Lit-erature

My friend and fellow writer, Nicole, organized a reading this weekend at The Ear Inn. You can see pictures (and pitchers!) here.

I read a new piece I wrote about Roy Sullivan, the Shenandoah National Park ranger who holds the Guinness Book World Record for surviving the most number of lightning strikes: seven. When Roy finally died, it was from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He allegedly couldn’t withstand a broken heart.

roy.jpg

The poem is untitled and in seven parts.

1

Fire Lookout Tower

Kestrels dropped to spy ignition
spread like a rival wingspan. I was
stationed alone in the rock. How long
did I keep watch? Taut
as empty fingers fire’s exit.
Lightning rose, flared in my toes
and pooled familiar pressure like a match
struck against sole, such after-
sulfur.

2

Mountain Road

At eight I feigned snakebite with a fork.
I tined my arm one tooth too many — similarly the sky
that day was fanged but wrong. Hootinany
Blue Ridge, as plated linen swans hills
puckered, yellow paralleled, in rear-view
air bellied out — the road went dark, then blue,
then lit by nothing but the light
of my skin’s tinfoil.

3

Third Strike’s The Harm

A bottle of 80 proof Tullamore Dew is all
that should of got me heat-
whipped in the neck. I was crossing
the yard mindless of a backing
wind — in my head a woman
singing James Taylor to changed lyrics: “Oh, he’s seen
fire, he’s seen fire.” Later, salving flesh,
she felt for my singed socket, said
“Honey, that ain’t no cold shoulder.”

4

Baptism

I was most connected to my higher power
when I had no choice. At strike four
relinquish and allow. Carry
a pitcher. Embrace the methodical wisdom of
if fire I am there, if pitcher I am there
too but umbilical to God unembered,
hair safely soaked, body drenched, I tell you dive
into the swim hole
of the holy until The Lord can reach you
only in the slick wet church
that you’ve secured.

5

Five

When the fifth strike fell
to round out my counting hand
so I could tell how many times
by holding up my palm,
it wasn’t a gesture of stop,
at the hollow between each finger
a newly visible kindling, a bird’s nest
of dry bunting like the inside of a quilt
spilt out and dipped in gasoline, I could
smell the tinder, I could hear the many
oxidations being born inside my mouth, a second made
known by spread fingers, I was near-blind
with anticipation, with forgiveness,
my blood all touch and pyre –- it was then that I brought
my palm to my tongue to taste
the splay of burn.

6

Cloud as Conscience

First I saw its shadow on the campground lawn
and pretended faces, the way a child on his back might see
a lion or a clown. The cloud
was me. It attacked. It kept to its course
unrelentingly, gathering itself at its
cumulus tips, threadbare lurching –- dropped
rain like three-day old confetti in a sooty
street, clumped and stuck to my frame. I ran
towards a cabin, ran to outrun the shameful
brume which only hovered faster, unseen but
tethered, obsessive, until it seemed
to miscall my name — Ray, a light — and I
collapsed, ankle twisted, struck by a strange
interior weather.

7

Casting-Off

Bead, ribbon, staccato. These were the warnings
rocket triggered. I knew
I was blessed and I knew the language,
the magic a ranger uses to welcome
in his guest. I let the fire in. I went
fishing, cast the line out to where the black gum
meets horizon, the mountains gauzy and fog-
backed. The seventh took the bait:
it traveled down my pole, charred my chest
in an imprint like an oak leaf at the height
of fall. I was staggered and red. Unrequited,
I took a gun to my head at seventy-one.

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4 responses to “Lit-erature

  1. It’s even better in print! Love it. Thank you so much for reading it on Saturday and for posting it here.

  2. What an amazing poem. And what an amazing story. Thanks for posting it trybecca.

  3. I really loved it! No explanation needed, I think. Jesus camps.

  4. “All Wild Animals Were Once Called Deer

    Brigit Pegeen Kelly

    Some truck was gunning the night before up Pippin Hill’s steep grade
    And the doe was thrown wide. This happened five years ago now,
    Or six. She must have come out of the woods by Simpson’s red
    trailer-

    The one that looks like a faded train car-and the driver
    Did not see her. His brakes no good. Or perhaps she hit the truck.
    That happens , too. A figure swims up from nowhere, a flying figure

    That seems to be made of nothing but moonlight, or vapor,
    Until it slams its face, solid as stone, against the glass.
    And maybe when this happens the driver gets out. Maybe not.

    Strange about the kills we get without intending them.
    Because we are pointed in the direction of something.
    Because we are distracted at just the right moment, or the wrong.

    We were waiting for the school bus. It was early, but not yet light.
    We watched the darkness draining off like the last residue
    Of water from a tub. And we didn’t speak, because that was our way.

    High up a plane droned, drone of the cold, and behind us the flag
    In front of the Bank of Hope’s branch trailer snapped and popped in
    the wind.
    It sounded like a boy whipping a wet towel against a thigh

    Or like the stiff beating of a swan’s wings as it takes off
    From the lake, a flat drumming sound, the sound of something
    Being pounded until it softens, and then-as the wind lowered

    And the flag ran out wide-there was a second sound
    the sound of running fire.
    And there was the scraping, too, the sad knife-against-skin scraping
    Of the acres of field corn strung out in straggling rows

    Around the branch trailer that had been, the winter before,
    our town’s claim to fame
    When in the space of two weeks, it was successfully robbed twice.
    The same man did it both times, in the same manner.

    He had a black hood and a gun, and he was so polite
    That the embarrassed teller couldn’t hide her smile when he showed
    up again.
    They didn’t think it could happen twice. But sometimes it does.

    Strange about that. Lightning strikes and strikes again.
    My piano teacher watched her husband, who had been struck as a boy,
    Fall for good, years later, when he was hit again.

    He was walking across a cut cornfield toward her, stepping over
    The dead stalks, holding the bag of nails he’d picked up at the
    hardware store
    Out like a bouquet. It was drizzling so he had his umbrella up.

    There was no thunder, nothing to be afraid of.
    And then a single bolt from nowhere, and for a moment the man
    Was doing a little dance in a movie, a jig, three steps or four,

    Before he dropped like a cloth, or a felled bird.
    This happened twenty years ago now, but my teacher keeps
    Telling me the story. She hums it while she plays. And we were
    humming

    That morning by the bus stop. A song about boys and war.
    And the thing about the doe was this. She looked alive.
    As anything will in the half light. As even lawn statues will.

    I was going to say as even children playing a game of statues will,
    But of course they are alive. Though sometimes
    A person pretending to be a statue seems farther gone in death

    Than a statue does. Or to put it another way,
    Death seems to be the living thing, the thing
    That looks out through the eyes. Strange about that…

    We stared at the doe for a long time and I thought about the way
    A hunter slits a deer’s belly. I’ve watched this many times.
    And the motion is a deft one. It is the same motion the swan uses

    When he knifes the children down by his pond on Wasigan Road.
    They put out a hand. And quick as lit grease, the swan’s
    Boneless neck snakes around in a sideways circle, driving

    The bill towards the softest spot…All those songs
    We sing about swans, but they are mean. And up close, often ugly.
    That old Wasigan bird is a smelly, moth-eaten thing.

    His wings stained yellow as if he chewed tobacco,
    His upper beak broken from his foul-tempered strikes.
    And he is awkward, too, out of the water. Broken-billed and gaited.

    When he grapples down the steep slope, wheezing and spitting,
    He looks like some old man recovering from hip surgery,
    Slowly slapping down one cursed flat foot, and the next.

    But the thing about the swan is this. The swan is made for the water.
    You can’t judge him out of it. He’s made for the chapter
    in the rushes. He’s like one of those small planes my brother flies.

    Ridiculous things. Something a boy dreams up late at night
    When he stares at the stars. Something a child draws.
    I’ve watched my brother take off a thousand times, and it’s always

    The same. The engine spits and dies, spits and catches-
    A spurting match-and the machine shakes and shakes as if it were
    Stuck together with glue and wound up with a rubber band.

    It shimmies the whole way down the strip, past the pond,
    Past the wind bagging the goose-necked wind sock, past the banks
    Of bright and blue planes. And as it climbs slowly

    Into the air, wobbling from side to side, cautious as a rock climber,
    Putting one hand forward and then the next, not even looking
    At the high spot above the tree line that is the question,

    It seems that nothing will keep it up, not a wish, not a dare,
    Not the proffered flowers of our held breath. It seems
    As if the plane is a prey the hunter has lined up in his sights,

    His finger pressed against the cold metal, the taste of blood
    On his tongue…but then, at the dizzying height
    Of our dismay, just before the sky goes black,

    The climber’s frail hand reaches up and grasps the highest rock,
    Hauling, with a last shudder, the body over,
    The gun lowers, and perfectly poised now, high above

    The dark pines, the plane is home free. It owns it all, all.
    My brother looks down and counts his possessions,
    Strip and grass, the child’s cemetary, the black tombstones

    Of the cedars make on the grassy hill, the wind-scrubbed
    Face of the pond, the swan’s white stone…
    In thirty years, roughly, we will all be dead…That is one thing…

    And you can’t judge a swan out of the water…That is another.
    The swan is mean and ugly, stupid as a stone,
    But when it finally makes its way down the slope over rocks

    And weeds, through the razory grasses of the muddy shallows,
    The water fanning out in loose circles around it
    And then stilling, when it finally reached the deepest spot

    And raises in slow motion its perfectly articulated wings,
    Wings of smoke, wings of air, then everything changes.
    Out of the shallows the lover emerge, sword and flame,

    And over the pond’s lone island the willow spills its canopy,
    A shifting feast of gold and green, a spell of lethal beauty.
    O bird of moonlight. O bird of wish. O sound rising.

    Like an echo from the water. Grief sound. Sound of the horn.
    The same ghostly sound the deer makes when it runs
    Through the woods at night, white lightning through the trees,

    Through the coldest moments, when it feels as if the earth
    Will never again grow warm, lover running toward lover,
    The branches tearing back, the mouth and eyes wide,

    The heart flying into the arms of the one that will kill her.”

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