Honorable Mention, R.T. Smith Prize for Narrative Poetry
“To Shadow” is an ambitious story of many stories rendered in couplets and merging the personal, regional, natural, historical, all (to borrow from the poem’s lyrical closing) “held together with rock, a little rain,/ a snail’s shell of breath.”
Along the winding mountain road the brown meadow empties at the far edge of October. Its owner just dead of liver failure, crossed into the grass where shadows begin to drag him apart, unlace his boots and rub dirt into his mouth, giving out darkness until he is only a phalanx of wind passing under a wide scatter of stars. In the memories of his two horses he existed for years as a beggar always slumped and mumbling a prayer into his cracked palms—the flesh almost nothing, a few coins tossed into a cup, less each day. At last he was thin as paper with a crease bent in the middle which would not lay flat. And his two horses, knobby and wet from… rain, or heat rising off the passing diesel salt-trucks— their tails like painted water on the surface of a lake. In the painting, there is only stretched canvas and color, no trout or stones to speak of, to watch die a little or disappear into a permanent sunset. Heaven is somewhere beyond the edge of the cut-bank, somewhere on the horse’s calloused flank or, it does not exist anymore. It is an ossuary of extinct things, blown apart on the last day of an open season. * Months earlier I waited with my friend, the two of us staring down the staggered line of mini-vans and trucks outside the county’s middle school waiting for our parents. Beside me, with his back leaned up against a metal railing and his head tucked down against his chest into a knockoff bomber jacket my friend was reading a book of foreign countries, showing me the flag of South Africa, Nepal, El Salvador, until he could not go on turning pages until he looked convinced he would wait forever watching over the long caravan of cars and become emperor of an open air stairwell, a wobbling hand-rail, cobwebs unfurling like flags from the welded joints of an awning above, and him decreeing laws under his fingertips, writing them across the concrete. * Overhearing the scrape of a fork through two runny eggs at breakfast at the Beech Haven Inn, I look up through an early September crowd of locals and see his father, alone and sipping from a Styrofoam cup to force breakfast down. He’d come home one day—and like in the movies his clothes were packed into a suitcase. His wife taught piano lessons, and directed the church choir in town, and as he walked away he heard her fingers lifting off the keys, the strings humming. That morning as the first killing frost crept out of the ground, I rode past the little plot of land and wiped my breath from the passenger window to see the horses blanketed, standing with the dead grass. A few birds fanned out in the northern sky, foxes tucked into one another, exotic neckties. The ground heaved transformers onto their sides like animals collapsing of exhaustion. It was all plainspoken: the clearing sky, the blinking tail lights of a bus, and the vinyl seats inside stinging bare skin, the veil of clouds which looked like snow. A mother wrapping her daughter in a scarf, fastening the child’s seat belt, branches of a spruce aching, the lasting impressions of wet leaves, wood-smoke careening out metal chimneys, and a window overlooking a trailer park where moths still smashed into the glass, as if delighted. And in the country diner, where I watched him a last time walking out the front door, I only think afterwards how his shadow stayed back and narrowed, how his body was winding down, a sundial at the end of time. * Not long after I watched his son, lanky and acne covered, bring a handful of dirt to his fathers grave, and toss it in. What it must have taken to stand so still, to hold the dirt? * This is how loss begins to work, after death which grows inside everything you’ll ever know appearing without warning. It cares for nothing, not names, not the proscenium beyond the forest edge heavy with wheatgrasses, larkspur, or rue anemones. Not the fledgling owls or their reflection on the surface of a frozen puddle of water. Not a boy sentenced to live on until even pain passes out of this world. * In the memory of the two horses there was really only one, blind from a birth defect, and her shadow darker than my own, standing guard over a kingdom of clover and downed timber. The horse went crazy, or grew bored enough to step over a low spot in the fence, then stood in the road one night at the peak of a blind curve. I can’t explain what would make a horse do something like this, only how the dumb thing kept swishing its tail, looking surprised with both black eyes open long enough to see the driver cut free of the car—the horse’s rear hooves slumped over the side her shadow galloping in a heaven of red emergency lights. It can take years to relearn the truth, to undo it out of the past. Now I am old enough to understand, my friend’s father never owned the horses, though he fed them once as I passed by. Still, the man died and his son went on in a kind of migration without compass direction. This happens all the time, a bruised apple rots away and parents are buried on Sunday afternoons, the small town gathering with fried chicken, casseroles, and baked beans, in the family’s home and spilling out onto the yard. Still, it is useful to know the parts of you which are shadow—the loose fabric of your country without a true border, fluttering without any wind. In the end you will be stretched out as your shadow begins to undress you, carve you into a flat line to lay into stone. * In the field, there are no horses and when I recall one, two always appear in their lazy observances of the practice of beetles and the slow passing of each car. They are only a few words, like what is asked for of the living at a funeral beside a footprint of stone wedged into the earth— the mares, only a poor stitch of themselves, held together with rock, a little rain, a snail’s-shell of breath.