The Poetry of John Pursley III

Co-Winner 2006

Study for an American West
The Sea-Monkey Dreams
A Conventional Weather
Study for an American West                "If kerosene works, why not gasoline?"                        –Brian Henneman         1.  The armadillo's moved forward, as if wanting to be relevant    And the actual brushwork of the artist–a man in his sixties Swaddled in a light chambray robe, drinking coffee–could    Bring about some particular change in their provisional life Together, as artist & subject, reversing the role of the creator      And unassailable creation, to one of more mutual exchange. Beneath him, what might pass for a rock–shifts, gives way    To his derision, the knuckled bones of his tail pearling over A landscape of dust & smallish cacti; in the American idiom    For loneliness, a coyote squares her shoulders to the moon- Light in a gesture too pronounced for such incitement, as if    Somewhere in the foreground, a mother & child had pulled To the roadside to look at a map; &, for the first time, taken by    The sheer vastness of the desert, recognize the commonality That must subsist in all things; the road goes on forever . . .          2.  But to a mother, the half-moons of her youngest daughter's    Newly-formed breasts under the pale dome of the Explorer Outshine even coyotes; &, in the end, after the credits expose      The mystery behind the magic, after the snow begins to fall And startles us awake, after breath & the likeliness of being,    Of unbeing? audience is everything . . . the armadillo knows And remains apathetic to these fellow passengers; the artist,    Turning the tail of a coyote unnaturally away from her body Like an added appendage or the leg of a chair–progressing    Towards evolutionary displacement, something unnecessary But almost expected from a man so formidable, sharpening    A camel-hair brush in a small barrel of turpentine or mineral Spirits diluted with water–but the coyote, unscathed, again    Finds herself at the center of all things–excepting, perhaps, The moon's irascible rendering of light, a universal constant              3.  Even in the American West–where nothing is constant but    Miles of dust & the opportunity for train robbery–none of Which happens here, for it is night, & the light weathers only    Shapes, the gestures towards moments, & not the moments Themselves. Still, the armadillo is moving forward, weaving    Back & forth, between flat cacti, the disproportionate yucca, And, what might be mountains–molehills? At this distance    It is difficult to tell. And the coyote has unlocked her throat And is howling at the moon, a sort of lament that whimpers    Out to almost nothing; then rises, stronger, & more forlorn. But, the artist doesn't hear it . . . in the distance, an Explorer    Slows, then stops; the interior alights on a map–unfolding, The passenger, studying her mother's hands as they emulate    The roads, saying "Coyote, Mom. You hear it?"–as if, perhaps She couldn't–wouldn't. In the darkness, an armadillo crossing.
The Sea-Monkey Dreams             In Destruction, everyone is an adept.                      – First Admiral, Don Cristóbal Colón                    1.  In the back pages of this Boy's Life, a few stray ads & dedications, An opportunity for blue sky, congested with the traffic of clouds:  My parents, for instance–who never understood my infatuation For trinkets–the switch-blade combs & compasses, the bb guns  Made to look like German Lugars & Remington Prairie Rifles– Saturday Night Specials kids could carry for the rest of their lives.  And why not? The Estes Rocketeers are rifling toilet paper tubes At the moon, their payloads packed with living cargo–a praying  Mantis, June bugs & Japanese beetles–little da Gamas & Cooks, Cartiers, ready to raise the white flag, break bread & start staking   Their claims. And with little–or no–say in the matters of home, What would you expect a child to do? Even our own government  Shows no shame, pilfering the inside secrets behind x-ray glasses; Their invisible inks & whoopee cushions, like so many exploding   Cigarettes. Just walk away . . . Is that your answer? Please Doctor.              ––––––  In the dream it is always the same: I am climbing, rung over rung, Towards what must be the center of my life, afraid to look down,  To let go–my mother, standing over a table, arranging the petals Of a flower I cannot name–though my father, his pencil etching    Out the mistakes in the morning crossword, most certainly could And would were he speaking to me & not to my mother, who isn't  Listening. There is a postcard on the table, an ashtray–& a book About birds, my mother never tires of reading. Outside, the night  Settles into medicinal dark on the backs of baying cattle, on trains Carrying livestock, & coal, into the heart of a city, which offers us  Nothing, if not the vagaries of transient living–the queer trundle Of cars, clearing the beam bridge–then the viaducts & north . . .  Like the wolves the local, farm kids took potshots at–rumor was They killed cattle, descended in packs upon the herd, giving chase  To the weaker ones . . . usually calves, the older milk cows, which, Stumbling, break the bones of a fetlock, or knee, & cannot run–  Mostly, you wouldn't notice them, at night, against a darker stand Of trees, & until early evening they didn't exist at all, & then, only  Slowly, & from the south, & after my father has picked his pencil Off the table & has begun writing again–something about trains,  His propensity for trains, their dilapidated whistles & that rhythm Of wheels, rolling over itself–& even then, you might not see one,  In the wild, standing against this small ridge of untouched timber Like a sentinel checking passports at the gatehouse–unflinching,  Indifferent, to even the nervousness of those passengers he'll flag For further search or seizure; the tiny revolutions of the turnstiles  Facilitating something like hope–or so I'd once believed. In the end, It is a story without poverty, & whatever died, stayed dead, or lies  Bleeding, in the tall grass, & fescue, listening to the quiet chirring The crickets' wings against a night, so full of stars, even the most  Obvious constellations appear inaccessible–the highway's whirr, The cattle-cars crossing, re-crossing, the beam bridge–just another   Kind of silence groping towards the morning, like song–an aria? With no beginning, & no foreseeable end–just the rough weight  Of a body as it retreats & falls, as it retreats & falls, & cannot rise.              ––––––  It begins with a branch: then disaster & disenchantment, a sprawl Of water rolling up over the deck. The tomb of Christ. The dead-  Reckoning–by sun & by stars. The diffident bird, unaccustomed To sea. The miles of kelp (of Sargassum) extending north, like a top   With no bottom (like stargrass), the elongated stalk (like mastic trees) Overburdened with fruit. It begins with the real & imagined fears:  The ice congealed about the hull & St. Amador's ship held fast– Where would you walk, if you could walk (top with no bottom) away?  O Captain. It begins with a woodcut of monsters at sea, the myth Of the two-dimensional world dismissed (exchanged) for purgatory  (Life, liberty, the pursuit of–). It begins with a fractured sky & a star Falling through. A cross-stave, the eventual astrolabe . . . it begins   With the nascent science of navigation. The topmast of a 120 ton Vessel (splintered) adrift at sea. It begins with salt & wine, molasses  And honey, dried meats, biscuits & fruits. It begins with a branch: A small boy in the crow's-nest, (clearing his throat) with nothing say.               ––––––  A grape ensconced between cheek & gum–the young lieutenant Drags the heels of his well-made shoes, dividing our history class  Into nearly perfect rectangles. It is the kind of geometric formula Pythagoras would have enjoyed, but utilized in such a way, Hitler,    Even in the late-domestic days, would applaud. No one is fooled, Especially with the girls gone to a seminar on STDs & erroneous   Fallacies of original sin, & so much testosterone in the classroom. I am thinking of Eve straddling the hood of a '68 Dodge Charger  And taking it from behind. I am thinking goosestep, & forty-two Minutes until lunch. I am thinking well-made shoes; The Rolling  Stones' Exile . . . in mono. I am thinking I hate myself & want to die.             ––––––  There is a woman on the road–pushing a shopping cart of what Looks like used clothes, ransacked from the Salvation Army bins     Behind the Trinitarian church . . . & she is laughing at something That may, or may not, exist. She is laughing, as if the bird, beside   Her now, has told a joke about memory, & desire–in a language That promises nothing. She is laughing, & mopping her forehead  With her shirtsleeves. She is the bird woman, our resident lunatic Of the city street. In the rafters, the sparrows are trying at speech,  Their mouths too full of song–the theory of song? Too many notes, But the acoustics are good . . . she doesn't stop–she never stops.  And we all pretend to be busy, pretend not to notice the obvious Pandering to an audience, with no prospects but to listen. I think    Of sex, & how little I know–how behind the gym, the freshmen Are smoking–hiding, from Mrs. Steinbeck, who is also smoking.   How the janitor looks busy. No one is fooled–& no one rappels From the building, or carries an assault rifle. No one drives tanks,  Or jumps from an airplane. No one cares. We're only killing time Until the next big thing, which looks a little like lunch–Salisbury   Steak & scalloped potatoes, green beans, or cut corn? a piece of pie.               ––––––  But I am wrong. I am not dying–&, for the next couple minutes, I just want the angel in the first row, across the hall & two grades   Above me, to continue writing whatever it is she's writing. I want The young lieutenant to be the long distance runner, I remember   As a child of the third grade–his hair foppish, & wild with wind, A congress of frictions & the disciplined motions of muscle, taut,  Like pistons firing, like God. And, if he drags his foot, he drags it With reason. I know. But I hate to see him crippled up this way–  So humbled by the world–&, for the third time today, repeating The familiar mantras–faith, honor, courage. Uncle Sam needs us.  If not now–then when? Johnny Koszinnski is holding his pencil Unconsciously like a revolver, & Bryan Carmichael is writing Shocka-  Zoo-loo down his right forearm in permanent marker–believing it Will bring providence to tonight's game; Stevie Wymore is asleep,  As he is always asleep. Outside, the bird woman keeps navigating For the home I have never seen. A carpenter bee keeps bouncing   Against the window. I am thinking the sun is a star. I am thinking Pounds-per-square-inch–thinking stress fractures. I am thinking How the grapes in the young lieutenant's cheek make him appear Less human–how almost chipmunk, how squirrel. How adaptable   The grapes must be to find their own organizing principles. How, Like planetary systems, like quadrants of stars . . . how, when one   Grape rolls off our teacher's desk–someone should yell grenade And dive to the floor–how no one does. I am thinking of a dog  Yapping across the street, what he might be saying. I am thinking Columbus, three ships, & so much ocean. I am thinking deserted  Streets & the laughter of children . . . thinking of Eve, the garden, A good rain. How good it feels to hold hands–how like thunder,  The report of a cannon–the abandonment of wings taking flight.               ––––––  Of madness–what could I know? but to watch the slow descent Of a stranger's hand, working its way along a wall–like mayflies,   The fingers sporadically rising & falling in pattern with the paper, But with more deliberateness, more measure, the way aquarium fish  Seem to hover, ghostlike, over a visitor's head, the thin gossamer Of their tails, fanning, then falling, like flags of foreign diplomats,   Turning & turning, & breaking no ground. I think of the implied Violence of barracuda, of pike–of the occasional beta, thrashing   Against the vitreous walls of the terrarium–& all those banisters Blistered with night sweat & hypoallergenic cold creams, placebo  Pills, Lithium & Thorozine, the elongated halls, widened enough Two beds could pass, comfortably–the night nurses & orderlies   Making their rounds, washing down bedpans & trash receptacles Flung against the hard-waxed floors, bright with phosphorescent  Light: so much whiteness, undeviating, like compass points, stars.        ––––––  I am thinking of Columbus–of newly caulked, dry-docked ships Waiting for the one-ton, wine barrels to be wheeled into the hulls  Of each vessel–& the men therein, carving their initials & the sea Monsters that will, eventually, destroy them, gnawing the leathered   Rations of salt-pork, & as much fresh fruit as they can find: 1492, The year & not the number, I am thinking Genoa & Christopher,  The Saint & the boy who bears his name. I am thinking of God's Good nature & the relative humility of the West, in a time of war  And enterprise. The rise of Islam at the expense of Christendom. The futile attempts to recover the Holy Sepulchre. The Ottoman Empire, now knocking on the doors of Vienna. On the top-deck Of the largest ship, two men are throwing dice, playing the bones  Back & forth between their hands. Another man stands amongst The riggings, casting his nose into the air, like a dog, domesticated    To know his master's scent. A day behind. This is the curtain call Of men made to look the part of sailors, hauling rocks for ballast  And trade cargo that would appease the Grand Khan: glass beads And decorative bells, fashioned for the feet of falcons, harriers &   Sparrow-hawks upholding an air between God & man–the spirit Of the divine, a turbulence of wind. Through the streets of Palos,   The late Pedro Vasques de la Frontera is dancing like a mad-man And roaring at anyone who will listen, something about an island   In the western Azores; islands–which he, himself, had discovered Some forty years prior–adrift in the Sargasso; islands, untouched    By man, full of innumerable riches . . . And, beyond that, another, Larger & more beautiful, lost, to so much fog–an impenetrable fog.               ––––––  It is a question of vanity–a question of faith. The long goodbye That brought these men, & the women beside them, the children  Of Luis de Torres–a converted Jew & interpreter of the fleet– And the children of Diego de Harana–a cousin of the Admiral's  Cordovan mistress & marshal of the Santa Maria–chasing a dog, Or being chased; it is difficult to tell. There are fires by the water,  Fires & abandoned bedrolls where the men assembled. The night Becoming day, & still no word. The whole town surfacing, to see   The men away–in the plaza & on the shores, where the Atlantic Leans into the Golfo de Cádiz, & then lulls, like hoof-hammered  Steel, rolling out, the story of itself, burnished between two worlds.              ––––––  Because he could no longer touch her face, & because she spoke Only to her father, who did not know, slowly & from the corner  Of her mouth, Juan Quintero–boatswain of the Pinta–scraped Salt from the halyards & lifts, buntlines & bow-,–then clewlines,   Sheet & tack, bright fractals of mineral amassed at sea, on the air, And in the bodies of these men, & clawed his skin, as if he could  Loose the memory (of her body) by drawing water from his own. Because–in the eyes of sailors & in the running-riggings of each  Vessel, the belaying pins & pulleys–salt is an irritant, & because It needed to be done. Because, even in Palos, she was too young  And too exhausted with her father's health, to do anything but stay Quiet & forget. Stay quiet & forget, she must have thought, mining   The motions (of his body) like a schoolboy, learning the letters of  His own name, in the Latin–or Greek?–a language, not entirely    Unlike her own, magnified by a clarity born out of failure, a hand On a slumped shoulder, that says, I'm sorry to have to tell you this . . .  That says, Your father . . . but it is not her father she thinks of now, Or the cold hand that brushed her knees to touch her inner thigh  Beneath the dress of its ordinary life, or the horses, in the stables Where they met & continued to meet, congregating around what-  Ever light the moon managed & the dark slub of near-emulsified Foods, Juan would lug from the market, which filled their trough  And kept them warm–though at times, their nostrils, flared like Serpentine dragons, would produce so much steam, their muzzles  Seemed masked by all that smoke, & she'd been afraid they'd die, If not from cold, from their own asphyxiation, & it seemed unfair   One should die twice. Stay quiet & forget–she must have thought, Holding to her father's hand, as he pulled her through the streets  Of men & women, children, chickens & dogs–stay quiet & forget.        ––––––  And what of memory? That car crash we passed when I was nine;  One car eased into the trees, another upended, suspended between  Relativity & those markers of time we can't reverse–a single tire Still turning, silently, towards that pale cerulean fissure opening up  Along the sky's edge. And the world stayed round; the sky stayed Round. Our wheels, still turning . . . Isn't there something we could do? My mother's face collapsing on itself . . . Yes, my father said, drive.        ––––––  But, as Columbus reminds us, the mind is never so simple: the sea And the land together form a sphere, & afford mutual support to each other,  As the kernel of a nut is confined by its shell . . . & so too those parents We sleep beside; touch to know they're real. How far is too far gone?  What were we thinking? When were we thinking we could go? Our wheels, Still turning over the snow & sluice, the asphalt cinders of a road    That bent beyond these mountains, or burrowed its way through?
Editor's Note: The final sections of The Sea-Monkey Dreams are slated for publication in the fall by Poetry.
A Conventional Weather   The water in the bath has stilled, & there is a silence about the room       Which she will not rise to–though he has gone again, & she is alone.   The busted bicycle still leans against the tool-shed, handlebars rusted       The color of clay, though not enough to suggest that this is Alabama,   To say nothing of the coming night, the distance between our homes,       The hollow pitch of gravel against the wheel-wells as he pulls away–  None of which would consul or cure us. We are absolved of nothing,       Abstain from nothing. Exchange few words. Speak, when spoken to.           ––––––   Everyone is lonesome–It's alright, you can say it here . . . . You can say it       And not want to believe–but it isn't in the demarcations, the camisoles  Like curtains drawn tight about the body, that we cover our nakedness.       It isn't in the gardenia votive she's lit, or in the two cut iris she'll leave   Too long in the window–the little things, my grandmother would say,       The creature comforts–which are only enough to know what isn't there,  Which is him–which is everything. Self-conscious as we are–to watch       And be watched–to speak for those who don't acknowledge us, or wish                 To be acknowledged–these things, too, will pass: what she remembers,       Folded flat, pressed in origami doves. The improvised hand of a father,   Fumbling to find what he cannot say–as if to stop time, or take back       A name. The rote coffee & cigarettes, lithe upon the throat, & rising–     What she remembers–as from a great height, the rush & whir, the scatter       Of pigeons, through the window–which, by now, must hold the heat  Of his coffee, the heaviness of voice. The single pebble of sand, which       Beveled the glass to a point of weakness. The rush & whir, the pigeons  He'd imagined to be doves, taking flight, lifting–just then–up, & out.       The air around his head darkening. The sky changing shape all at once.        ––––––  Had she been older, she might have comforted him–she might have       Cradled his neck against her own & held him there in the affectionate  Posture of a mother, or at least have turned to look at him. As it was,       She did not & continued sweeping–each stroke issuing across the tile  A sound like expensive paper being torn from the backs of old books       No one cared to read, & which, a fire kindling, ignited easily–in a way   So habitual it seemed less a duty of childhood, than a childish attempt       Not to succumb to the slow assimilation of time–the cold partitions,   Chimeras, between what is real & what we come to believe–because       The story never changes, once the wheels are set to motion, & death–  As in all stories–takes its center & consecrates a beginning. There is       No unending. No asters, or tulips, for cars to pass & grant their shape.        ––––––  Such is the way of windows, of gravity & rock–conventional weather.      The truth is, the water is warmer than she would like, & between here  And there is mostly wasted space, an empty driveway that no one uses,       A fifty-year-old pecan tree that produces no fruit, dropping dry limbs   At the mere suggestion of rain. Mostly, there is quiet & the absence of       Quiet–an occasional car in passing, or mockingbird among bamboo.         Mostly, we do not speak–& the truth is, at this distance, I can see only       Enough to know that she has drawn a bath, &–if anything–appears   Disinterested–lost in the light above her head, & the soft dissonance       Of that music: it is a language, strange to her, as if spoken too quickly  From an airport payphone, a terminal busy with passengers, boarding       And unboarding. So many voices–the almost indiscernible screams   Of children, of tires touching down, of rubber & steel, the quick click       Of a woman, in heels–now slowing–now passing away. The luggage  Wheels, & wheels of strollers, whirring at dirt, & dust, the microfibers       Of a boy's brown coat, being dragged across the floor. And a woman  Is crying. In the arms of her mother, a girl–too big to be carried–drops       A lollipop, & on impact–exploding, in a confusion of ruby shards–  It sounds, in fact, more exquisite than it is–& though the child seems      Not to care, & more than a little bored by it–for a moment all sound   Stops. The escalator jams, the striders & laggards alike. Then, nothing.       Only a man clearing the tunnel from LaGuardia or Newark, scanning  The room–his thick wool suit, too warm for the weather–working his way        Towards the arms of his wife, whose prepared dinner with candles–   Salmon sautéed in fresh chilies, & limes–her hands, rife with vinegar      And a low-cost lotion, the fragrance of tea trees–her arms, extended     As if she were swimming. And then, nothing–only the awkwardness       Of reunion, the sweet smell of candy . . . & water, water, every where.