Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I. Winter Rye

Through clouds of sunlit dust and fields bare

awaiting seed, awaiting winter rain
and growth of cover crops, a tractor hauls
its load. A plume of dust-- a mile high,
it looks from the road-- rises in the air,
promising green shoots and golden grain
in season. Not now. Summer's turned to fall.
The last wash of blue is fading from the sky
and west beyond the Coast Range, thunderheads
are lurking. You can feel the moisture pressing.
The farmer knows, with every seed he spreads,
time's nearly up; this is the last field he's dressing
for the winter, plowing under stubble.
If he doesn't plant it soon, there's trouble.

II. Father Time's Flail

Shimmering ponderosa needles bend
to scouring wind. Through dry grass and barren
chimneys of rock, hot air's sucked up, ascends
in swirls. Adiabatic forces warring
with prevailing winds send dead leaves scurrying
this way and that. The air's full of chaff,
stirred by some entropic farmer hurrying
to thresh his harvest. His crop's half straw, half
dirt. He winnows it, needles and dust
in constant crazed motion, random drunkard's walk:
leaf torn from stem, grass-seed from stalk,
pulverized, ground fine and red as rust.
Time lays by his scythe today, to wield
wind as a flail in an empty field.

III. Windthrow

These mountains, ever since they were found by
loggers, have been cut clear, then nibbled down by
sheep, shorn of summer growth. My dazzled stare
seeks tree-clad skylines and finds only air.
Air, massing up into white-topped thunder,
breeds downbursts that fall hammer-hard on earth
like annunciations of some violent birth.
Trees and inhabitants cower helpless under
the winds that lash across open slopes
to fell neighborless trees at the end
of each clear-cut. Hard for them to stand alone.
Chance-caught traveler on the road, I grope
for a shoulder, the highway's, or a friend's
to rest on. Like trees, I fear to be wind-thrown.

IV. White Gravel

The right-of-way is lined with white quartz gravel,
stones that stare like soldiers back from warring
states. A shell-shocked sense of place unravels,
finds everything familiar turned dead or foreign.
Those memory highways take him ugly places
now: a flash of sun on mica-- metal
glimpsed before a sudden rain of shrapnel
shattered comrades' bodies, stripped their faces
down to staring bone. He grips the wheel,
briefly adrift; clings to lane markers like
a drowning sailor to a line. It's not real.
This is not that road. No lightning-strike
of IEDs is waiting at the merge.
He still can't stand to see a white gravel verge.

V. The Red Knight

The mountain at the next bend's cockaded
with a white plume, a red knight's panache.
Horses, grazing by the fence, taste ash
on their tongues. We drive a smoke-blockaded
road. Laid like a lash across naked hills,
scarlet flames, cat-o-nine-tail streaks
lick hungrily toward new-made firebreaks
meant to save a town. Orange-dyed water spills
from hovering helicopters, steel dragonflies
on mercy flight. Their blades buzzsaw the air,
echoing ground crews' chainsaws. Orange glare
picks glints of steel from sweating firemen's eyes.
From the depths we cry unto you, O Lord:
lay on our shoulders lightly this burning sword.

VI. Novak's Hungarian Restaurant, Albany

Long drives, unsated hunger: strange effects
occur. Highway hypnosis that caffeine
can't cure, heat mirages that the road reflects,
windshield a fisheye lens. Freeway cuisine:
a road rolls like rugelach, telescopes,
cuts through landscape like a knife, through cream-
filled canyons between flaky-crusted slopes.
Buttes turn to bear claws in low-blood-sugar dreams.
Get off the highway; you're a moving hazard!
Blue signs announce NEXT EXIT: GAS and FOOD
and LODGING. Sleep might be another good
idea, before you end up plastered
across a semi's front end: instant carrion.
There's a good restaurant here: Hungarian.

VII. Neon Horses

In the dark, the shapes of foothill slopes are lost
with few house-lights on night-covered crests
and here and there a giant illuminated cross.
Tubes of glass bent to the shapes of horses,
filled with neon light, once lined these hills.
While we slept, they leapt and pranced, these coursers,
across closed eyelids like windowsills,
balanced improbably on highway shoulders
we had been warned were soft. Where have they gone,
silicon hooves sunk in unstable land,
red and blue light swallowed by the dawn,
broken glass bodies dissolved back to sand?
One luminous hoofprint on a basalt boulder
marks their passage to some place of rest.

VIII. Double-Take

We walk up from the rest-stop parking lot
through sugar pines. The road-cut shows us rock,
green and wet-looking, unfamiliar, not
the black basalt we know. And sudden shock
grips us with primeval fear-- the rattle
of a snake disturbed from rest. The lines
we saw but did not notice, now recall
in whip-curved weals, scars of serpentine
sex in the dust, tracks of mating snakes.
We've stumbled on a scene of amorous battle--
not one snake but two, a double-take
that's worthy of Tiresias. Stone called
serpentine, found in these southern hills
breeds up snakes whose loving bite can kill.

IX. Devil Jockey

Boredom's a devil jockey, riding
high in the saddle, heavy on the whip
and spurs. Each day he sees the same horizon
roll out at dawn, roll away at night,
taking up the streets, shutting down the strip
of lights on Main. No wonder he dreams of flight.
Double golden lines lead to an urban fable:
fortune falling into a poor boy's hands.
In country well-known as an old nightmare's stable,
he lusts for adventure in dangerous lands,
fast-lane action far from the family farm.
One thumb-jerk from the open barn
he could be gone, three counties in a flash.
His flanks are bloody under boredom's lash.

X. Land of Bread and Wine

hazelnuts and honey, deep arbors hung
heavy with grapes. Here all things flourish,
every good fruit a different jewel strung
on a necklace of railways built to nourish
the rising cities. New-come, the god of vines
bows to the old queen, goddess of grain
whose bread-basket pours gold into endless trains,
whose elevator temples tower still
over the lines of empty cars to fill.
Wheels turn and turn. The god-mills grind fine,
throwing grain like gold dust into summer air.
The river chafes against revetments where
once ancient floods spread this sweet black earth
now pregnant with wine and grain's rebirth.

XI. Dead Man's Drop

No-one saw the car take that last curve
too fast, wheels sliding in rain-slicked grease
beyond brakes' power to hold on. Blackened swerves
are etched in burned rubber. Tell me please,
did anyone survive? Sparkles of windshield
brighten the road. Far below, frozen pain
makes red-painted metal writhe. The fields
are scarlet with automotive remains,
drive train draped in the boughs of a pine,
sway bar broken off at the highway's edge
while mileposts pass in a slow picket line,
green marchers behind a funeral cortege.
There's a brand-new cross at Dead Man's Drop.
I'd read the name, but it's not safe to stop.

XII. Red Thorns

Fields red with fruit and blood, drawn by prickles
sharp as barbed-wire, from calloused hands
stained with their harvest. Raspberry pickers
have gone now, leaving field and produce stand
to scarlet sunset. Rows stretch out, endless,
limned in the last light, etched with furrows of pain.
Stoop labor at its hardest, its most mindless:
unredeemed suffering among red-fruit canes.
They work the field as hard as they are able
each day, soak aching hands, and then to bed.
The rows lie still in dusk, while overhead
wind and fatigue dance. Telephone cables
cross in the breeze. Figures hang there, torn
flesh crowned with red raspberry thorns.

XIII. Driving Blues

Slide out the little drawer, stick in the disc,
label up, silver holographic
side goes down. I'm dodging freeway traffic
to the spinning CD's sound. The risk
of boredom evanesces in the heat
of blue Chicago fire and 'sixties burning
rock and roll. There's ancient vinyl turning
in the dark behind the driver's seat:
my LP memories, those grooved black platters
stacked up, four or five. That robot batter
swung his steel arm and lofted the needle.
Now, shiny plastic rounds smile and wheedle,
my constant companions. On an endless drive
music shortens miles and helps me revive.

XIV. Cutter

Draftee in undeclared domestic wars,
she's driven down the roads that branch like veins
or tangled roots, the routes that lead through pain:
a warrior wearing self-inflicted scars.
The map is red on blue, a painted land
as bad as desert, terrible terrain
with horizontal scars for every main
road, highways on arm and wrist and hand.
Since things inside are broken, out of joint,
she scribes with knives and punctuates with pins
cicatricic sentences on skin,
fragile fortress that defends a life.
She draws the blade through flesh, feels the point
riding the life-line, the edge of the knife.

XV. Lifeline

Through clouds of sunlit dust and fields bare
to scouring wind; through dry grass and barren
sheep shorn of summer growth, my dazzled stare
finds everything familiar turned dead or foreign.
Road, laid like a lash across naked hills
cuts through landscape like a knife through cream,
across closed eyelids like windowsills,
in whip-curved weals, scars of serpentine.
In country well-known as an old nightmare's stable,
wheels turn and turn. The god-mills grind fine
while mileposts pass in a slow picket line.
Wind and fatigue dance telephone cables,
my constant companions on an endless drive
riding the life-line, the edge of the knife.

There it is.

Still a work in progress. Observant readers will notice edits to the component sonnets, notably III-- I junked all but the first four lines. I think there's room for improvement in most of them, but a couple are damned fine already. IV and V are my favorites at the moment; XIV is pretty good; XII is a good idea, but it's not quite there.

Rhyme schemes are assorted, meter is loose; still, I feel like these are all recognizably formal sonnets, even by some of the stricter definitions in use out there.

It's felt like scratching an itch I've had for a long time. Nice.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

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