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The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish
By JOSHUA WEINER
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
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Chapter OneRock Creek (II)
Cutting a way through stone
to see what's there, not
how things appear, earth-blood,
without style, never
at rest, what settles in it
read on the surface
forward eddying back
swirling turbid intricate plaits of
water from the bottom rising
turning upside down
striking bank before
returning to stream center
indifferent to the play of light
crystalline ideal forms
a static lie, rather
as Leonardo saw
a motion resembling hair
"one must take five days
to place water in a picture"
while a splash erupts
into corona, its rim
breaking into spills
of droplets like the secret
structure of rainfall
scalloped edges of water
joining water in common
coil spawning vortices
as they hit fluorescent storm-swept
traffic cones glowing
rushing faster by
transmission as one
flow drives another
motion altering force
driving that motion
like Coltrane stretching
of pitch & tone
the place it's going
of smaller scales
"the unregarded river of our life"
an overflow of "meanings
with no speech"
as prisoners of
flooding cells in protest
eighteen bottles of water
in an hour. And the breath,
preaches one man
having heard it from his father,
"the breath moved
upon the face of the waters,"
while another speaks
observer at the crossroads,
how "the system is hustling
* * *
Not a river of history
like the Patawmack
big muddy highway
would connect the capital
to a bountiful interior
budging west, make him rich
and keep the money moving
"to bind all parts together
by one indissoluble band"
the founding's first boondoggle
"designated by law for the seat of Empire"
No, Rock Creek's histories
converge as branches
braiding like scoubidou
a single spiral knotting
that children weave to hold their keys
it makes just one boundary of the verdant valley
where L'Enfant walked in great coat
so every homestead of the nation
would feel the influence of its streets
and slaves hew trees to open them
metabolize sardines and salt pork
to pry up stumps, haul, and cut sandstone
for buildings housing classical
moral sentiments that shan't
stop the flow of profits.
Neither Rome, nor home
Rock Creek is a passage
where Whitman wanders
after dispensing fruit syrups
"good and strong, but innocent"
mixed with ice water
to young men missing limbs,
thirsty, coated with murk & sweat
in the Patent Office hospital.
* * *
The 9:30 Club is not named for a time
but a place it used to be, 930 F Street,
now in a building on V, once broadcasting
1120 on your radio. Inside, my son plays drums
in a band with other nine-year-olds
trying to rock the judge's panel, 11 AM, a Saturday.
And the parents are pumped, pulling for their kids
on stage, a discrete loud screening
of their own projections. Is it strange
to hear children play their parents' music,
the history of styles like scarves claimed
from an old trunk that's never put away....
"They lend me a problem with the language,"
Fugazi, twenty-five years ago, "But still /
I was caught with my hand in the till."
Up the street at Howard
Don Byrd's Blackbyrds'
"Walking in Rhythm" hit big,
but it's "Rock Creek""Doin' it in the park /
Doin' it after dark"that laid down a track in '75
for Eric B. & Rakim, Big Daddy Kane,
Grandmaster Flash, Massive Attack,
the gold spinning still, the chorus
floating with Jay Jones' flute
on a current sampled
by a cloud precipitating
the next good sound.
* * *
Oak, tulip poplar, beech & laurel
holly, dogwood on the hills,
sycamore, red maple, wet,
tolerant, all along the floodplain
through steep ravines, gentle
sloping hills, grassy meadows
and the stretch of rapids
south of Military Road,
the Secession War captured in a street sign
now as frenzied commuter route
where 20,000 years ago
nomads sharpened fluted points
for caribou, elk, moose,
black bear, mastodon & mammoth;
the spring-fed tributaries
feeding into open stream
are sewer lines underground,
silt & sand choke off
the creek mouth at Whitehurst Freeway
where ships ran up to P Street
from Potomac's crowd of masts;
and grist millsLyons, Deakins,
Parrott, Peirce, Columbianall
ran out of time to grind; and Benjamin Stoddert
milliner, first secretary of the navy,
who bought up land to create the capital
now names the kiddie soccer team,
an elementary school: in limbo,
neither remembered nor forgotten.
* * *
If Rock Creek is a passage
what will I find there
in its leaves & pages, legible
by moonlight, having passed by
the White House of future poems,
its sentries at the gates, silent,
pacing in blue overcoats, stopping you
not at all, but eyeing you with sharp eyes
whichever way you move
you move, with me now
from hospital to hospice of the creek,
the pallid face of wounded
light your way; and in the air,
the moisture on the lip of the secesh boy,
his fine large frame, patient
mute survivor of the butcher's shambles,
his arm tossed on the departing amputation cart....
Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy,
the heart of the stranger that hover'd near,
talked to him a little, but not much,
moved closer, held his hand,
and moves now in creek shadows,
searching, fluid & firm ...
* * *
There's the cavalry camp on the hill
& fixed pitch droning
of an Ozark juice harp, its tart
plucked notes opening melodic
overtones bring to mind
parted teeth & metal tongue
vibrating freely, whiskey-wet
these hardy, bright, intuitive
American young men; experienced
with all their youth, their vocal play
moves one more
of muslin fill buckets by
one who follows me, I carry him
wherever I go, his great dark eyes
with a glaze already upon them
the choking faint but audible
in his throat; and the surgeon who
left him, without prospect, to death
he must yield the field, and forget.
And the population of the army
bedded in the makeshift wards
is more numerous than the whole
of Washington; some thirty or forty
such collections, each holding
seventy thousand men, I use them
as landmarks in my rambling outside
the district of wounds, sickness, & death.
* * *
What will I find there, then,
if Rock Creek is a passage,
the crown of haze
around the moon
like stardust inked around
the gunner's nipple.
veil'd, abstracted, dark
columns moving through the night
and I stand, unobserv'd in the darkness
and watch them long, my own
charged with the intimacies
of the ward. But when I join
the soldiers along the creek
or defending the capital behind earthworks
acres of felled trees, hewn branch barriers
with sharpened points, they invite me
to declaim poetical pieces,
read the Bible, and we play an amusing game
called the game of twenty questions.
* * *
If Rock Creek is a passage
what will I find there
below terraced bluffs
fall freshet conveying
fragmented stone tools of the Algonquin
quartzite, slate, jasper, flint,
past Teddy Roosevelt
pounding down a routine
rough cross-country jaunt
overtaking Quincy Adams
"listening to the singing of a thousand birds"
along beds of shallow
estuary out to sea....
In the mind's perpetual
playback, the boys & I
stand a stone's throw from Peirce Mill
performing tashlikh on Rosh Hashanah,
"casting off " our sins
in the body of breadcrumbs
tossed into the stream
we try to track them
out of sight, alert to
blueback herring plucking some down,
with no lids their eyes are always open,
like God they do not sleep,
they do not avoid the net,
"nothing is exhausted if it returns to itself "
as rich veins run
without celestial fallings from cloud
nor collected lake dropping down,
so it is living water, exploiting
its own nature.
To be preserved in the seed that never falls nor changes. A dream. Whereas, from the surface of silence, under the pressure of river wonder that moves through the green heights, the old woman in the parking lot of Giant grabbed me by the arm on my way to the car, four bags of ice in hand for the school football team. A warm September Saturday, the bags begin to drip. What does she want? She can't open the back hatch of her van, the electronic key, it's not hers, it's borrowed, she's just been evicted. Her muddy brown eyes are enormous. I can see the shadowy mounds of domestic debris in the beat up oatmeal-colored van. Does she need to buy something? Some food? No, she has recycling to drop off, she has to drop off her recycling, how do you open the back? The ice is dripping, the cubes are fusing in their melting. Her fragility & panic gripping me, I lay the bags down on the warm tarmac and show her how the key works. She takes the key and tries to open the door. She can't do it. I show her again how the key works, you just press it there, hold it. The hatch opens, and I lift it up.
She'll never be able to reach that high to close it herself. She takes the key and practices opening the doors and locking them while I grab some empty bottles to carry to the binsNot those! she yells at me, those stay! Okay, which, these? No, not those! Okay, these? No, no, no, no! I just want to finish, to help her and go. Where is she driving to? She stares at me. From the plastic bags, a stream of ice-melt is running along the contours & cracks of the blacktop, picking up grains of dust and carrying them away....
A passage, and what I find there
swifter moving water
increased by rain.
Coarse-toothed box-elder leaves
vessels in the current
passing through reflections
ruffling on the surface
some submerged like thoughts
you hardly know you're thinking
they're moving too, and others
still dropping have yet
to reach the boundary.
the furniture maker find there
between oak & poplar
shading the western ridge?
As a boy, he'd go out looking
for coon's bones, bones of the vole,
mouse, rat; feathers
of gnatcatcher, bunting, bobolink, jay.
"We're like animals," he'd think,
"we come and go; and you never know
what you're going to find."
On his walk that May 22, 2002,
he could hear passing cars
along Broad Branch in the distance;
that's where he found the bones
of the Bureau of Prisons intern,
Chandra Ann Levy
of the San Joaquin Valley,
the scandal of her disappearance
forgotten after 9/11. Soon
maps of Rock Creek replaced
maps of Afghanistan on TV
and cadaver dogs searched
wild flower & trout lily,
butterfly weed & spice bush understory
and they found more bones than expected
near Grove 17.
Ingmar Adalid Guandique,
the immigrant from El Salvador,
grew up in a hamlet
outside San Miguel, in a family
of poor farmers of cotton, rice, & corn.
He worked construction in DC
and his girlfriend waited tables
at Cactus Cantina, where we go sometimes
to escape the luxury of our own kitchen.
When he killed her, if he killed her,
the one he didn't know, did the sound
of water cascading over boulders and merging
with traffic noise echoing through the ravine
join sound of the Rio Grande
he swam across to Texas,
drops of river finding a way
into the canal of his open ear?
Was it the hex
the mother of his boy put on him
when child support dried up?
Or was it the culminating course of
killings that started with his father,
pressed into joining leftist guerillas
fighting military junta death squads
backed by Reagan in the 80s,
his father one of 75,000 killed in civil war,
dumped on a country road that flowed
backward to the proxy wars
of kholodnaya voyna? "The vision
of all that happened with my daughter
being out there in Rock Creek,"
said Susan Levy to a reporter,
"the skeletal remains. It is there still
in my mind." Among cinnamon fern & wood roach
I too and others see them
not far from where I find myself
walking along the creek, and the adobe house
Guandique grew up in, with a roof
of tree branches, an open cooking pit
in the middle of a dirt floor, mixing spores & fungus
outside ancient Piscataway wigwam,
& the beatings his mother gave him,
& the man who married her,
not his father, who lay unburied on the road
(and who found his bones?) whether or not
his son is guilty, far from the deep loud long
accusing rumbling roar I hear
of zoo lions at sunset
from across Duke Ellington Bridge.
Excerpted from The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish by JOSHUA WEINER Copyright © 2013 by 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.
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