Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of G.C. Waldrep : Winner, 2005

The Batteries


The Batteries

i. Battery Rathbone-McIndoe

               --So many ways I could begin.

There is history: built 1905, decommissioned 1948,
               guns (four, each 6" in diameter)
                              sold for scrap.
There is nomenclature:
               2nd Lt. Samuel B. Rathbone,
                              killed War of 1812,
               Maj. Gen. James McIndoe,
                                                         slain in France, 1918.

To the east, Upper Fisherman's Beach,
               pale bodies against black sand.
To the west, Point Bonita's vigil.
And the south tower of the bridge, its harp,
               its iron mandolin curding the city
                              into strips, grey, vertical,

Can you believe I once stood for war?
               (Can you believe I once stood against it?)


In the narrows, a lone sailboat.
               Late rain for the season.
                              Uncommon to see a sailboat out this far.

It moves slowly, from left to right,
               as if trying to say something
                              very precise,
               and then again, from right to left,
                                             as if erasing.


East pillbox: APATHETIC YOUTH,
                              roots of words
                                             ancient in two cultures.

But there is also OKSANA, 9/23/00.
               CITY OF INGLEWOOD, CA!
                              DON L/S MELISSA,
                                             JESSICA & JOE,
                                                            SAUL + YOLANDA.


In smaller letters,
                              NO WAR ON ANYBODY.
               Smaller yet:
                                             I AM GOD.


               West pillbox, unmistakable
                                                        smell of urine.

Black spraypaint:
               ED + SONIA,
                              NANCY © JESÚS.
In chalk, baby blue
               with yellow highlights:
                              "Love Your Family & Nature."
               (Underneath, neatly printed
                              in what looks like White-out:


One by one the barges, like small planets,
        socket past, below the bridge and into the harbor.
                                           They take their time.

Steel rivet of sky,
                              horizon's bulkhead.
                                                                                          Some say
                   trade is like war, only slower.


Natural history; or,
               the more successful invasions:
                              miner's lettuce, coreopsis,
                                                                        Hottentot fig.

I walked here, there were
                              no guns, no gates, now
                                             everything is permitted.
               No one had sold the sand in my shoes.
               No one has yet tasted his death
                                                          on my tongue,
                              this is before
                                             as there must always be before
       (just as what comes next
                                                            is after-)

               Bloom of the blue-eyed grass.
Soak of an April squall.

                                                           West pillbox
                                             ((further yet, as if in answer))--



ii. Battery Wallace

A turn--to the left--
               it is day again, the habitations of men
                              spill from cliff to beach,
               from partridge to kestrel
                                             across the narrows:

Possession. And rife
               with report of our frailties,


                                           OF MASS DESTRUCTION
               INTO MY NATIONAL PARKS.

--This is not quite right. The weapons came first,
               mass, the destruction; then
                              picnic tables.

Built in 1919 as an open firing platform.
               Rebuilt 1942, casemated
                              with reinforced concrete ceilings
                                             covered by earth
                        and camouflaging vegetation.

               Abandoned, 1948.

The 12" coastal rifles
               were intended to duel with battleships
                              seventeen miles at sea.


In the round of the south casemate:
               E.T. IS HERE.
                                                         AND JULIA SCHULTZ.
               WAR ROOM.
               ETERNAL LOVE!
               ART = FAITH = PROMOTION.
               D-DAY 9/12/02.

                              --a woman's candystriped panties;
                                             a sketch of Point Bonita
and its lighthouse
               rendered passably in charcoal
                              on the plastered wall.


                                        Night. I dream
               there exists a maturity apart from place,
                              like picking berries
from these sharp canes.
God doesn't mind.
               The juice stains my palms.

I want to be humane, but in my heart
                              nineteenth-century Californians
               keep telling yellow peril jokes.


--to keep Him enthralled?
               --within the drama of representations?
                              --or for some other purpose?


     What I meant:
                              that there is volition
               as there must also be consequence.

We make an industry of beauty.
               See, here, the crank, the dripping
                              flange. The lupine,
                                             the paintbrush, the harlequin:


And wanting, at last, to know
                                                                          that other, that

                                                            I drop a coin.
                              It echoes in the shaft.
           My refusal.


iii. Battery Mendell

This is become a place of children.

I squat, and with the muscles of my calves
               suspend my rhythm
                                             --the dirge, the waltz--
                              over these sea-cliffs.

Inheritance, then:
               that which cannot be refused;
               that which is beyond purchase;
                              that which is a given,


The mustard, the tansy, the sea-fig,
               the tolling of the buoys--

Let us agree, for the moment, that this
               is a religion. Let us imagine
                              these shrines
                in the guise they now assume:
                                             superaltar, amphitheater,
                              ERIC + STACY,
                                                          GINA L/S WADE.

(And what they assume
               we shall assume: these are the rules
                                           of this game.)


                                             In one story,
               it is a child that calls to each of us
                              in his time,

from a low stone wall.
               A cut-up. A mimic.
                                             His salt is our salt.
                              His hair is the wheat

               we grind for bread.
                              --Have you not heard this story?
Could it be possible
               you have never heard it?

                                                          --In one version,
               this child had a brother.


I rise as the children run
                              up and down the catwalks,
               along the concrete galleries.

They are delighted, they ask
               "Can we really go in here?"

                                                            They wait
               for condemnation
                              as we wait for mercy.

How they blaze with their small fires!
               They are the warnings we ignore,
                                                                      the beacons.
They are so hot now we cannot touch them.
               They will not be held.
               They turn as this world turns,

                              as the cormorant, as the gull,
                                             all life
               dives within hunger--

That window.
                                                            I hear
               the rushing of the wave.


iv. Battery O'Rorke

What is written here fades quickly.
               Faces drawn in chalk,

                                                                       the idea
               of defense, of a beach
                                            ripe for landing.

West, east, the longitudes of war.
               This is no place for monuments.


If I had ever doubted
               then hid for cry, gill for gull
                                          and the incision
                              a careless thing,
                                                            stain of interval.

I walked to the sea as I walk to the sea,
               I am a creature of the sea
                              as I am also its fastness,
                                                         its sharp holt.

The sea is a conspirator of great forgiveness,
               it is the cardamom of waters.

It is a mistake to suppose one's self lonely.
I carry the bones of the pedagogue
                                             in ivory brackets,
               my hand is steady,
                              I mix consecration
                                                            with consecration.

                              Still I want:

the body of that other,
               the magnitude, the chalice.


The beach is the ocean's daughter,
               she dances on her diagonal
                                                        in the moonlight.

There will always be some
                            who take pleasure
               in what the body can be made to do:

The playing of the lute.
                              The marathon, the obeisance,
               the pestle, fitted to its mortar.
                                          The Catherine wheel.
                                          The bascule--


The beach ignores the power of words
               as words ignore the power of things.

                                          O stranger.


v. Battery Smith-Guthrie

      Miwok in Miwok means "the people"
just as the people in the language of our people
                              means "the people."

                                             This is convenient.

The purpose of images
               is to attract other images,
                                             one beside another,
                                                                           above, beneath,
                              eventually superseding.

Like attracts like.
               "One" is never large enough, nor "two."
               This is the story of life
                                                        as it is the story of death.

                      This is also the story of naming.


                              TIM + KHRISTINE
               VIVA LA RAZA!
                              *NAZIS SUCK*
               '72 TOYOTA.
               I AM THE BONEMAN.
                              ANGELA LOVES ERNESTO.
                                                                                   NOT US!
                YOU BE THE DEER.


Let us consider, then,
               the office of the guard,
                                             the treasurer, the hierophant,
                              the lone policeman on his city beat.

Are they not like sunlight on this empty beach?
               Are they not bound, as we are?


In Miwok legend,
               there was a mysterious land

                              far to the north:
               "wali-kapa was a sort of cliff or mountain.
                           Beyond it the young ducks lived.
They said that on the other side
                                                      the sky came way down.
               This land cannot be reached.
                                          Its passage is closed."

"Coyote tried to regulate the tides,
               but he had them so low
                              most of the fish died.         Later,
                                                       he corrected the error."

"The dead go toward Point Reyes.
               They say there is a little chunk of wood there
                              which they use to make a fire.
               A piece of rock two feet long is at the spot
                              where they jump into the ocean
                                             and then follow a road
                                                                     back of the breakers."


     So the cup reclines
                                        from one hand to another.
               So residence, so title.

                              I mount no reasonable excuse.
This room was large enough already:
               through a clever acoustical trick
               I find that if I speak
                                                    I can hear myself.

"In the early days, people didn't die.
               But Coyote wanted to hear people crying.
                                             He liked to listen to the noise...."

Here there are no prizes, no awards,
                                         no dietary supplements.
               Here there is only the ocean
                              in flames.


vi. Battery Alexander

But we are far from a capital city
            just as the Monterey cypress
                        is far from its Monterey home.
                                                The capital lives in us,


            but sanguinary, sanguinary.

                        This is the concealment, the deception:

As we live within the bounds of the capital
           the capital lives in us.

Down a flight of stairs.
                A cellar, a catacomb,
                                                        a landing.
                             A door. A grille
                                        and beyond that grille
                                                        a perfumed garden.
                A maze of pipes. Or,
                                        nothing at all.

What is defense without a pretty view?

                Answer: Geometry.
Eight mortars with snub barrels, 12" in diameter.
"These were designed specifically
                to catapult shells in a high arc
                        onto the wooden decks of steel warships."

A meaning of intelligence, then:
                in descent
                                        the blind save their eyes
                           for the approaching flame.


Above, a hawk, harried
                by a red-winged blackbird.

                                (Theirs is a private argument.)
Below, the hawk's prey,

During the tenure of my occupation
                the only legible graffiti at Battery Alexander

                PRO-DEATH NOW.

Down, then--

                to be the object of desire.


In this dream I am a tour guide
             but I speak in some other language--
                        I am the only one
              who does not understand
                          the words I am saying.

At a long oak table I lift the lid
             of a tool box,
                                       remove each implement,
                          explain its purpose.
Lay it aside.
             Move on to the next.

             With each
the crowd around me grows larger,
                          more silent, more attentive.

                                       One after another
                          I remove the tools from their box:
             the coulter, the adze,
                          the iron hasp, fine gold strung
                                       like a pocket lyre.

We stand in a room with no windows.
             We stand this way for a long time.


                                           --Day again.
"Not that which goeth into the mouth
               defileth a man;

but that which cometh out of the mouth,
               this defileth a man."

                                             Hence, dimension.
               If you possess me, I am clean.
               If I hunger for you,
                              I am as the stinking flats of a delta.

       Nevertheless I hunger.

The grass sings in the parity of its consumption.
               The lupine,
                                     the sea-fig are singing,
                              even the Scotch broom is singing

                      its barbarian song.


vii. Battery Bravo (I)

One mile, six miles, seventeen:
               the limit of our reach, the tangent
                              of our defamation.
               Twenty, thirty.
                                     Sixty, seventy-five-

Long before the proof
                              we understood, intuitively,
that sound has speed, the space

                              between listening and hearing:

               as the ear's whorl
so the hammer, the anvil, path along which
                                                           we step

                              one into another.


I wanted to work aboard the dark ship.
I wanted to carry my bouquet
               of checker-lily and wild radish
                              and cast it                out
                                                          upon the salt waters,
               far enough
                              that the tide would wash
                                             it further, and from this shore.

               This was to have been
                              my charm against covetousness.

Now I rub these words
               in salt and ochre
                                             on this tavern wall.


Once I wrote
               I will be a poet of broken things.
               But what claim have I trampled
                                                          into these bare hills?
               What fragment have I prised?

I have managed only
                              the sleight of the contrafactum.
               I have risked perjury,
               I have withheld my source; I have denied
                              three times, thirty
                                             in the parliament of burnt horses.
               I am the Martha of men,
                              nursing my busy grudge.

Night comes to night as night comes.
               There is no distance between night and night
                              as what happens in the night
                                             is new, eternally.

Night comes to night as night comes.

               With whom shall we be caught up
                                                          in the air?


viii. Battery Bravo (II)

     Let us then proclaim
                              the new Athens, the new Rome!
We are not the first, but we are worthy.
I would walk with you
               along the colonnades,
                              at dusk through the piazzas.

               the Nike-Hercules missile
                              could achieve speeds above 2.5 mach--
                                             altitudes of 4000 feet--
                                                          in 3.5 seconds.
Guidance system by Bell Labs and Western Electric.
Nitroglycerin-based solid fuel system by Thiokol.
A typical launch facility
               contained two batteries, eight launch pads,
                              and employed 135 men.

               the main American testing site
                              for the Nike-Hercules missile
                                       was White Sands, in New Mexico.
               The main European testing site
                              was in Greece.


Did you think it would be so easy, to become free?
               How long have you been running?
                              - -And yet we have waited for you.

               We are the song you sang in your sleep
                              when you huddled among furs
                                                          on Mt. Tamalpais.
We were the short tips you left
                              in the cafés of San Francisco.

You look upon the summit of governance,
                                                          that acropolis.

               the Nike-Hercules missile
               was designed to ascend to a height of 28 miles.
                              To seek its target

                                                         from above.


There was also, at one time, a matter of dogs.
               They were trained here,
               they worked, four at a time, four
                              and each its handler--
                                                            German Shepherds mostly.

The men who trained these dogs were sad men.
We can imagine that the men who trained these dogs
               were sad men.

               when I described these dogs
               as "attack dogs," I was corrected.
                              Attack dogs are trained to attack,
                                                                  the park ranger told me.
                                       These dogs were trained to kill.


But oh, the glories of this New Rome!
               Of Bell Labs, of Thiokol, of Western Electric!
               Here there shall be no distance.
                                   I will say "I am"
                              at the precise moment
                                             you know this to be true.

               And as we have outlawed distance,
                            so we proscribe necessity:

Here there are piers from which no fish are caught.
               Here there are wide avenues
               in which the hooves of horses
                                           are no longer heard.
               on the hard clay of tennis courts
               we practice every motion, slowly:

                              Draw the sword.
                                             Return it to its sheath.

         Here, we gave the glassblowers every privilege.
      Here, we invented a new language for the poets.
   Here, we let the artists build museums for themselves.

                                             Do you not yet understand?

There was a myth of our city
               but it has slid from us in a trickle of earth,
                                         in the frescoed waters of a fountain.

                                             --Do you not yet understand?
               (We have been waiting for you.)

         Oh, the glories of this New Rome!


ix. Battery Townsley

Nothing is off limits, now
                                         everything is permitted.
               The last gates have been removed.

In the east there is war
               and in the west there is war.
The walls bring news of war
                             as they also bring
                                                         news of love:

               APOCALYPSE NOW
                                             NO SMOKING
                              I DIDN'T DO IT-BUBBY DID.
               LET ME OUT PLEASE.
                              THE ARMY IS SO LOGICAL!
                              UNITY + SERVICE = RECOVERY
                                             BRIAN -n- LAURA
                                                                        I LOVE YOU.

In time of war the poets turn to war,
               each in his best manner.


I look up, as a dictionary
                                             to the living language,
                              as a cur to its high table
               I plead for a scrap and am offered the sea.

The hawk and the raven are my wardens,
                                             they review every transaction.
               The sun on my face is a bronze coin.

                                             My steps make a circuit
                              as bread makes a circuit.

I am not afraid of the story you ask me to tell.
               (In any case it is no longer
                                                        my story.)


The lanes of the sea weave brightly
                                                        in the afternoon sun.
               The buoys toll
                              depth, proximity.

Down by Point Reyes
               lie a piece of rock, a chunk of wood
                              but I will not go there yet.
      There remains one garment I have not worn.
       There remains my brother,
                      whose wounds I have not tended.

There is an eagle branching like a tree
                                                        in each of my bodies.
               There is a grey stone with a white band
                             in my left cheek.

You must fill me now with your story.

               (Once, I too was a child.
                                            --Did you not know?)



-- 'Batteries' i.-v., vii.-ix. originally published in Georgia Review

-- vi. 'Battery Alexander' originally published in Colorado Review


Author's Note:

Each of the nine poems in this sequence is named for and was first drafted at the site of one of the nine former gun emplacements at Forts Barry and Cronkhite, demilitar-ized since 1974 and today part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Battery Bravo and its companion battery (the former now a museum, the latter housing the California Marine Mammal Hospital) were nuclear missile launch sites during the Cold War. The other batteries contained conventional armaments, were constructed between 1898 and 1944, and were decommissioned immediately following World War II. All quoted grafitti were actually recorded on-site in April and May, 2003. The Miwok lore recounted in "Battery Smith-Guthrie" comes from Headlands: The Marin Coast at the Golden Gate, by Miles Decoster et al. (University of New Mexico Press, 1989). The nod at the close of "Battery O'Rorke" is to Mahmoud Darwish.