The First Signal
Once, down near the swales where the hay
had been doused with rain, and the bales
had come undone and lay flat and half-eaten
near the barn, my father and I walked out past
our acres into a yellow field. It was yellow
all year, a heath, and here the wood smoke came
strong. We went on walking, out past the springhouse
and the watercress on another farm, made a fire
one county over. In the paroxysms of shadow-light,
he sat there in the grass, a ghost
about to leave the body, but clung. He snapped
twigs and chucked them in the flame,
and embers blew back into his face, his hair.
He never flinched, spoke: I cannot erase my father
now for his silence, for I bear his pulse,
my own blood. I cannot transfuse love
trapped in the body and passed down, not to this land
or any creek-force or even springs when green
vines flare and speak for him, sway hymns
to vindicate the wordlessness our tongues command.
Fathers bleed into sons, and the traveler stands
under them, under their siring shadows,
mountains casting down their glory or their gloom,
and all the finer shadings of their enfolded spirits.
Surely I have searched for striations of color
in the glistening surfaces of my father’s irises,
old now and clotted as King Lear’s,
pale blue, orange-flecked, opalescent.
Aeneas crossed no mountains when he
returned for his father, his frail and befallen,
his second pulse draped over his shoulders,
all former debts lofted and saved from fire,
but not forever. Even Anchises does not live
beyond his age: whatever the life on earth,
whatever the strength of the son,
who looks always in dreams, always in clouds
for the father he could not save across time.
I peer into the early-darkening sky,
listen for a voice thundering from the peaks,
watch for the signal, a falling, flaring star.
Let the past have its dominion tonight,
let the winded rain blow in and shake
windows loose in their softening frames,
nothing that hurt once can hurt again.
I am free to roam this land without fear,
without jealousy, intimidated by no one,
books I have studied, read again
for the first time, their words realigned
on fresh cut pages, reintroducing themselves.
Behind all those overspilling clouds, the moon
catches light still and sends it here unbidden.
I would know to ask for it if it never came,
darkness would tell me how much I need
the light, my hands outstretched.
Let the moon reap its hidden domain—
Reflected rays guide the way back, the return
to the child I once was, sitting under stars
with an uncle, a protector, guardian from fear,
who told the names of what we observed,
lifted me onto his shoulders to get us both as close
as possible to heaven, the place we believed
awaited our arrival with angels singing,
safe at last from whatever darkened visions crept
into dreams, terrors of the dead, and the living.
We traced the patterns our pointing fingers made,
star to star, map made of myths, horns, spear-tips,
flanks of a roving bear, true companions of the moon,
whose round face I loved above all other shapes
in the sky, sensing even then that her silver arrows
took aim against whatever threatened us harm.
Gatherers at Time’s End, Specter Mountain
In the polar vortex, the tree limbs snapped loud
as gunshots, and I slept into a seeing of different
times, for time is an ovoid womb that gives
birth to dust, ice, and blood again and again,
that throws light back into itself until another time
is made. Numbed, I saw our towns
cities long darkened, not from cataclysm
or neglect, but from a human blossoming
toward the old utterance, the primal heart.
People scattered down the ridge
into the crimson stubble of valley to gather
around fires and sing the last words they could recall.
Snow piled on pines and blew off with rifts
of smoke. The wind still blew eastward, and the flare
of dawn still grayed into lilac into blue.
The fires forced the valley into an opening
bloom, and to hear the people singing was to know
them with love, to read them legible
as siblings. Such harmonies they made that my mouth
turned dry as years-old leaves. My body bent
into heavy narcosis. To know their rhythm
was to feel Earth gnaw at my own
measures, and to adore the world, hard as it is,
for finishing, always finishing, what it begins.
[This excerpt originally appeared on December 13, 2017.]
Jesse Graves is the author of two previous poetry collections, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine (2011) and Basin Ghosts (2014). He received the James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and serves as Poet-in-Residence at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.
William Wright is author or editor of more than twenty volumes of poetry, including the award-winning Tree Heresies (2015). A former visiting writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he currently teaches creative writing at Emory University, Oxford College of Emory, and Reinhardt University.