6 Poems by John James

Kentucky, September
 

My grandfather stood outside smoking,
watching the migrant workers
bend over the bare furrow.
I was in the cross-barn stripping leaves
from green stalks, knowing God was cruel,
that he must be. Even on a map
South America looks like a sick heart.
I hung the leaves from tiered poles
and let them dry in the heat. 

Once we found a she-goat dead,
her belly split, and blood trailing over
an arched rock. Something about
her innards spread across the ground
made me think of nakedness.
My grandfather took the carcass
in his arms and carried it to the driveway
where I said a short prayer. 

Stripping finished for the night,
I sat next to my grandfather
on a wooden bench behind the barn,
hands beneath my legs, our backs
cocked against a bale of hay.
Bats erupted from the silo like buckshot.
Then I realized this wasn’t my grandfather,
and these weren’t my hands.
All of this was a pasture resembling heaven.
Heaven was a meadow in time.
The moon rose over the empty fields
wedging shadows together in the dirt. 

 

Story with a Shriveled Nipple

I cannot see what briars are at my feet,
Nor what leaves from which tobacco plant
Pass through the hands of migrant workers,
Smelling like disease. Which sticks to burn,
Which to toss out, nor which eyes
Reach over the stripping board to pierce
The skin of my white hand. Derrida says
This is context. This is perception.
That I’ve created it, and this is how
I read the barn walls planked with wood,
The baled hay, and all the people around me
With a stroke of recollection. I cannot
Say if he is right. Just that in the spring
Two Mexican boys took a goat by the leash
And led it to the stream where they hit it
Seven times over the head with a hammer
They had stolen from my granddad’s garage.
Either way, after the burs are shucked,
I’ll throw the green leaves in a pile, the stems
In another, and set the dry waste to flame.
This is how I bury the past. Take the wet pulp
Of a ram’s head and spread his memory
Over the pavement. Context, there is always
More context. A woman comes limping
Into the dim barn. She’s carting a baby,
And though she’s not supposed to be here
I don’t say a thing. I just keep on pulling leaves
From the stalks, one leaf, then another,
And beneath me a widening pile as she says
Something to her husband I don’t understand
Because it’s in Spanish, and nobody
Where I’m from gives two shits about Spanish.
She removes her breast from the shirt
And offers the twisted nipple to her son.
He isn’t thinking yet, he makes no judgments,
And mouths the dark circle like a plum.
I try not to think of him as a symbol,
Or any representation other than himself.
And in the end I let it go. Even here
He is text. Even here he is representation.
And from my truck I passed those boys,
The ones who mutilated the goat,
Leaning over a naked woman in the field.
One was touching while the other one watched.
This is vivid. Everything is so vivid.
The woman with her child limps off in the cold.
Someone sets dry brush to burn so the night
Begins to smell like two boys pouring gas
Over the body of a goat. And if this is context,
I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see
The things in front of me as anything other
Than themselves. I want only to feel the stalks
In my hand, the prickling burs, the leaves
I cut and hang in the window. But I can’t.
Outside the trash is burning. The workers
Look on as I strip one leaf, then another,
Until I’ve shucked the stem clean. And then
I drop them, I let the leaves sift just for a moment
In the air and settle in the hay beneath
The stripping board in a mounting pile at my feet.

 

His Angels Especially Amaze the Birds

Now we seek to investigate and to know,
And wonder at the things beyond our vision
Or pause at the wax overriding the lens.
Junkies in the barn with their hollowed-out veins
Slept in each other’s arms until one morning
One woke up and the other just didn’t.
And she stayed that way, huddled in the dust,
The accumulating rags, until someone dialed
The police, though at that point, in the heat,
It had been three days. And I wonder, in his fever,
In his mescaline haze, if her lover maybe
Hadn’t noticed she was dead, and sulked
In the dirt, gazing open-eyed at the rafters
Which framed the angels overhead, their dazzling
Trumpets and their wings. Looking up,
The roof, kaleidoscopic, turned. And so
The fanciful objects danced and combined
With one another, and the angels took on
The movements of a tractor and adopted rakes
For their staffs. When the cops arrived,
It was all that they could do to wrap her body
In a bag, perhaps to lend some dignity,
Or at least to cover the smell. Sometimes,
Looking up at the sky, or along the barn wall
Flanked with grass, I imagine the long stretch
Of hours, the repeated doses, through which
He maintained the angels and their wings.
For three days sweat rolled into his eyes
And he watched that comedy unfold above him
Like a film without a plot. Outside the clouds
Shifted and were gone. Sun shined over the trees
So their lashed trunks began to show.
Paramedics packed the bag into a truck
And pulled away. Honestly, I know nothing
Of the tortured boughs, the cut grass along the fence.
The world is an angel spinning circles in the barn.
But for those three days he didn't kiss her,
Didn't look down at what he maybe recognized
As the truth planted in the stillness of her face.
He just kept on staring, dazed, at the angels,
Now their wings aflame, now burning
Like desire and the rash between his legs,
His empty stomach and the dried skin along
His mouth. They burned, as if their wings
Were soaked in oil, until the feathers blackened
And their song crescendoed in the heat.
Until his blood, infused with the fire
Of the choiring angels, surged in his wrists.
And then the fever broke. The vision dissipated.
He noticed the sound of a wren outside the barn,
His hands covered with dirt, the woman who
Lay beside him and stopped breathing days before.
Still he lay there thinking, working out what to do,
Scanning the shoddy rafters for a sign from above.
And before the sirens, before anyone came
Beating on the barn door, he lay, eyes shut,
And listened, because he didn’t believe his eyes.
Didn’t trust them like he did even moments before.
He didn’t trust his ears or his tongue,
But he listened, and what he heard in the dark
Wasn’t a sign from above, nor an angel pressing
Her lips to his ear, not whispering hallelujahs
To the back of his neck. It was the low, distant,
Gathering voice of a wren, thrumming in the grass
Outside the barn and scanning the dirt for worms.

 
Driving Arizona

Saguaro in headlights, we touch like foreign bodies.
Sedona recedes against the sky’s aperture.
Roll the covers off, the coldness in Williams—
(Aren’t you afraid? I’m afraid, too.)
Wanting to know you, thinking I do,
Thinking of the miles unfolding before us,
The highway beating through rows of golden cacti.

I want to remember things purely, to see them
As they are without the urge to order.
To take the pictures down, and say what hurts.
Say we’re able to enjoy this more than we ever did.

Somewhere behind us, the mountains slope off.
Sunrise breaks over fields of whitened heather.
Let’s only sit and listen. Only stare at the open earth
Without saying why. If approximations are the best
We can do—fine then, let’s approximate.
Home is a question and we’re drifting from it. 


Scarecrow

Clouds part and the sky appears as a ceiling’s open vault,
this half-man stuffed and tethered to a post.

He’s left for dead in dry wind, the mind’s yearning for conceit.
I used to fall in love with words, —

Aspen, aspen aspen.
The dogwood’s tortured trunk. 

                        •

Sun, sage, sycamore—
The sound of an ash tree falling in the woods.

A sheaf of red cloth soaked in rain
and knotted to a strand of barbed wire. 

                        •

Sometime in the space between this morning’s prayer and afternoon
I saw a fox with her kits at the edge of the woods.

How soft they looked. And unafraid of the half-man
mounted in the corn. To them he might have seemed

beautiful, or passed for unobtrusive.
The fox led her kits to the stream for a drink of fresh water. 

But then, the goats were at it again, bellying up
against the chicken wire and chewing on a scrap of torn cloth. 

                        •

Consider, for a moment, the cedar columns.
May we lay our dead there. 

May it not require the body’s return to the earth,
nor necessitate interaction with the soil. 

                        •

I wonder if the sun this year
will dry up all the fields. 

Will the crows come then
if it dries up all the fields. 

                        •

I wonder sun, I wonder seed.

                        •

It must have been about midnight when I saw a bat wheeling
in the air above the porch. It dipped in and out of light, catching

fruit flies in its mouth. I listened to the moth-lamp’s hum
and began to whistle, wondering if the bat could see 

the scarecrow standing sentinel in the dark.

                        •

that the wrists, bound to wood planks, stretch out in the wind
like his. 

That’s not the line I’m searching for.

                        •

No one’s fooled by the half-man. No
thing. A black bird perches on a blade of straw 

protruding from the scarecrow’s shirt.

                        •

The eye’s conception of the body’s form
is not the mind’s wanting.

                        • 

An old man tilling the fields in March
dreams of salt and light.


Years I’ve Slept Right Through
 

The field is steeped with the violence of horses.
Night descends blue hills
and I attempt to weigh distance,
as a calf tests its footing to the water-hole.
On the front porch, my cat devours a hummingbird.
He beats the brilliant body with his tufted paws.
He breaks its wings,
swallows whole the intricate bone-house. 

Inside, the pilot light is burning.
My sister’s friend with the coal-eyes is over.
Gradually, I crawl into bed, aching for more light.
In the dooryard
a young boy stoops to pluck
feather from feather until his hands are sore.
So prone to sadness, this thief—
I take my glasses off and lay them on the table.
The shadow of a tree rests inside my palm. 

This spring I commemorate my father’s death
by tacking deer-horns above the door.
My hammer-strokes disperse
an assembly of hens,
waiting around for me to scatter their seed. 

A mile away the river is abundant.
It breaks its sudden excess
on a limestone bridge.
A big-axled wagon tips into the water,
where white mud washes the coachman clean.
This is a custom he repeats every year,
coming and going until his wheels give out,
coming to wet his tongue.

Dawn chalks over the horizon
rendering the sky a storm-blotched red.
The outline of a cow appears on the hill,
and then dissolves into the fog.
I follow her path with my ear,
listening as a bell sounds out the trail—
It is mine, this world
of bread and skin and stone.
Lay me in the field with all the fallen horses.