Mudlark Flash No. 14 (2001)

Frances Ruhlen McConnel

On Seeing on CNN ... | Psalm | We Dream of Heroes

Frances Ruhlen McConnel is a poet and writer of short stories and creative nonfiction. She teaches in the Creative Writing Department at the University of California, Riverside. She lives in Claremont, California, and her old stomping grounds include Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Anchorage, Alaska, and Seattle, Washington, where she attended the University of Washington. She has published one book of poetry: GATHERING LIGHT from Pygmalion Press, and has another book, WOLF & BEAR, set to appear any day from Alpha-Zed Press on the Web. She edited a collection of West Coast Women's Poetry, ONE STEP CLOSER, also from Pygmalion Press. Recently her poems have appeared, or will be appearing, in THE WILSHIRE REVIEW, SOLO, THE AMERICAN LITERARY REVIEW, THE INTERNATIONAL POETRY REVIEW, CRAB CREEK REVIEW, and SALT RIVER REVIEW. She is presently working on an eccentric family memoir.

On Seeing on CNN that My Hometown of Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, May be the Most Polluted Community
in America, I Cried Out in Protest

And You heard me. Yes, You heard me.
Though I expect no reply,
not in my time, not in my lingo.
And what is Your lingo—leaf-talk,
creek-talk, the sound mud makes
sucking at a hoof, the sound of sand
raked by water, the scream
of mouse in owl's talons?

I put words on Your tongue,
that geyser of flame.
I evoke Job and all
blasphemers before me:

      You'd say was it you who put my father
      to work on the Bomb? Put him on his knees
      with his pliers and crescent wrench,
      adjusting some pump that forced uranium
      fluoride gas through a filter? Was it You
      tossing the barrels over the side
      into the quarry, where they blew up
      as they hit bottom water?

But that creek that flowed
through our neighborhood
where my brothers and I filled Mason jars
with thick bubbles of frogs' eggs,
that mouth among watercress
spitting up out of the hillside,
that pure spring that is now poison,
when did it become not Your mouth?

And weren't those Your eyes,
those thousand black pupils
shimmering with pulse in the seethe
of frog jelly? And who put them out?
Do You count how they die out daily—
not some species of jungle exotica
but those bug-eyed uglies
who squat belly-deep in mud
all day croaking Your praise?

      But why ask me? You'll say.
      Why ask your God when all you want
      or ever wanted from knowledge
      was another cover for Free Will,
      to choose the ends of your stories?

      Like the one in which Cadmus
      sews the plowed ground
      with the teeth of the dragon
      that has devoured his army
      and up springs a crop of warriors
      who turn on each other and fight
      until there are only five left
      and they became the builders of Thebes,
      that cursed city of Oedipus and Antigone
      that, like all your great cities, is built
      on a scaffold of bones.

      You who invent serpents
      to stand in for the worm
      at your hearts, why then weep
      that I gave you those seeds
      and that garden, as if the world began
      not with The Word, but The Curse,
      as if My knowing full well the harvest
      were the sin before original sin?

      Why accuse Me? Would you wish
      that what began with some slobbering,
      finned thing grunting in the mud
      between puddles should never have been born?

Is this then the sound of the only voice
we know how to give You?
Like a CEO's or a president's,
with a lawyer hovering at his ear,
whispering the first and second commandments:
The best defense is a good offense.
Never admit anything.

Better to go with the no-answer we get:
the whir of dragonfly wings over a pool
in the desert, the buzz of the aurora
on the iciest night of the winter where above us
there's a hole we're widening for your Presence
to lean in and look. And we know
You're not going to sew it back;
You're not going to take back the know-how
You planted in us. You'll be leveling
at us Your harsh gaze for as long as it takes
for whatever it is You have in for us,
whatever it is we're about.


God of bottled water
God of Draino

God of miracle cleaners
God of the breast implant

God of green lake scum
God of deafening car stereos

God of the oil slick,
What does your rainbow tell us?

God of slash & burn
God of clear-cut

God of think-tanks
God of down-sizing

God of the global economy,
Where do we go with our petitions?

God of internal combustion engines
God of core-meltdown

God of time-share
God of call-waiting

God stuck on the first step
Of a Twelve Step Program

God of land-fills
God of an auto-immune planet

God of receding glaciers
God of species eradication

God of toxic rain,
air, dirt, light, semen

Only begotten God
in our own image,

Who has the world in whose hands?
Who is forsaken?

We Dream of Heroes

Deep in a bramble-bush of stars,
we crouch, quivering. A screech owl
wickers above us, her talons
lift what might be our fluttering hearts aloft
to the hollow in the great white spire
of the dead pine where her chicks
open their black throats
to murky sleep. In our mouths,
a taste of dying campfires. On our backs
the harsh rasp of sunburn.

We dream of that hero, our father,
that Maker of Bombs, Hank Ruhlen,
who jacked up the corner of the shed
that was listing toward Lake Watts Bar
and dropped it on his foot.
We're dreaming of his three toes,
black as talons, the bones shattered
like coke bottles under truck wheels;
how all he said was "Gol-darn it!"

Fish doze in the armbones of the pine
since they raised the water at Watts Bar.
Mud sleeps in the cabin, mud oozing slow
as smoke from shit, as Mom said
her Pa used to say. Who maybe
learned it from his Pa,
who gave his grandkids coffee,
including the baby (our mother),
hardly before she was weaned,
coffee mud-thick with sugar and fresh cream.
Coffee, he claimed, kept him alive
in the Union prison, when food ran out.

But maybe the shit off which
smoke steamed so slow in the saying
was the hot shit of fear
dropped in the dewy dawn
before the Battle of Shiloh,
where soldiers like exiled kings
fell to kiss the fetid ground and all day
guns racketed from the banks
of the old wild Tennessee,
far under these blood-warm lakes.

Oh, memories of memories like the winking of fireflies.
Oh, whip-poor-will—Caprimulgus vociferous—
we wish on your first call at dusk
to be like that hero, our father, who fought in no war
except the one against his sons and daughter,
but stoic as a man in a lab-coat,
gave up his life to Uranium 235
and the plant run by Watts Bar Dam kilowatts.

We dream of his bones and our mother's,
deep in a bramblebush of stars,
glowing like boughs in dark water.

Copyright © Mudlark 2001
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