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Poetry

Poetry Issue #49

Wow! Signal Dredging Light

By Joel Peckham

 

When it comes, it finds me shin-deep in our creek as I bend my knees, lock elbows/and strain to dig down and in, and/lift the tall grass from the water, heavy…
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Image: “Bird in Flight, Abandoned Factory, Unconscious Dubuque,” by Christopher Paul Brown, digital photograph, 19×29 in., 2019

 

Joel Peckham

Featured Poet

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Wow! Signal Dredging Light
I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable —Walt Whitman

When it comes, it finds me shin-deep in our creek as I bend my knees, lock elbows
and strain to dig down and in, and
lift the tall grass from the water, heavy, sucking free the silt and sod and sediment,
so when the storms of April arrive the waters will not flood
my lawn and threaten the foundation of my home. Summer,
when everything sings and stings with its need to be
uncontained, and penetrate the skin. And I am

at once the man with the bad hip and clicking shoulder and
the teenager working for the landscaping company, his flannel caught on a branch
as it dives into the chipper. And I am
screaming and spinning out of the shirt, away from the blades. And I am
a boy watching in wonder his mother lift and turn and stretch across a high school
stage in white tights and slippers, my sisters on either side, their long, thin
backs growing wings
becoming birds that glide over the water casting shadows that chase each other
down the beach as I shout after them. Slow down. Wait
for me.
And the hound howling for hours through the steam of evening from
behind the gate of the neighbors yard, straining at his leash. And

the sod, and the silt, and the grass—my hair as wet and heavy as the nearly
drowned. But come back, gasping. Everything insisting I am
not confined in these yellow waders or this body or this creek. And the shovel

is not a shovel but a dish, glittering with stars which are the future and the past
at once, sending their messages of birth and burial. Ear to the rail,
cheekbone to the track, I receive, picking up vibrations that dance across
the distances

and through the skull to the tongue with a tang of pomegranates reddening the
lips: somewhere on the burning

sand of an ever expanding beach, unmodulated waves that might have come
from a light-house beacon somewhere in the constellation of Sagittarius
strain

at full draw aiming arrows across the heavens, flash and turn, turn

and flash. Somewhere in Ohio the astronomer shot through
with wonder stares at a signal he’s been waiting for without hope and desperate
with need, works out the coordinates, searching for the source of what
he sees. A message

undecodable can say anything, everything. Old gods, sing

the language of the sumac reaching for the water pipes beneath the basement,
curled around the metal, tightening its grip

or how the starlings wheel in a single wave, a wing.
Play the notes in any sequence. I am feathered with your arrows. I am wading in
yours waters. I am dredging my creek
come down from the mountains, staggering
with light and heat.

 

The Tongue is a Fire
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. James 3:5

Leaping from dry branch to dry branch, they come, feral things, desperate in their
need to not just represent, but be. Imagine the word for lightning as it strikes.
Words

I’ve loved too much and often without discretion, the way people love their nasty
little children. You know the ones, running through the pews at the wedding,
giggling, their ties and ribbons come undone, trailing behind them like
contrails or the tails of kites in wind, as hard to chase down as a rumor. And
I have always been that child left alone with a lighter in the sewing room, a
basketful of remnants at his feet. Dangerous

at parties and worse at a faculty meeting. My father used to say, never miss an
opportunity to keep your mouth shut. Which is to say, I have made a life of
missed opportunities. The pleasure and pressure of silence is to smolder. To
hold off is to withhold: pulp breaking down, gas rising as smoke and then the
blossom in the chest. A new sun contained in being born. To be silenced is
to be locked inside yourself, leashed beneath the hand that holds the whip,
pausing at the edge of release. Coming to lips

like lips to a lover. Always that young, always learning and yearning as if it were
the first time first taste: that heat in the mouth as the mouth opens and
exhales and the pulse along the neck below the jaw begins to throb. Then
the first tentative flicks and the promise of more. All thoughts are
afterthoughts to those who use words to find out what they know. As in the
dark, we see with hands, with tongue, relearning the body’s curves.

It’s breathy glottal fricative. The uvular n’s and m’s. A retroflex articulation with
its come-hither, right-swishing tail. I am a word voyeur, an omnivore, a
connoisseur. You watch my mouth. I’ll watch yours. Each overheard
conversation in the coffee shop a symphony, each argument a feast. Some
nights I can barely rest

for all the chirrups and chewing in a world of heartbeats. Rachael moans a
doorway to a dream and silently I enter, head bowed in her cathedral. In the
morning she tells me that I talked in my sleep. But she can’t repeat what I’ve
been saying and I want to know the language

for regret and prayer and sorrow, tugging at the sleeves of my coat, saying, Don’t
pretend that you don’t know me
. I try to pull away and they follow shouting
my name in echoes down the alleyways of debts and promises. Silence can
be made of sounds

that we won’t own, or say out loud: Don’t you know the cost? Can’t you hear
yourself? You don’t listen. Understand. Sometimes I think. You selfish.
Ungrateful. Insensitive

and take the shape of shame. And so, even when there is no one to hear me, I
whisper to myself, composing, trying out each combination, searching for

a different kind of spell, to push open the door and flood the room with oxygen.
Where I am left

sifting through the ashes, covered in soot, saying sorry I’m so sorry even as we
burn.

 

Preoccupied
For Rachael</br />
Where are you now? you ask and I blink / my way back from across traffic and the
other side / of the busy street where a man holds a small transistor radio to his
ear and / bounce-walks ten steps one way and ten steps back and I can’t tell if he
is singing / or having a conversation with some distant civilization on some other
dimensional plane live via satellite. I want to say I am always / in so many places:
here and gone. Everything / intersections, interactions
—the kid playing “Burning
Love” on her guitar, the coins shining in the velvety case, the way that song will
follow us all home for days—right now a part of me I’ve secreted away is sledding
/ too fast down a hill with our son holding on behind me and our dog chasing and
you shouting from the top of the hill, look out / for the boulder, so I laugh for what
seems like no reason, with the world around us all city / and blackbirds and coffee
and the summer ocean misting across the bay. Which might explain / why you
catch me grimacing and ask / if I’m in pain is it your hip or your back? and I don’t
know what to say. Maybe it’s the resonance of pain, / its habit. How we are all in
a state of continuous occupation,

like Eastern Europe, and even if the armies leave, even if the wall comes down we
will build / another wall in the absence of its memory. Preoccupied, / post-
occupied. How we set our jaws and grind / our teeth for what has been and what
comes. I want to say how exhilarated and / exhausted I feel when it comes
together like this—the man, the blackbirds, the coffee, the snow, / Eastern Europe
with all its tanks and concrete and all those dimensions like a book dropped into
/ a puddle, its ink running, it pages stuck together. Once I believed

to be aware would be divinity, prophecy—to see clearly the unified field from the
top of the mountain. Elvis / in a baby-blue, rhinestoned jumpsuit—sweating and
shining / and stoned and everywhere at once, on a million TV screens. Where is
the message / in a brand new language come falling like gravity through
everything? Where did you go just then? Where were you? Like someone / aflame
and tearing off his clothes as he runs through winter, I am / coming back to you,
naked and singing.

 

What it Means to Drift

apart, to be a body as it slips away as if we were a mere suggestion of a gesture, a
slow forming wave

goodbye or the promise of a swell that never crests. An old friend says, the Joel I
knew died in the accident.
I think, at bottom

we are all bass, all rhythm or rhythms, high notes flashing on the surface of the sea,
ranging rearranging, in any order any shape we can imagine as long as we
remain

in time, in key. Someone suggests a phrase and that becomes a theme and then we
play with it, build on that, going where it leads, and in the building make and
take

away erasing as we add and add again until we’ve made

a brand “new” thing. The way that practiced fingers feel along the body’s strings, to
find new combinations, notes to build and build until the muscles ripple
down the belly, coalescing into shudder, moan, ululation, scream. It is a
wonder

this becoming

and going and how it all takes on such weight. The Joel I knew

died in the accident. Thank God. New skin, new scars. Everything dying and being

born again—the big blue notes of misremembering. Mis

understanding our way to sense. Yesterday

my father kept repeating the same story as if in the telling he might make it stop

slipping away. I didn’t say you told me this already or wish for who he was (who
should be a memory?). But watched him search

for words the way skilled hands reach for a melody remembered from a dream. And
find himself and lose himself. Somewhere, way down

the beach I heard a cry flung to the sea. It is a wonder how a sound can travel,
becoming its momentum thickening, deepening, until it is its after-image.
Sometimes

we have to see past all the echoes of what the gulls of evening scream. Sometimes I
have to force myself to taste the salt-sting on the breeze. Until the sky above
the bay is alive with singing, until I remember that I’ve never seen this ocean
and never will again. Always new, always changing. And my father is saying
Joel? Are you still there? Are you still listening? And far beneath us I can feel
the world begin to heave, sand slip over sand.

Yes. I’m here. Right here. As you never were, we are. I am.

By Joel Peckham

Joel Peckham has published seven books of poetry and nonfiction, most recently God’s Bicycle (futurecycle) and Body Memory (New Rivers). Individual poems have appeared recently in or are forthcoming Prairie Schooner, The Southern Review, The Sugar House Review, Cave Wall, The Beloit Poetry Journal and many others. Currently, he is editing an anthology of ecstatic poetry for New Rivers Press, titled Wild Gods: The Ecstatic in American Poetry and Prose. These days he works at Marshall University and lives in Huntington WV, in the woods, on a mountain, by a creek.