Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Lance Larsen: Finalist, 2002

In All Their Animal Brilliance

Landscape, with Hungry Gulls

[link to live reading from 2002]

In All Their Animal Brilliance

I. Platonic

They smelled like gristle and lost rivers, those talons.
I wore them around my neck
on fishing line.
They guarded that palace behind my breastbone
where the soul takes its R & R.

The creatures that pair of legs perished into.
Pull the tendons, and the talons
preached. Opening
and closing like a sweet maniac
deciding between death by hurricane

and death by slow volcano.
And when the talons gripped my finger
till it purpled I felt great wings
feathering the air, pulling
against the sorry truths that held me to this world.

II. By Road, and By Sky

Hit and left for dead, this porcupine. A mess of flesh
and entrails in a smear of blood. It jerked a little,
then tried dragging itself away. My father pulled
over and rummaged in the trunk for something to finish
it off. His hands were coolness that night. Or were they grace?
He straddled that twitching porcupine and raised
a tire iron above his head. I watched. Still, it was my mother
I loved. My mother in the front seat, with her pill box hat
and apricot skirt. My mother, with a sweet armada
of moles above her collar bone and her left front tooth
overlapping the right. She turned away from the slash
of high beams across asphalt and the valley opening below.

I was not her first son, or favorite. But the one lucky
enough to be in the backseat that night. The one whose face
she used as a mirror to watch my father rain down
six shivering blows. She reached for me across the seat,
then turned on the radio, as if I or the evening needed
serenading. The wedding reception we were late for could wait.
And the city juggling its neon promises. And my father
explaining that bad driving is to accidents as a tire iron
is to mercy. My mother held me. The ghost of the porcupine
hovered over its remains, then rose with the moon
and drifted south. The crickets sang darkly, and the road
said never and the sky said always and both told the truth.

III. Good Friday in San Bernardo, Chile

First a wavery premonition, then their snouts
breaking through haze, finally a rumble
of shank and muscled fat. Was it patience
that filled their pig eyes? Awe that filled me?
Down the street they came, through a veil
of fog and taboo. Smartly hooved, faces
lifted, as if being unclean also made them saintly.

Seven of them, which I, on my way to buy
bread, had divided. Seven days, seven venial sins,
seven sacred holes in this unholy face, seven
times seventy the times I must wash in ashes
and kiss the gristle of this sweet dying earth,
seven heavens watching. And they trotted,
my tallness less to them than a pillar of salt.

IV. Spider Luck

One toe-nudge too many and she exploded, poor
mother spider, into a slick of babies—no more
than spilled commas, unless you knelt
at the open door with a used paperback of Beowulf,

as I did, to rescue them, and happened
to notice the pool playing hide the button
with Cassiopeia and wondered about heroic codes
in general and my cowardice in specific

for not swimming naked at 2:30 am and which lunatic
neighbor slipped into my apartment to steal
half a rotisseried chicken while I mailed a letter
and which one I should trust to water my ferns

and why rain is almost never a possessive
and whether I was the only one awake enough
to hear the wind saying with its hundred
mouths, Never mind, little orphan, never mind.

V. Infinity Hopscotch

How do you honor a dead calico whose owner
is bicycling Nova Scotia? I've washed
most of the blood off. I've gentled the torn ears,
and admired their waxy labyrinths. Even pressed
her toe pads till her claws signaled the invisible
time keeper of cats perched in the sycamore.

Now I'm burying, on my side of the mums
in case my neighbor is squeamish about owning
the dead. No rain, but a sky bent on trying
and a damp smell midway between old suppers
and penance. Like a good citizen, I try to walk
under and through all this. Which leads me
to my drive—and a newly chalked hopscotch troll.

She grins in pastels, electric and maternal,
the work of who knows which cul-de-sac imp?
From her pink scribbled hair, chalk circles
patient as dinner plates lead to the darkening
orchard. So much hopping, so many erasable
worlds. And this dirty shovel growing heavy.

VI. Landscape for Several Pairs of Hands

No one is going to save me from the rest of my life,
though my father,
seat belted and ruddy, hands like a surgeon's,
believes otherwise. He drives
as if landscape were no more than a long stretch
of obedient patient. But this is Wyoming,
where even angels and barbed wire
wait till after midnight to hold their Q. and A.s.

Between us, a bleached cow skull,
a sepulchre of a face—our only souvenir
after hunting arrowheads all morning and peeing
rivulets that branched and crossed,
crossed and branched.
Next spring and onward into a geologist's eternity,
my father will hang this skull in the crotch
of our cherry tree—a warning

to marauding robins. Which they will ignore.
I am not quite asleep,
but can already feel hands crescendoing
across the horizon, hands
playing tuneful mirages that quiet away
just as I'm about to recognize
a melody. When I wake up
I will occupy a stronger, but sadder body.

It is August, nobody's birthday.
I am cold enough
in this shimmering heat to know my days as a son
are numbered. And still
my father's right palm rests on the cow skull.
We have crossed the meandering
Green River three times in the last hour,
though our unpaid-for car is aimed straight west.

Landscape, with Hungry Gulls

If I said burial, if I said a lovely morning
          to prepare the body
, who would I startle?
Not this pair of teenage girls in matching swim suits
          making a mound of their brother.
And not the boy himself, laid out like a cadaver
          on rye, who volunteered for interment.

In the language of skin, he knows that sand rhymes
          with patience, and that patience worketh
a blue sky dotted with gulls, if only he remains
          still enough. And he does, his face a cameo
dusted with sparkling grains. Meanwhile, my son
          brings me offerings he has dug up—

a jaw bone, a pair of vertebrae, ribs like planks, three teeth.
          At my feet, an ancient horse assembles.
A lesson in calcification? A beginner's oracle kit?
          If the sea gulls canvassing the beach
are questions, then the pelican riding the dihedral breeze
          above the buoys is an admonition, but to what?

The sisters are at work again, making a giant
          Shasta daisy of their brother's face,
six pieces of popcorn per petal, his eyes blinking.
          Now they scatter leftover kernels across the mound
like sextons scattering lime. To my left,
          ankle deep in shallows, my son catches minnows.

No, not minnows, damsel fly larvae,
          which swim like minnows but have six legs.
He places them in a moat, so they can swim freely.
          Soon enough they will climb this castle wall.
Soon enough they will shed their syntax and leave
          one language for another, like a good translation.

The sisters have moved further down the beach
          in hopes that the sea gulls will gently
nibble their brother. So many motives. Theirs: to dress
          a body in the sands of is as though tomorrow isn't.
His: to taste the world, mouth to beak.
          The gulls draw closer, to peck at his heart.

I am trying to pretend the body is only an idea.
          I watch the pelican. I have to keep reminding myself.
A pelican is not a pterodactyl with feathers.
          A pelican is not doing moral reconnaissance.
A pelican does not know my name.
          I close my eyes long enough to drift up and up.

Poor man, napping there, far below, who looks
          and smells like me, but is stuck in a beach chair.
Quick, someone teach him to bank and hover.
          And this horse my son is decorating the moat with,
broken into pieces so various and eloquent—
          where are its pastures, does it have enough to eat?


Yes, the zucchinis grow heavy and wicked,
and yes, a porcupine parses the orchard
one rummy apple at a time.
But the true inventory begins when two boys
in mummy bags carve up Cassiopeia,
first with index fingers, then with closed eyes
and a buried love of their mothers, expressed as sleep.

Next the bicycle hanging on the porch pedals
backwards, a poor man's time machine.
Which means it's time
for the zephyr and the uncle smoking
a hand-rolled cigarette
under the eaves to trade places.
Prepare then to say hello to wind tucked

into scuffed boots, to salute a laid-off longshoreman
pushing clouds across the lake.
Meanwhile, a croquet hoop and an ax
in the peonies create
a cautionary tale by moonlight,
whose heroine huddles in the front room
trying to free Chopin from torn sheet music.

Beneath her, in the basement, her older sister urinates
on a plastic wand that turns
her misgivings the shade of her boyfriend's car.
To the side of the house,
a salamander in a bucket holds the night
ransom. Up ahead, one peach tree, three grafts,
like agony buried in Jesus and the two thieves.

The Father who suffered him to be nailed
climbs over the fence. Wanders his overgrown
vineyard in an underfed body, to remember
lostness. Takes a swig of syrupy Coke
left out all day, coughs once, then wipes
his mouth on the neck of a sleeping dog,
who dreams apocalypse in greens and terrible blues.