Could it make it better if he were a ragman
on the Mississippi, if the people on shore
were as dark in their furnace-lit rookeries
as crows in theirs, so he never came ashore
to spit at them
and trade. Could it be better
in the late autumn of nineteen twenty-seven
than now, could salted meat in a pack
taste more like the Mississippi
when belligerent lives were lived there fully
and you knew there had been a dispute
more than three miles across the water
because you heard it
the moment a man collapsed into the button
of his canoe.
The things a ragman hears after dark
he moves on from or loses
everything. Could it end badly here—
yes, right then. Spine mishandled by a man
with weathered wrists and God knows
what history. Could it make it better
to know your father, to never have bedded
with a sister
gone now. Could you hear someone’s cry
on the Mississippi
over the dark, could you feel something
touching your nose,
making you squint into the black shores
left and right,
is that something somebody needs to do,
or should he be as quiet as a crow steeping
its nest. Could he do it, if he had to do it.
Could anyone. If the thing had been oiled
and kept in a warm, dry place for so long.
Level and fire, level and fire, but always
when you are speaking to that one
they said. They called me out just two days in
on a lighter to New Orleans,
but I never dealt from the bottom
like they said,
only I once showed my piece
to a lady. They didn’t like it much.
The bell end was wet
like a newborn left soaking
in a newsawn forest
by a granddad stuck in the bottle.
That’s one way to talk about it.
One man produced a knife and then
and then the other. I had a grey claw
from a crow fallen
on deck by the first mate’s.
You win, they said, now go.
Everyone is always in a way
with the voodoo,
said Captain throwing my stowage
into the waves.
All right, so he weren’t no captain,
but my father
I’d always followed that way.
He was going downriver
with me or no he said. That’s how I lost him,
or as good as that.
Or maybe he never really spoke to me
but over the commercials,
and only about the things he needed to know.
At least someone has treated you
like a bear
and found out where you sleep
and come to that place
to lay down
on your broad back. At least
there was a weight you could carry
for a time, there was a long cave
with few roots
and a trickle of water in the back.
At least someone is trying
to get there with a pickaxe and six
days rations, with a headlamp
and eyes that will see for a time
At least there was one Sunday
they lit a candle down in the valley
at the door of a home
you couldn’t enter
but at least it’s there. Could that be
something to remember
through December and past. At least
there are dreams
in which the right kind of bear
is living the right kind of life
for a bear,
and the right kind of dream is finding
you at last
while you starve gently in your sleep
Then there is a bump in the night,
then there is a bump in the day,
then there is a crash, I am needed,
then what can I do. What
can I do. Then a fighter jet growls
in the heavens, a loudspeaker pits
into a rumble across the water,
then there is water and more water
behind that. A woman—well. Then
there is a depth to things, I am in it,
then I am out
of all things, then it is said of me
that I am missing. But then. Then
there is a bump in the night,
then there is a bump in the day,
I tumble off an inimitable storm
and roll and roll downhill
down a hallway until my back blacks
on the handle of a door. And then
keys, then furniture, then utilities,
then a Persian, then some space
and some words and some silences
to regret. Then a crimson papazan.
A jetliner heads west, then another,
then another, then another,
then another, then another. I have
the capacity for west. North, south.
East I can’t go, when I am east
I am closer to it and I remember
a woman—well. Then no. Then yes.
Then I need someone to be here,
then someone needs me to be there.
Then go. Then come. Then please.
It was hardest when I held it,
and if it burned my palm I imagined it
but I imagined it well. It is hardest
to see it in the flecks of morning
between the trees, I know it is perfect
then, the way I do scrub pines
when it is just their shape over me,
just promise, and the rain sloughed
through the fingers of leaves
has not run down my face, or nests
spilled out anything
speaking with more silver than I do.
A man holds just one of these and
I have met the man who broke his
under his heel
at a brothel, and he crept out mad
from the furnace of his life. Blood
increases hue, and when your face
or a man leaps forward with a will
onto your back, the tone of it is up
and stays that way. It is the heaviest,
its touch is the tombweight,
the skinbinding, the form of desire
not without object
but for an object sitting centimeters
from the heart, that will kill the heart
if it moves, when you understand
that it may move.
And then it moves. And everything
after that, remains.
At the end of travelling
I wear the road. Within my skin it is bad.
It’s worse without—
the particulates of being nowhere entirely.
It spans from Boston to winterlit Alaska
on a single lane with drops to the death
over both shoulders.
I walk on years, I touch with all the worst
minutes. I mean it takes its single traveler
to an outhouse on a black prairie, I mean
there’s one chicken left, one purblind pig,
and they can’t be killed
or not by me. On Sunday a doctor comes
and says not to worry, he will only open
along the edges. He finds them quick. He
has an uncertain nose, he learns in blood,
he reaches through blood and he’s satiated.
What I say to him slinks down his smock.
So the road is the crown
of your head, you are sent inside by sunlight
he says. That burns it too, you saying that
Doctor. But it’s true, at the end of travelling
I am the largest
silhouette, everything behind me I colon
into a list of what I’m made of. Up ahead
the doctor waits again in his red armchair.
I hold the light above him as he reads me.
I have left more behind
than is ahead, I’m close to it now. Not so,
he says, it’s the shoulder you hang from—
twelve hours from Boston and Alaska both.
Does my being here make it there,
does news travel
in bad weather. Does a sporting life
bring the animal down, does it dress
competition in casual clothes.
Does clothing fit. Does the fitting
make the fit fine,
does the rain cord on the window
like a noose or the black rope
that brings electricity
to a dark, dry place. Taos is a place
one goes, Searchlight is
and Trocadéro, an inimitable cell
a room that is yesterday in which
a man is hurting an already hurt
woman. Does my being here, does
here being celled, make it there,
to a place someone hurt has gone
tripping to. Does the hunting end
with disorder in the brush
or silence on a pale-tile mantle in
Taos or Trocadéro. Do you pay
for each silence, and if so
why start. Can I admit this thing,
can I clothe myself
in something like it, is it time now.
Does the time come. Does it ever.