Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

Contest Archive

The Poetry of James McCorkle: Winner, 1999

Further work by James McCorkle may be found here.

The Instance of Water

Reading Bashø to My Daughter

What is Wanted

The Instance of Water

Some water travels underground, in rivers that flow for miles
Sometimes only a few feet underground
Then re-surface as a series of ponds,
Or a stretch of stream that disappears in a marsh or lake.

Flowing through limestone, water hollows, the ground above
Collapses, the caverns creating new lakes.
Dye has been released in some to determine
The extent of passageways:

Red swirls vanish, then with schools of bream
And goatfish, surface miles later in another lake:
Divers try to follow, every summer, those threads;
Reports of someone lost, the silt stirred,

The cave narrowing until there is no room
To turn, air-tanks empty and narcosis settles.
Schools of fish splinter into light in the clear water.
Walking across such a terrain,

The ground turns soft, brush turns to marsh weeds­
A blister, where water forms a bubble
And osmotically seeps into light:
Is this how it all began, someone walking,

Then disappearing into the ground, swept
Into an unknown river, carried off
As though on a white bull's back to sea, garlands
Of flowers left in the wake, washed ashore.

Or in another place, at a ledge, over a lake
That divers say has no bottom, but find volcanic shelving
Where gold cups and headbands rest
In the silt, hearts then bodies were thrown

And must have drifted weighted endlessly downwards:
Leaving the city in retreat.
The horsemen and armored footmen
Were so weighted with gold

They floundered in rivers and canals radiating
From the city, and drowned­swept, too,
Away, with the sacrificed whose souls
By then were the swarms of hummingbirds

Above Tenochtitlán, as their hearts must still be
Drifting toward a molten center.
While walking, if water is flowing close
Underground, why haven't I heard it,

Or will I only when it is too late, the sound coming
As if from a distant waterfall,
Even as I am pulled in, swallowed alive,
As though by shark, serpent, or crocodile­

This is how it could have started,
A story about one disappearing into the mouth
Of the earth or sea or sky­and hearing the shouts,
Some might turn and watch, only later

Thinking that I might have been pulled
Free, but stood and watched, as though
To prepare for the beginning of guilt,
The denial that such things could happen,

To place the blame elsewhere, the invention of gods.
Or is the whisper of water underground
That of the gods, their only warning, heard
Like a breath at night on my neck, while a hawk circled

With no prey in sight, the land below
Stretching dry and soulless below it.
The instance of water, beading up,
A garland of lakes, beyond the curve of its eye.

This would be the world waiting,
The dry caves without drawings, empty salt-pans,
The rain knotted in the sky, invisible, for a moment
At the beginning everything absolutely still.

Reading Bashø to My Daughter


There are characters she says
She'll remember forever: the one for horse, for world,
The one for fire that looks as if it bursts
Into flame.
But she'd rather read about frogs,
Things still in this world.


What promises are held­
no road is the same,
Leaves rush across, ice blackens.
Where we go becomes
Less known as we approach.

The critics retort, "so what's new"­
But I can't think of any argument they have offered
That settles or reassures
The claim things of this world
disappear, the day bends at the horizon, stars
Shift out of the constellations, their stories

Breaking into pixels to recombine
Into other figures whose stories haven't arrived

But are already spinning toward us, their light arcing
From distant prominences, past each heliopause, the old arrangements
Still flooding past, waiting to be seen­nothing
Disappears, everything ends,
caught in passage,
Filaments of fire weave into, woven from mountain, horse, world.


In the night a frog leaps, Bash says, translated,
Into the pond's deep resonance,
Best known of his poems notes the commentator­

Everything becomes commentary,
Margins crowded, yet what we look for isn't there:

the hills were not very far from the highroad, and scattered
with numerous pools. It was the season of a certain species
of iris called katsumi. So I went to look for it. I went from
pool to pool, asking every soul I met on the way where I could
possibly find it, but strangely enough, no one had ever heard
of it, and the sun went down before I caught even a glimpse of it.

The iris wait,
indifferent to us, waiting for
The buds to unfurl, the sun heating the ponds insects glance off
Of­we need to be reminded of
This, so little time,
if we have to be
Governed so­what is the time of iris, of the frog's leap,
The pond, crusting at its edges by the height of summer?


Then the screen will go blank, before
A word is entered,

Contact lost. The aspect of metaphors
That provides them with energy is that they keep

Filling the screen­ponds dot with duckweed,
The water black with silt in suspension, clouds,

A heron's shadow.
In mid-winter, I saw one crossing
The ice-locked marsh crossed-hatched in brown

Teezle and cat-tails, the sky pitted with starlings
Surging up from a sumac thicket then low across

A cornfield left unplowed. The heron, single,
A word coming always into the world,

Blue as slate,
as mid-winter
When the world traveled into has wrapped itself

Inside its old skins, cold mud, leaf-mats.


The world never dormant when you think about it­rhizomes
Spinning leaf-blades in their starchy flesh,
Pond-bottoms in gestation, the mold-black water sluggish, almost ice.

The wasp at work at the window, out of season,
Tracks across the field's mud and gritty snow-melt,
Scabs of buds on the hawthorn­its fruit black and scattered on the ground­

Certain constants with their own variables, what's known
Always coming undone: the pond's circumference has no measure,
Its depth no plumb-line­
not a representation of uncertainty,

But our own movement, stitched between the leap and the sudden
Splash, between memory and knowing­
if knowing is really only an odds-on gamble

Of recurrence. Winter light curves along the branches. We're rolling
The dice, coming up short.


Constellations rise through bare trees,

What we wrote
a soft cloth over
The face of things,


Filaments of each character a stroke of memory
Assembling again and again on the screen
Your figures­

Horse Mountain

World Fire

Everything holds its own beginnings,
Nothing ever leaves­
The constellations tracking back,
The pond still
resonant when Bashø left, freshets of iris
Running up the mountain side no one visits,
in bloom, blue, yellow-ribbed throat,
The same we have, waiting,
Its rhizomes thickening, pearl buds of leaf-whorls, on the hillside

Where in summer
lights flick
On and off, holding us in that stillness between.

What is Wanted

Little news could be added except to note
that the steady decline had accelerated,
discussions were failing:
driving from one section
of the city to another where
the bombing had intensified,
but re-routed at the last moment,
the areas of greatest damage
went unseen, though stories
always filter back alongside
the news reports that seldom
mention casualties, nor the instructions
the army carries out in the territories
where special permits are required
prior to any movement if you are
not a citizen, or if you are a resident
but not a citizen, or if you are a
citizen but not an enfranchised citizen,
and even then it is difficult
and explanations are closely
attended to so as to receive
what is wanted, a clean slate
or good review, a report that suggests
everything remains under control,
and such incidents are unremarkable.
It is like driving to the city's
center we know has suffered,
but turned away, and like water
seeping through a roof, driven by gravity,
searches for the path of least resistance
along the rafters and joists,
through the plaster, finally
weeping through, seen at last
along a crooked seam or crack,
flaring out, feathering concertina wire,
that turns us back, to count our own
extremities while looking out
over a field, the grasses whipped
gold by the sun.

* * *

Our own bodies map out the world
that we made for ourselves.
Cratered, the city is my own
heart and I am the gun unloosed.
I am the city of Cain
where Abel was driven from,
and into my heart:
harboring Abel, I search him out
with the eyes of Cain.
The fields are laced and wired.
Birds rise up from them,
then surge down like combers, settling
into the thick grass,
only what is lightest can trespass.
What is wanted is innocence
or what remains of it, buried
in scar tissue so thick it begins
to choke arteries and the air seems
thinner, so thin our breath is pulled
from us before we can swallow.
The city glints in the steep sun,
turning a corner, there are no buildings
only their ruins, and farther,
along the hillside, the corps
is bulldozing a fruit grove,
a house in flames.
All night I will roll in my sleep
shouting for Abel.

* * *

And if he should come,
when the day's heat pressures the city,
flattening the fields
and hillside ruins,
we know what we would do this time,
we would not think this time
will be different,
we will not pause longer and ask
if he is weary from his travels,
we will not forget our jealousy,
we will not forget our desires.
And if he should come,
we know where he has kept his knives,
the whetstone, and block.
We remember how he hoisted the lamb
and drew the blood into vessels,
how he grabbed the young goat
by its first horns with his grass-stained hand
and sheared the skin off deaf to its cries and the terror
of the other animals,
while our grain was scattered
and the fruit trees sagged, ripe fruit
unwanted, and if he should come,
would he come this time for our children,
to hoist them above his block.
We were not chosen, except to be
his scapegoat, except to be the prey
of our own rage, even as our fruit
turned gold with the orbits of bees
and the welling up of nectar.