Issue: Spring 2017
Honorable Mention, R.T. Smith Prize for Narrative Poetry
“To Shadow” is an ambitious story of many stories rendered in couplets and merging the personal, regional, natural, historical, all (to borrow from the poem’s lyrical closing) “held together with rock, a little rain,/ a snail’s shell of breath.”
Along the winding mountain road the brown meadow
empties at the far edge of October. Its owner just dead of liver failure,
crossed into the grass where shadows begin to drag him apart, unlace his boots
and rub dirt into his mouth, giving out darkness until he is only
a phalanx of wind passing under a wide scatter of stars. In the memories
of his two horses he existed for years as a beggar always slumped and mumbling
a prayer into his cracked palms—the flesh almost nothing,
a few coins tossed into a cup, less each day. At last he was thin as paper
with a crease bent in the middle which would not lay flat.
And his two horses, knobby and wet from…
rain, or heat rising off the passing diesel salt-trucks—
their tails like painted water on the surface of a lake.
In the painting, there is only stretched canvas
and color, no trout or stones to speak of, to watch die a little
or disappear into a permanent sunset. Heaven is somewhere
beyond the edge of the cut-bank, somewhere on the horse’s
calloused flank or, it does not exist anymore. It is an ossuary
of extinct things, blown apart on the last day of an open season.
Months earlier I waited with my friend, the two of us staring down the staggered
of mini-vans and trucks outside the county’s middle school waiting for our
Beside me, with his back leaned up against a metal railing
and his head tucked down against his chest into a knockoff bomber jacket
my friend was reading a book of foreign countries, showing me the flag of South
Africa, Nepal, El Salvador, until he could not go on turning pages
until he looked convinced he would wait forever watching over the long caravan
and become emperor of an open air stairwell, a wobbling hand-rail,
cobwebs unfurling like flags from the welded joints of an awning above, and him
laws under his fingertips, writing them across the concrete.
Overhearing the scrape of a fork through two runny eggs at breakfast
at the Beech Haven Inn, I look up through an early September crowd of locals
and see his father, alone and sipping from a Styrofoam cup to force breakfast down. He’d come home one day—and like in the movies his clothes were packed
into a suitcase.
His wife taught piano lessons, and directed the church choir in town, and as he
he heard her fingers lifting off the keys, the strings humming. That morning
as the first killing frost crept out of the ground, I rode past the little plot of land
and wiped my breath from the passenger window to see the horses blanketed,
standing with the dead grass. A few birds fanned out in the northern sky, foxes
into one another, exotic neckties. The ground heaved transformers onto their
like animals collapsing of exhaustion. It was all plainspoken: the clearing sky, the
tail lights of a bus, and the vinyl seats inside stinging bare skin, the veil of clouds
which looked like snow. A mother wrapping her daughter in a scarf, fastening the
seat belt, branches of a spruce aching, the lasting impressions of wet leaves,
careening out metal chimneys, and a window overlooking a trailer park where moths still smashed into the glass, as if delighted. And in the country diner,
where I watched him
a last time walking out the front door, I only think afterwards how his shadow stayed back and narrowed, how his body was winding down, a sundial at the end
Not long after I watched his son, lanky and acne covered, bring a handful of dirt
to his fathers grave, and toss it in. What it must have taken to stand so still,
to hold the dirt?
This is how loss begins to work,
after death which grows inside everything you’ll ever know
appearing without warning. It cares for nothing, not names, not
the proscenium beyond the forest edge heavy with wheatgrasses, larkspur,
or rue anemones. Not the fledgling owls or their reflection on the surface
of a frozen puddle of water. Not a boy sentenced to live on until even pain
passes out of this world.
In the memory of the two horses there was really only one, blind from
a birth defect, and her shadow darker than my own, standing guard over
a kingdom of clover and downed timber. The horse went crazy,
or grew bored enough to step over a low spot in the fence, then
stood in the road one night at the peak of a blind curve. I can’t explain
what would make a horse do something like this,
only how the dumb thing kept swishing its tail, looking surprised
with both black eyes open long enough to see the driver
cut free of the car—the horse’s rear hooves slumped over the side
her shadow galloping in a heaven of red emergency lights.
It can take years to relearn the truth, to undo it out of the past.
Now I am old enough to understand, my friend’s father never owned
the horses, though he fed them once as I passed by.
Still, the man died and his son went on
in a kind of migration without compass direction.
This happens all the time, a bruised apple rots away
and parents are buried on Sunday afternoons, the small town gathering
with fried chicken, casseroles, and baked beans, in the family’s home
and spilling out onto the yard. Still, it is useful to know the parts of you
which are shadow—the loose fabric of your country without a true border,
fluttering without any wind. In the end you will be stretched
out as your shadow begins to undress you, carve you
into a flat line to lay into stone.
In the field, there are no horses and when I recall one, two always appear
in their lazy observances of the practice of beetles and the slow passing
of each car. They are only a few words, like what is asked for of the living
at a funeral beside a footprint of stone wedged into the earth—
the mares, only a poor stitch of themselves, held together with rock, a little rain,
a snail’s-shell of breath.