Summer, 2008

Jessamyn Smyth

Two Poems

Selections from The Fierce, Bright Clarity of the Dead, a collection in progress

The Bones of the House

The wildflowers were taller than I,
the field infinite. Now it would be different,
of course: scale reduced to adult concerns
of acreage and ragweed. Then, uncomplicated
pure awe: the kind that’s lost in adult concerns
of complexity and death. Wildflowers broke the sky,
the field went on forever. We traversed a liminal edge;
woods on one side, aster infinity on the other.

We were looking for an abandoned house he’d seen.

It was a hot day, a fierce blue clarity.

October, perhaps.

My father went on forever then; an infinity of green
wisdom on one side, envenomed dark on the other.

The house was a hundred feet into the woods,
trees new as spring grass, fifteen, thirty feet tall
and right up to the windows, grown in canopy shade.
Vivid trunks lit the dim, smooth-barked under my hands.
Fierce little trees. Quick and hungry. The ground beneath
nearly bare, we tread the hush of churches. Even leaves
were silent, twigs did not snap; this wood a sharp intake
of breath never expelled. We held ours, my hand in his.

He lifted me into the house. The steps were gone, of course,
long since rotted. He told me the name of each living thing
I touched, and the murdered ones, too. Quaking aspen. Joist.
Bindweed. King’s boards. Porcupine teeth imprint. Faith.

Once, we slept on silkscreened irises: his arm lay over me,
as heavy as I was, it seemed, crushing and containing both.
I listened to his breath in vast chambers of lungs I felt
I could walk through; cathedrals of breath, echoing with
the beat of his life, heart chambers so large they thumped
the world and through me, creating the rhythm of everything.

Some bloodstains never come out.

Generations are darkened.

The porcupines had eaten the floors of the house; we walked
on joists and remaining King’s boards. The aspens spilled
quaking light across chasms beneath our feet. I said:

“Dad, are there ghosts here?”

“No,” he answered. “There are no ghosts.”

Disappointment quaking, I opined it was an ideal place
for ghosts to live. He laughed, then laughed again, loud,
and lifted me, balanced on the joists. I locked my legs
around his waist, searching his green gaze. “I love you,”
he said. “When I am a ghost,” I answered, “I will come here.”
“Well I will always know where to find you, then,” he said,
and squeezed me, and put me down. I hopped from joist to joist,
fearless and hungry. “Look, Dad,” I said, pointing. “A spider.”
“Be careful,” he said. “That one’s bite is poison.”

He is dead, now. Venom spent.

I still find abandoned houses in the woods.

Some of them I can save; patching, sanding, painting,
bringing in light where dark and rot had begun to win.

Some have no floors left to hold my weight; they mulch
the aspens, ghosts of themselves. From crooked,
glassless windows, moss-rimed green gazes
of generations rot into ground
thick with vivid dim,
wildflowers at the edge.

There are no ghosts.

In the house I’m restoring now, a stack of paintings
on a stack of boxes falls, scattering across the floor
with a crash. The dog wakes barking. Leaned
against the hearth, as though by careful hands,
my father’s portrait remains standing.

I put my hand on the canvas.

Geologic Time

A cleft in stone embraced by moss and fern:
one cannot tell how deep the chasms go
between these boulders carved by glacial drift,
between the space of years and drifts of loss.
They plunge. We grow adept at crossing them.
There comes a time for every chasm when
the moss and fern have softened every edge;
the plunge is landscaped, integrated, greened.
It’s not that gates into another world
have closed, or underworlds become less close;
it’s that the gap into the heart of dark
and silent places we once lived—or loved,
or both, before change ravaged earth and root
and carved the chasms deep—has narrowed now.