Lucille Medwick Memorial Award - 2011
THE BOOK OF MATTHEW
She is painting the tree line again and again.
In this, her insides are scoured, she is able, after days
inside, to leave the studio, trade turpentine
for pine, for fenceposts. All I want is to not stop walking
until I encounter a county where what's between houses
isn't alley. This sorrow has crept inside me like a spider
into my bed, like iris pollen sashaying
downstream, so fancy. The child outside my door
is not my child, just some random child
explaining the swimming pool. The dog outside my door
is not my dog, just some random dog dragging his leash
on the sidewalk. Today the headline:
Couple jumps off bridge with son's body in rucksack.
At the tree line, the air tastes like ambrosia.
Far from the tree line, my dead return.
Where the fuck have you been? But they're not sorry.
They say: Your problem isn't us, your problem
is that you're forever elegizing the living,
the hair of my beloved is grayly gray and so forth.
Then you curl up in a ball. Spideriris.
I sleep-sent the dead
graduation photos of their daughters.
In the image, the daughters stand in the desert,
ready to leap off of boulders.
As if they'll sprout hooves.
The azaleas unfold with a violence
for which even this city's professional gardeners
aren't ready. Late storm, power lines down,
traffic lights out for miles, air pollinated
beyond reckoning, how the young stand around
in newly cut-off jeans and try to decide
if it means something.
This is the summer list: Lone Elk, Carmelite
novena, pregnancy test, Pink Sisters, confluence,
Thin Inn. One of those items comes first,
guess which. In another state, the painter
constructs a cabin from scrap metal. I have no idea
what galvanized means.
All May everyone felt particularly fated.
I believed I was meant to stop in a certain town
but kept driving, swore I was only love-struck
by all that barbed wire. Think of Simon Peter
frozen inside time, warming blue hands, shaking
not from the weather
but from the choice.
Have you ever frozen inside time, have you ever
stood warming your hands
while something cruel unfolded?
I'm doing it right now.
I'm asking like a woman who needs to know.
In another state, the painter's snorkeling
in the Payette River, counting the sockeye salmon
for Fish and Game, mourning their peril.
She goes underwater, runs her palms
along the mossy undersides of stones, the light
bends away from her irises, her hands
numb, a sockeye comes into her sightline, she
has no idea what it's like, this eye so near her eye, (a pink
novena? a secret? the end of time? No),
she climbs out, up the banks,
a truck in the distance
clangs over cattle grates,
clouds darken the water,
cones drop their seeds,
someone shakes out his sleeping bag,
someone slides her hands
up someone's thighs,
someone's lungs burn
from the thinning air,
someone says I could have sworn
your brother was there at the foot of the bed,
but when I woke—,
someone boils the jawbone,
stuffs their hands in their pockets,
someone squeezes river water
from her hair,
makes a hatch mark
by the other hatch marks,
each of which represents
a creature seen in the dark.
A sigh sounds dramatic but really
is just the scrubbing of lungs.
There's an airline called Air Comet,
why are you sad. In another state, the painter shakes pollen
into a mortar, paints a man with a beak.
Here, my friend says it's the Fin Inn, not the Thin Inn,
because there are fish in the walls.
My ears have been nothing but bother since I moved here.
I should have stopped in that barbed wire town,
stayed forever. Imagine the scrap metal available
at the slow edge of the desert
where everything takes decades to rust.
The man with the beak puts his hands on his hips.
I've seen crazed starlings trapped in the chapel, seen a magpie
hovering at eye level when I walked up the basement steps
into light that smelled like cilantro.
The man with the beak thrusts his hips
I'm trying to avoid the nexus where I light out
and boom, before you know it there's another cabin
salvaged from dumpsters, slow-rusting, sure,
and like a drum when rarely rain comes,
that loud. Call it the Paradox of Barbed Wire:
on the one hand it smells exactly
like home, the Owyhee desert after rain.
Maybe there's a barb in my locket, and when I touch
its sharp edges I smell yarrow, and what's broken
inside me isn't so broken, mends
imperfectly as a wing mends, never again the same
but still useful. My lover's hand left a mark
on my collarbone, once. I know what I called it,
and I know what someone else
might have called it, had we met
in some gas station when I was headed West
and they, who knows.
On the other hand, you can use barbed wire
to tie a boy to a fence, leave him there as empire collapses
into a black hole
inside his beautiful eye.
Today the power lines genuflect
like the reverent, like someone doing cardio,
like light coming down to the river
to drink. Our violence tethered at our wrists
like some weird bird, we bend our heads
to drink from the ladle of our hands.
Nikky Finney on Kerri Webster
This gnarly agnostic luminous poem, so luminous and so hugely pointed straight at the eight-pointed heart of man, happens in four stunning movements. The poet-painter herself, our narrator, our conductor, the one we quickly trust to take us, takes us. She stops her literal painting work to go out into the world, in order to shake down more color and matter, sienna- magenta, into our lives. She constantly needs to show us something. Look. Feel. Smell. Taste. She insists on taking us with her, away from the headlines, away from babies and dogs that do not belong to her. The painter, herself, our guide, our fellow traveler, our consciousness-mate, the one who longs to belong, but to whom? And to what? She keeps moving, keeps us moving, insists and persists, with searing verbs and clicking vibrancy. Her descriptions, modulating scenes, tell us that there are more corners of the world we simply must be made to feel. Four directions of the universe and in every one sorrow is the zephyr hurricane-ing through. So cave deep is the sorrow in this poem that the reader is quickly yanked, mesmerized, rocked, hypnotized closer to the self that always wishes to have one more day to right side up the wound.
By the end of the first reading I was holding my hand over my heart. By the beginning of the sixth, I was knocking on the skin there, wanting more from it. The theological humming that runs throughout this poem is its major liberating octave. I am at once lost and then, just as quickly, beneath the deepest ethical water, eye-to-eye with Sockeye, then brilliantly, jumping back, just a stanza, there with my arms wide and outstretched, wanting to catch the couple that has leapt the line, flown the bridge, with son in rucksack-tow. The rhythm of the language scorches the eye that rides it. The violence that has come down on us like ruby red waves, the violence that we have allowed and allowed, that we are still allowing, that we have mistook for entertainment, for mere brazen thunder and lightning, is upon us whether we want it there or not, like a blizzard of cicadas, buzzing, and there is no screen between them and us. The poet, with concrete sterling language, with a cinematographer's tender eye for how to pound the aorta then move on to the larynx, surprising methodical rhythms, the courage of the grandmothers, and justified narrative magic, raises the God-in-us stakes at every turn of line, then hammers our toes, deeper into this good earth, finally tying us up in a body wrap of cilantro and iron. Bravo!