Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Eric Rawson: Finalist, 2004

Upon Revisiting the Birthplace of the Preacher Billy Sunday

At Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Upon Revisiting the Birthplace of the Preacher Billy Sunday


If I have sinned, the rain falls more blackly
On the corn fields, the river crests and floods

And the sparrow tucks under a wet wing
I must have believed it once when I came

Here to be hidden behind the treatment
Plant before the dealerships bought up all

The bottomland except this far corner
When you are sixteen maybe seventeen

Your monstrous sins distort the universe
You make the rain to fall you give your loved

Ones cancer and foul the community
With the powerful poison of your deeds

When I have sinned the rain falls more coldly
Even wet the acorns clack as they fall

From the yellow branches to the pavement
Stained with the tannins of half a century

Maybe more some shed some crib or storehouse
Stood here sheltering equipment records

Against the horde of winter sweeping down
From Canada and there's the rusted ruin

Of the old car a Buick I think where
I crawled with my canteen and notebook

To list the details of my sad slow days
Though it's hard to see under the sumac

And huckleberries and saplings pushing
Through the rotted seats and sticking out through

The broken windows what a mess of blood--
Root and cockleburrs I kick through it

Crunching acorns looking for the old marks
I get down there and gather a handful

Of the hard stuff and the moldy black stuff
The pure humility the smell of home


I drag my bag of sins behind me pale
Ones the rotten crabs and dark ones the burned

Wings heavy heavier every year--
But I'm too selfish to give them away

The little dears and the scary mothers
Drag my bag through the city where I live

Picking up sins at the farmers' market
Where I murder the sour disgusting old

Women licking the radishes picking
Up sins on the boulevard as I crack

The grimy fingers held out for a buck
Gathering sins while I'm rolling on the floor

Of the Largo chewing the waitresses'
Skirts like a dog toss them all in my bag

And stagger on through the beautiful world
Leaving a trail of black oil behind me


I'm lazy lazy all day and the next
I've hardly shaken off the night's dander

Before it's time to lean into the arms
Of afternoon the years have hung the weight

Of luxury on me I can't bear it
Here I am trying to live again with--

Out all the fat all the cheesy richness
O stupid youth rooted in the wind I

Know now why I sat on those hard pews when
All I believed in was sliced beef on rye

And a girl's new hips flaring in the grass
And I know now why I went the long way

Through snow or stood in the rain on the steps
Of the library for hours I know why

My head ached with algebra and why I
Hungered for the sight of ice-hung branches

But refused to let my dreams inform me
After all of these years I now know why

I used to walk through these fields on my knees
These very ones the sun was a hammer

And the soybeans bred clouds of biting gnats
All summer the weed crews crept down the rows

One mile down one mile back then rest for ten
Minutes to clean the dirt out of our shoes

Bugs climbed in our eyes sweat left salty tracks
On our foreheads our tongues stuck to our teeth

I loved the pain in my shoulders and feet

The clearness of it the reasons for it
The sunburn and the exhaustion the thirst

Even feeling the chemicals burning
Our lungs even knowing that we lost

A little of our lives to the harvest
Even if it offered nothing but hope

I loved the plainness and the mean labor
At sundown we staggered back to the bus

No one said a word about tomorrow
But all night long we rested at the breast

Of comfort lying in our hammocks in
The crickety air in the fine moonlight


There's hardly anyone alive today
Who remembers the wide use of manure

The smell of it on the fields or the smell
Of dung in the towns who knows what coffee

Smelled like at Wilshire & Vermont at eight
O'clock in the morning one-hundred years

Ago hardly anyone remembers
The smell of the canvas tabernacles

Or the fresh sawdust on the floors to damp
The penitent bootheel and what about

The smell of kerosene which no one knows
Anymore and the smell of castile soap

The smell of the Bronze Age the goats and figs
Or the smell of Gettysburg with its ten

Thousand rotting horses and smoking trees
There's no one alive who knows the smell of

Teepees by the Mississippi River
And no one who knows the smell of my own

History except me the smell of the bed
The smell beneath the juniper the smell

Of pears of frog-water the smell inside
A trombone case and of the gray paint on

The bleachers the smell of wet newspaper

That belongs to only one life among
The many and keeps the gate of memory

Open the smell of the first day of it
Of a ditch of a wet red dog the mud


Kneeling knees soaked ankles soaked hair dripping
I shake with the cold but not only that

Out here in the weeds in the greasy rain
Out here in the presbyterian autumn

Pouring down its dark flumes of clouds and flocks
Of migratory fowl let the wind blow through

My bones and hollow me out like a shell
Tear down my pride and hide me in the grave

Of your love dear God
                                       I don't want to live
Another day without your fingers wrapped

Around my heart save me from selfishness
Let me vanish into my own history


The fat-lipped ghost is resting his head on
My shoulder and muttering in my ear

He's squeezing my neck and poking my ribs
With his big hands he keeps insisting that

I understand about acorns he thinks

There is a lesson listen he mutters
I know you don't like me--he spits it out

I don't like you--you don't have to like me
To learn to serve to let a squirrel plant

You in the cold muck to be a kernel
Cut from the tree you don't have to like it

The squirrel does not call to service the mole
Does not call to service neither crop nor

Weed neither cloud nor swarm-nothing calls to
Service but the need to serve as I am

Myself when I spit into your ear you
Will be yourself in giving everything

To the world it does not matter that you
Lose your goddamn sins you know this is true


Over the dealerships the floodlights bloom
Whitely and a tractor-trailer gears up

The incline on the highway into town
All across this Midwest the sober psalm

Of October repeats in the mouths of
Crows and the whispering grass winter

Has begun draining the blood from the land
But autumn doesn't know to end its song

Return repent rejoice I listen with
A silver ear the squirrel coughs the mole sighs

A red blade of sunlight slices along
The horizon I'm invaded by sky.


At Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles


The cable of the pendulum
A plumb-line dropped into a pit

Around the edge of wooden pins
The orb describes our daily turn

The thing's all swing steadily ticking
The velocities of the hours

To rise and fall and rise again
Through the stillness of the middle

It makes an unmodern motion
Around the mind this measurement

Of our descending nights and days---
Days and nights not yet as lonely

As they will be nor circumscribed
By summer sky and winter fields

(That is memory and false hope)
But nonetheless descending like

A spiral clockwise round a drain
To the single empty moment


Christiaan Huygens ill bored observed
The pendulums of two small clocks

Which set closely on the mantel
Through subtle movements in the air

Imperceptible vibrations
Exchanged along their common ground

Began to swing symmetrically
And symmetrically swinging paced

The rhythm of the room tuning
The watcher's mind to new notions

Of ways to measure out the days
Than sun moon and stars had offered

In their complex Ptolemaic
Pinwheeling through remote heavens

Many measures set together
Each honoring the others like

The players in an orchestra
Honoring a mutual time


The principle that beats the heart
Inspires the breath and stimulates

The tongue to speech is that which makes
Cicadas hum in matched pulses

Of stricken sound and irritates
The muscles into forming gaits

(The gazelle's pronk the elephant's
Thumping procedure and the spring--

Taut leaping of the wallaby).
The fine expression of the parts

The cooperative nature
Of body-ness reflects a world

Unseen and unbelieved until
Without two minds to mind to it

And though beliefs evolve from grace
To grace through Newton Babbage Bohr

And Mandelbrot whose instruments
Were made to measure the music

Of the mathematical sky
The coupling of the sun and moon

Still breeds a sense of passage and
In the greyhound's graceful canter

Or the quick flash of pigeon wings
Quick eyes find meaningful movement


One afternoon I watched a moth
Maneuvering through the first drops

Of rain in and out of danger,
Until her wingtip caught a drop

And she plunged to the black cement
Maybe you have known the feeling

As a stranger in town or drunk
And carefully aware of steps

The feeling of seeing clearly
Not clearly that keeps you moving

Constantly constantly aware
What I will see this next moment

Cannot be seen without those things
I saw only moments ago

What I will know I will not know
Without the things that I have known

The pleasure in a woman's breath
Against the neck is the pleasure

Of the orange peel's sting and the green
Light of the palmetto in June


On the riverbanks of Thailand
And Malaysia dense instinctual

Congregations of fireflies swarm
Through branches in the darkening air

At the sunlight's last moment one
Begins to blink then a second

A third and fourth take up the cues
The click of little lantern lights

From those a blue distance away
And match their tilt and timing

To the phosphoring frequency
Joined now by thousands turning round

The center of gathering light
Until as night draws deeper out

Of the random massive flashing
Comes unison a scintillant

Advertisement like stars against
The screen of night--strange synchrony


A fountain clock of cesium
Keeps time in Colorado from

A tiny globe of element
Tossed through mirrors and laser light

An atomic scintillation
More perfect than the greater globe

On whose authority does dawn
Begin or workdays end? The crow's?

The thundering sky's? Or is it
As in early China but one

Prerogative of rulership
To declare the hour as long as

Desire would have it? Could it be
The hummingbird caught in the midst

Of the frantic stillness of flight,
Weaving the future from the rags

Of unremembered yesterdays?


-- As published in The Alembic, Spring 2002