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AWP SPECIAL :: 4 Poems by Ken White

To have nothing is sometimes better
than one could have hoped, yet as lamp posts
stutter to admit that at dusk the sky is somehow darker
than the water, to have something is even less. I confess
I have withheld from you by night I am comprised of thread
spun from carded air, can divide
myself or seduce the loom and widen such with wind
that if you abide yet on this earth and breathe
you cannot help but contain me
in some small portion. If by some chance you do not
the mistake is mine; I have arrived
at the wrong world, or at the wrong time.
This thought so small, so wholly indivisible – every eye I have
turned to the matter of your whereabouts. The windows
of the city as innumerable as your body
and I count them as I count you in compendium
while as passenger on slumbering pelican
I coast the thermal of the column, on hold
to be deafened by recollection of plenty. Bronze strokes
announce ghosts of abundance
that flatter broken alleyways. In the risen wall I count
as from indigo robe and spangled cowl the sun strips
to skin, home in its marble sash, an aperture,
inanimate. There is nothing to be done. I am poured back
into this vault my body. I am interred and falling into this
hold my body and from that far-off rim the kohl-rimmed edges
of your eyes retreat, like shadow-puppets stepping back
from rice paper at the final act. If this is you, again
you are too fleeting; raise up your hand to me
and I will see it finally – this is only substance
here between us, yet inconstant as memory
of remnant breath, we condense and return
to dampen cracking continent – we are exhalation
bearing headlong for every entrance we can find. We are
stop-motion of ourselves in flight, mesmerized by the tide.
We are light on hold and will resume as form requires
us converge again in some other room
as above the window closes
your hand appears – it kindles
at the fringes and I see it – there is only
substance here between us – we are light
& proof. We are light & fire; I parse the parts
of firmament that flood the room – we touch
everything and are touched.
Presumably the figures, the monument to the dead
between them on the urn, the winged glimpse
at hover above or rising, indicate what can be expected
in the afterlife, that broadest prison — such love
of our own devising. White-ground glaze a tender ornament
of aromatic change, vases arranged
around the figure comported in deep repose and gauze,
hushed brittle reeds harboring a clutch of eggs.
Aside from that, a martial scene: round shields of leather
and of metal, corselets or cuirasses, halberds/falchions/greaves,
these implements of warding off and cleaving – love
from antiquity rarely survives. Scrutinize the curve
over earth pursued. Beneath this, the whole bay ochre plain
shaped by fingertips on palest clay. Flexing ankle
keeps the wheel at spin. Before I breach horizon, my only wish
is that my speech might stitch the atmosphere
between your ear and (figure clasps hand to breast) here.
Day stretches through the gorge. The gorge bends
along the day. I am buried under platform buried
under sun. The clock in the wall of light through every
panel of the floor tessellates into stagnant waves
on curve of wave-syncopating eye – this far-off range
lies down, this thing we call the tide, from the great blind
curmudgeon who judges and berates. The whole un-
choreographed design takes shape around the precise
flow of pattern the right-hand woman holds. And so
folds the owl his semaphore of flight, and so
I signal as I rise. Forgive the darling fleeting
toward surface, above the figures arrived, solemn
and oblique, convened of tracing over air
the sign. Dispersing as the god was framed.
Wrapped in sable scarf her sable offering of sleep
the same that through your avenues
accelerates, twitch of hand and flicker under lid,
livens with intruding streetlight
insomniac hours, down-tipped eyes. Pebble,
pebble, elegant press, you step as if in heavy
weather – a screen of geese, a reef of down – pallor
now opaque. In the extended hand, a fragment
of crumbled leaf. Do not unseat the favored
throne, where sorrow goes
to bow beneath the scepter and the cape
as dust grows deep to time, the second wave,
flight of valor – the queer green queue
of lime-green translucency.
Framed by wraith of smoke the shape of arrival
toward surface from submersion, revealed
by feathery touch of close attention: here I am,
victorious memory of youth, of commanding
oblique, opposite you, the ripe fig of your lips, trying to speak
across the complex skirting of the floor recovered from
antiquity as all around the dusk and amber swallows falter
toward mortar. Excavate by respiration. Breathe with
the softest brush and mark thread’s slim glyph as pennant
tracing wind. And dismiss the faint pale particles
to reveal again figures taking form, their eyes agape with
(now old shapes, old tales) seashells knotted in their hair.
Apparent under added color, she points
to his ankle below its greave, adorned
with icy scars, a silken wreath. In attitude
that echoes the lyre – silent – the wings
of his bearded face. Who says the dead must cross a river
utters lies. It is a white-ground plain –
he was wounded above the floating rib, wounded
in the groin. Edge deceived the hollow over clavicle
also where his helmet failed his throat. In his left hand,
the muted instrument, despite bearing
the scar-bearing hoplite shield, a handle at the rim
and in his grim right fist a spear – bronze leaf
pins his requiem against the fired air. Our sky
assumes a golden hue as we drown in glaze.
His dirge will never reach her ear. I go to meet you
on the plain of our own devising. This city
for years at war and here the peace is terrifying.
As is this down-white ash descending in great number
as it interferes. As is this funerary dust.
We live in a time of wonders. Groomsmen sway,
mainmasts in waiting. Not a grove but a fleet of trees
swaddled in chattering flocks as bratwursts grill
in the stadium parking lot. Pennants snap. Trilliums etched
into hurricane glass. The ferrous fibrillation of the ruddy train
track – the cherry tree! I stand under it and some airy thing
gouges great swathes of leaves from its brittle nosegay
to swirl untouched, a short-lived drift. Dented dinghy bids adieu
to port. Tiddly-winks and mud. There are no strings attached
can attach to me, born unprepared as I was for such
wreck and splendor – the big bouquet – an iron road
that doesn’t scan. Bubble holds the suture
of retina detached. A vision colonized quite publically
and nothing so delicious as that power in decline. Clean
coal. Drew Brees. We live in a time of wonders.
Unmoored in a time of wonders. Enshrined upon the hill
behind a castellated wall of tulle this tinsel prize and things
perhaps we should consider before rigging knot is riven
further – a clue; hypothermic hunters don’t talk parcel post
when they mean air courier. Ask Boeing. Boeing parties
like a bachelor, gossips like a neighbor. On the carousel
fascicles of Samsonite parade as Kevlar plunder and I tremble
a thoroughgoing tremor of delight, a hot and starry
shudder that sizzles as it solders – a slow broadside
or reluctant bride, all comes round in time, tagged with day-glo
candor. The tag! The ticket! A flickering monitor makes curious
synchronicity of palish moths, miraculous vehicles
of policy, a passengers’ reminder. Avast! Awash! Surrender
cuticle scissors. Pipe down to jock itch, a rash of rickets.
Cool treacle. Hard cheese. We live in a time of wonders.
At large in a time of wonders notable sometime haberdashers note
that in absence of an oar or sewing notion a small, cold room
can be made colder. Also made smaller. In absence of cufflink
or tie tack, limbers altered to double draft can multiply our labor.
Coming up in the world becomes casualty: cabdriver
plucked fraught from his cab and permanently detained
like, well, a cabdriver waterboarded without outboard motor.
Perquisites of uniform – ripstop sateen. Free massages. The dry-ice
machine clears its locker. Tanks burn – hooray! – like zeppelins,
a dome lamp gone imperially dim. No lead blocker, no barrier
thimble. No Best Man counter-toasts such exposure. No navigator
thrall to fiscal blunder, the tax on Similac. L’enfant terrible! Blitzing
stars! An audible! The formula is long in milliliters and short
in number. At last believe the banner: post or flag. Fade route.
Mission Accomplished. Surely we live in a time of wonders.
I wake into a time of wonders – frantic amnesiac
with head plucked out a pithy root, fantastic into foreign
air, a tuber in the febrile air of Flanders. Or a corvette
critically perfervid, like the booming nine-pounders
of the H.M.S. Grâce à Dieu, pinnacle of diplomacy, pistol lain
discreetly on formica pay counter. .38? Too special. Corvette?
Please – frigate – it revels as it founders. Blue 32? Huzzah! Across
the stadium ‘the wave’, the aisle – the far-off distal plane – a goal
post or mizzen mast of a Barquentine. Sweet lateen blooms,
a cherry tree. A square rig! A flag! A chance! All cardinals
of the orchard trill filaments of crimson. Over seas of bridesmaid
stitchery that old bouquet in Majorelle. Though the dream
of incandescent wire remains yet a dream, a bulb of splendor. Thread
the needle. Buttonhook-and-go. Deep strike on deep route. Touch larboard
punk to starboard wick. I Do. Doubtless this time is a time of wonders.
Moreover, ever after. Doorway to the altar
ladder at wait beneath the manhole cover concedes
to night-leased sky. I felt it rising – it twirled like ash
but I did not know what it would provoke. I know it now
by heart, the truth; I can be stopped by smoke, or less, a mist
not quite particular, anything beguiled by solvent. Surface swells fail
as far away the nightmare district grows now this very minute
infinitely more manifold and remote. Please, after
candied mandarins in portfolio, and dates,
pecans lax where seeds once been, fox your small
remonstrance close therein. I take form
as goldeye gilding, golden idol gone, a goldenrod
covered hillside on which – although blossoms manage
through an upturned sieve – nothing drowns, but assimilates,
I say as current slips its lid into place and I give over
to the way partition fails to end or begin, where current tumbles
the very substance of our passing against the substance
of our passing – worn smooth, then thin, then worn to nothing.
The sky above ripples unlike the sky below – a spoon
on cork, dragonfly on cork. In the inmost ear a crown of spoons
pocked by the slight hammer of sound from the hammered
dulcimers. A skein of spangles, all ornaments
of some former breath on every strand
stretching up through atmospheres
of handmade fathoms. Let go, I say. Do not forget
that light has weight we must bear or become. Glass moths
batter at the glass door, a host of tiny emperors
ablaze in cambric. No longer some far-off window, only your
white shoulders where all small agents of flight assemble
such that as you move toward me nonetheless you grow smaller
in my smaller-growing eyes. I see you now. I know
you now by heart. How could at such distance, at such depth,
starlight wait (At last I breathe you in. I am afraid
I have known you, moreover, ever) so long to drive the clouds apart?
Ken White is a poet and screenwriter who divides his time between Montana and Southern California and teaches Screenwriting in the MFA program at Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He co-wrote and co-produced the feature film Winter in the Blood, and has adapted Debra Earling’s Perma Red for the screen, which he is attached to direct. He is currently adapting the YA novel Stolen for the screen with Lucy Christopher.