hearses, the first
    two cars. A corps of six men —
    they bear the heavy coffined
    corpse of the father toward his
    very small opening in
    the planet; and six more
    envoys of duty, with
    much-practiced attentiveness,
    slow-step the light son, an
    imperfect cadaver with
    handles, to his own last place.
    White gloves lift up the draped
    famed cloth, super-striped and
    starry, from the younger
    casket, fold it just so —
    hands with hands over hands
    in ritual honor,
    a ceremony neither
    of mystical creed nor
    of doubter's midnights — then
    they advance it to the one
    who remains. She's looking
    away from her burials,
    down at the blades of moon grass.
    She feels no great gut blows
    from startled convulsive
    big drums that shake the spirits
    of mourners, nor any
    whirring of equally
    perilous small drums that
    might reduce the silence.
    The son is submitted as
    lifeless organism to
    dirt; the father's remains
    descend into his pit
    alongside, likewise on
    tightly held ropes men slowly
    let slip. (In foremost ranks of
    a final unbecoming
    these two fell alike.) The
    ropes snake back up into
    what's left of natural light —
    remainder of the ancient
    calculus of day and night.
    From a boom box ten paces
    away, the familiar
    bugled notes say that the
    journey of these remains
    is done. Even if no grief
    shadows the bugler, bugles
    do sound it, word it — that
    unacceptable sentence
    of slow notes.
      Distant, on
    overtime, respectful, yet
    much too near, a stranger
    waits to start up a backhoe.
    On such occasions, after
    courage of soldiers or
    folly of command or cold
    wrong purposes among
    patriarchs, lords, kings, and freed
    madness in red valleys,
    mountains, cities, villages,
    in schools, shrines, sheds, beds, mud-brick
    hearts, we have offered up our
    mortally wounded, un-
    comprehending remembrance.
    We look down or away
    and notice the impassive
    grass under our bloody weight.


    The lovely Director who
    led us with her feathered hands
    as she mouthed

    the words we choir singers sang
    to her and the families in
    the pews — the

    Director: a forbidding
    figure, but forbidden, too,
    who aroused

    as she worshipped (and what she
    aroused even in our own
    hymnals was —

    while bringing in the sheaves — damned
    like drinking, chastised from the
    high pulpit).

    (Caesar's coin is still struck with
    a dull clang: a new ruler's
    greedy nose,

    and preachers too need payment.
    Some say wealth can prove the Word.)

    bowls, wood, like dull shuttles down
    slow pews wove the worshippers

    as the choir hushed for three whole
    verses and our organist,
    reckless as

    an angel, played her own ex-
    uberant variations
    on our self-

    punishing themes. And with her
    arms held up, the Director,
    eyes big, brows

    raised — she too, under Sunday
    clothes, in her worshipful and
    as far as

    I could see voluptuous
    Christian body — she had some

    gifted innocence in her
    physical being, nothing
    sordid, as

    Paul said, and yet "Listen to
": commandments and righteous

    bringing in those sheaves, condemned
    all that was against holy
    laws, against

    the holy Judge. Body was
    anathematized in the
    body of

    worship. "Just as I am," just
    as I will be, I hear shrill
    weak voices,

    the plaintive congregation,
    where, joined by no one, I don't
    believe it.

    On Thursdays our practice at
    sweeter singing, and Sundays
    the brimstone,

    the self-abasing desire
    to be unworthy, and the

    for our misery and fear.
    Or at least uneasiness.
    Outside, sin

    in hot streets, ditches, hot shade
    or cold rain; and moccasins,

    rattlers, once a coral snake,
    even Satanish-seeming
    hog-nose snakes

    we had caught, when younger, to
    scare others at school, or pet

    baby horny toads — I'd tie
    one by a length of mother's
    thread to a

    shirt button and this tiny
    wide lizard'd stand on my
    shoulder all

    morning, a mascot from what
    they said was hell if it was

    to snakes ... but no threat of blood
    from its eyes, it asked for just
    a moment's

    taming (you stroked its belly) —
    all those denizens of the
    pagan earth,

    so much just what they are, and
    easier on it than we
    because earth

    was theirs, not ours, even then,
    "when the dew was still on the"
    phrases. And

    the voice we heard, word by word,
    and literal, rose by rose,
    to fit us

    for God's heaven, said "Believe!"
    (It's here, it's all still with me!)
    Did all the

    fathers kill snakes? Or was cold
    Satan turned into a snake
    (like Cadmus

    and beautiful Harmony)
    so that we'd fear, hate, kill him?
    (Cadmus and

    gorgeous Harmony were not,
    except to Dionysos
    himself, true

    evil.) And our tired, red-haired
    Director, twelve years older
    than I, the

    tenor boy — or who was that
    in the back row who had learned
    that Paul spoke

    Greek and wrote that it's better
    to marry than to burn and
    ache and burn? ...

    The Director! While her hands
    were hovering in the breath
    of singers,

    her body, too, what a friend
    we had in her, her music-

    impatience. She tightened us
    into the sound of us as
    a choir — fire

    in our shrill harmonies, we
    gave her our will and shall, but
    we never

    came up to the morals of
    the music — great choral works
    or dreck. We

    half wrecked half of it, achieved
    scant holy worship but did

    for it honestly. I was
    burning then, mere creature, not
    wanting to be saved from fire —
    not her fire.

    Last Lake

    That cold time before, she and I could
    still drink the clear river water —
    reaching a tin cup over the side of the canoe.
    The next year, where we put in,
    people were talking of giardia,
    and two days out, we paddled by a whole moose carcass
    left in the water the previous autumn to rot —
    hunters from elsewhere had taken only the head.
    Straining to beat the dark under a low sun still hot,
    we were moving upstream on
    the hushed waterway,
    we turned into an unnamed tributary
    then into another, wishing
    we had learned in some village a thousand years
    before our birth a song
    for our paddle strokes that we could have
    sung back softly to the rippling current
    that was whispering to us —
    she in the bow, me in the stern,
    a week's supplies between us.
    To an osprey we were more and more
    inconvenient as we approached flashing
    reflections from our paddles.
    We wished not to annoy it but needed to go on.
    It leapt up from a bare eighty-foot pine top
    and flew upriver to another high branch
    that sagged under it, and it folded its great
    black-wristed wings again
    and again stared sharply down its late day,
    watching for a fish. But again we ruined
    its chances, apologizing as we paddled toward it.
    Forced to three such stages of retreat,
    it up and winged over us
    away to another river it knew.
    All of us have never stopped building and becoming
    the things that no osprey can get over.

    In the thick woods on the up-sloping bank,
    a steep narrow beaver slide — a young bear coming down it
    scoots into sight on its behind
    then sees us so near that it thrashes the underbrush
    as it spins around and escapes
    back up the bank fast.

    In four days we made three portages.
    All that heavy human stuff that we carried —
    loads of it and the cooler
    and then the empty heavy canoe.
    Drank something very cold after each time,
    having started with a block of ice so big
    only one beer, one soda, and the bacon would fit beside it.

    We arrived at a wide reach of tall wild rice
    standing two feet high above the water
    with a few grains at the top of each stalk,
    rich wildflower green,
    and this water is so slow
    and shallow it looks still to us — a side-pond filled
    with the flourishing rice. Yet there's
    one opening, five or six inches wide, among the crowding stems,
    and she and I turn into it and see that this too is a tributary,
    and we head up what will be, wherever it leads,
    our last leg of the day,
    a meandering water path through the green,
    leading toward wherever this tiniest of currents comes from.

    We keep the nose of the canoe in
    that narrow snaking channel
    and in twenty minutes of slow quiet strokes, pushing down as
    gently as we can among the rice stems,
    where our sliding plastic and aluminum paddles
    hiss against the stems then
    bubble the water, we reach the source,
    almost a secret place, a tiny lake,
    a last one, where no one
    can hike in or make a ruckus with a motorboat —
    a pair of loons are in the water, as antediluvian
    as everything else. A good sign. It's late,
    even at this high latitude the summer sun
    is almost at the treetops,
    we stow our paddles and we sit
    still in the still canoe for a moment.
    We pick up our rods, adjust the line, reach back,
    and cast the lures in two long arcs, the little splash
    sounds far away, and soon we hook
    two pike, release the smaller one,
    then paddle to shore at a great flat rock and she stands
    and steps out of the bow, gets hold of the canoe,
    then I stand and step forward and onto the rock, we both
    haul the canoe halfway out, and as we do,
    one long dull word comes from the keel.

    We get the tent up, toss sleeping bags and packs inside,
    set the lantern in it, zip the mesh door shut,
    gather dry wood, build a fire.
    She fillets the pike, lays it crackling in the frying pan,
    I fling the remains
    out into the water, crawfish come eat them.

    Dark trees around this lake, almost a circle
    maybe two hundred feet wide,
    have repeated every sound
    we've made, but as question.
    From the cooler we retrieve the last beer
    and last soda and we drain out the last melt
    of what had been our block of ice.
    Five days since we put in.
    From here we'll just work at it,
    without the leisure of camp mornings,
    and we'll paddle back downstream in two.

    Somewhere inside the low branch-shadows
    of a tree that might be thinking
    about the end of its long bright sun-time,
    a hermit thrush offers everything it has
    of notes and trills, singing about Now, Now, Now,
    within the thick-grown,
    dark blue-green trees,
    almost black, that stand around the lake
    leaning at it a little, and the thrush
    is an imagination, or one of them,
    in the woods, one mood of the woods,
    of a many-mindedness.

    Then the thrush goes quiet. It requires
    no such magnificence of us.

    Fried pike and canned green beans for dinner,
    you remember something from when we met,
    the evening's a memorial for whatever we want
    to put in it. Or a promise.
    It seems eternal, and the frying pan gets scoured and turned
    upside down on the rock,
    and we hang the food duffle high up between two trees,
    we wash a little in the cold little lake,
    everything's taken care of, the fire dies down,
    last sparks fly and float up when she toes it,
    and suddenly the mosquitoes are on us like rain,
    it's their moment now,
    and we hurry into the tent — the only haste
    we have needed all day.

    One of the loons
    cries through the last of the twilight
    with what would be grief if we, not it,
    were to make that sound. But it's not.
    Then — dimly through the thin
    nylon of the tent and fly
    come wavering pale green veils of light
    high in the north, moving like a being.
    For a while we watch through the mesh
    this biggest thing that the human eye can get a sense of.

    I didn't say, but will now, that beyond
    our broad, flat, tilted rock, in the thin dirt
    where we staked the tent,
    there was wild mint, and on the rock itself
    we found a ring of small stones already arranged
    to contain a campfire.
    When native men canoe in,
    the one in the bow will turn around and sit backwards,
    and they both catch the tall stems of the wild rice,
    bend them down across the canoe, and with a stick
    they gently knock the ripe grains off the tops of them
    into the canoe, and reach another armful in,
    and brush that one and another
    and paddle a stroke
    and do it again and again and again,
    working the rice slowly, for this is slow work.

    When I think of all this now I have to stop
    what I'm doing and saying in the midst
    of all the talk, I have to stop
    hearing all the mechanical and emotional noise
    around me, mine, too — behind my eyes
    I feel such pressure of catastrophe and awe.

    Houston, 1953

    Masses of one un-housed
    household added to another, all abandoned and made
    to abandon their names. A non-colonnade
    of gray clods. An un-quadrangle
    of neo-rational obliteration. An arcade
    of ashes. Ditch-buried
    hordes of kin left akimbo, a strangled
    necropolis on the verge of the farthest acres of the settled
    precincts of our planet — or maybe at the corner angle
    of the poisoned field
    of remembrance, only one little creaking shed.
    And in the low gray corner inside, a weak tangle
    of the last echoes of a last word
    that ever was uttered to a beloved child,
    or of that child's reply. "I know how to play," I said

    to my grandmother, I lied —
    so wanting to be included, and interrupting her card
    game in America — the card table, the discard,
    the talk in their languages, the tea — no more than a decade
    after all that hate-whipped
    grief without a shroud.
    Her three card-playing women friends, as displaced
    as she, did not (I remember this) like to be interrupted.
    It might be too much for me to say I understand
    that what they did,
    their canasta and bridge, their mahjong, they did
    so as, even then, not to be destroyed.
    And they went out together, too — converged
    with fellow Theosophists and singers and even tramped
    off in pants to a mossy, snakey wood
    to see a migrating bird.

    If, as I stood near the card game, my grandmother reached
    and touched my head —
    I'm saying: if she did. I don't remember that she did.

    Her own youngest son had gone all the way back there to be killed
    in that war. If touch me she did,
    it might have been because I, her blood-
    descendant but knowing nothing, could
    not have restored
    to her for one second —
    even if unwittingly I could have touched
    her with the grace of a small child —
    I could not have restored
    "one iota," as she used to say, of the world
    that had been obliterated, world
    she never once mentioned.


Excerpted from Last Lake by Reginald Gibbons. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago 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

A Neighborhood in Chicago
Memorial Day
Last Lake
On Self and Soul
     1. The night’s a metonym
     2. A ploughman leans his everything
     3. (Bright Candlelight)
     4. The question isn’t whether we should be
     5. The plenitude of what is is the diet of the mind
     6. “Soul,” the word, is ancient (from Old English)
     7. Livingness itself, neither bad nor benign
A Bookshelf
A Veteran
Dark Honey
     1. In the rainy sub-
     2. I remember that
     3. Gods never were. And
     4. In seaside autumn
     5. Beside the railway
     6. The skull has evolved
     7. (I sense by its im-
     8. The cranium dome
     9. Poor old page-earth—sized
     10. Mandelshtam’s Greek bees
     11. Even on remote
     12. This craft of the ear’s
     13. Rivers of gasping
     14. (But . . .)
     15. It’s so wisely that
     16. To the futile sound
     17. (O. M.)
     18. Can’t keep up with fierce
     19. (Persephonē)
     20. Against the paper-
     21. The memory of
     22. Well, good-bye! Wishing
     23. In dusk-lit ways, spell
     24. “For your sweet joy, take

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews