Maybe Yes, Maybe No
Poems by Ralph Burns
“Uh, I heard a noise.”
“I heard a groan.”
“It was the dog.”
It might have been a door opening in his throat
or floorboards groaning through
the years or his Uncle Ralph urging him
to speak up and say what he means so
he could hear with his head half-way
out the truck, engine idling, lawn mowers
crossing and horns honking.
He’s blinking against sun on a grass island
in the middle of two-way traffic either side —
Jiffy’s Cleaners, Pleasant Valley Church of Christ,
1972, Garden City, Kansas, Johnny Copeland
on the transistor — Baby Please Don’t Go —.
He covers up and sniffs twice, breathes
into his wife’s neck and hair. He waits
for her to tell him to turn over
so they can sleep together as moonlight
shocks concrete to marigold.
In sleep he keeps hearing Shoestring.
He follows the harmonica,
looks in sea drift and sees
a gleam over his head like Wordsworth
when he numbered creatures in the water
convinced he saw himself
with a slide guitar and spangles
so his ship flew into darkness
and stars fell on his face
and he knew he was not alone.
He Begs His Feet to Take Him Back Home
— after The Holmes Brothers
He’s always loved these rocks, this one with white line
through its middle, holding the door open.
He remembers when they stopped by the road
and he reached into a spring which stung
his wrist so he could see how quickly color
left his hand which held the rock.
His father, half the age he is now,
talking to his mother in the car
where they had agreed to let him search
for rocks. They must’ve been happy.
To let him go. To turn to each other and talk.
To hear him walking toward them.
He saw his father look over his right shoulder. His arm
slung over the car seat. His mother saw
him too as he walked over roadside gravel
to open the trunk. They both knew
he couldn’t keep those rocks. Some were so big
he had to leave them there. Others
rolled around in the car for years.
Others he threw at birds. Where
they landed they will always be. I say this
as simply as possible because language
makes a fissure where there might have been
solid footing, attends dream
when all the body wants is to be left alone:
He’s a grown man and his father’s voice
sings in his head like he’s a child.
When plates shift and the earth growls,
time like aluminum sails through it.
Follow the fault to the middle sequence,
where stars fall, become fish,
wash up on sand and become
stars again. The couple parked by the roadside
with their windows rolled down, the boy
collecting rocks, the man trying not
to remember, the heavenly body
with a voice like Patsy Cline — these things
form unreliable strata. That kid keeps
throwing tundra that whistles into space.
On this day of barking dogs and orange
and purple leaves The Temptations are on.
A chainsaw snarls then hits a monotone.
He hears rocks roll as they accelerate and stop.
He turns the music up so his feet vibrate.
Three months before the Beatles,
ninety-five days before Ali tko’d Liston,
the first lady’s sunglasses stared through
television back into living rooms
of diminutive first person pronouns.
When the casket floated by, when his
cousin broke his nose, when the big drum
of the marching band floated over the football field,
when the boy saluted when his father
went by covered in daytime stars,
when sheets billowed like great sails of domesticity,
oh he didn’t know what was what;
and he trudged on home between movie
marquees of bright faces and could not
say book depository without thinking book
suppository and sand dancing down Dallas
sidewalks and James Blood Ulmer thumbing
his deep elem blues and half lidded summer
knocking something back that burned
and made you feel good in your boots.
And he knows something died that day
more than the president. He knows
when he hears taped recordings and sees the image
of youth and glory as it lifts up on one elbow
and then declines deeper, under sea level
with coins and bones, shelves, legends, and old tumult.
Maybe Yes, Maybe No
You could be sitting in the chair that rolls
drinking wine, talking to love about the day,
the moon halfway up its ceremony, hoping
the lapse of time might not seem so
noticeable, you could be lost
to what you ask yourself when, say,
you take that tone you always never believe,
something about earning the right or
being right or thinking the wrong thing once
when failure was so much a part of movement
that you reenact that day your mother
and father and brothers and sister were
driving toward the lake to swim.
It was that or the ballgame. When
do you wake up, hearing the car radio?
I think you were right to pick up the stick
or limb or rock and think about protecting
the ones who blew air into the air mattress,
the ones who floated out into the lake
past the red and white buoy, the family
who wanted to swim, the man
who threatened the woman, the
water who covered everything,
the tall trees precise and gone,
the old days less old than ever.
But nothing happened and nothing
ever does. You can’t help it. That the
dream you are glossing has its own
bad actors, and they aren’t talking.
The rocks under bare feet make you
walk real slow and breathe heavily
as if the water before you were
bright and beautiful like the other world.
A Way Back Through Things
That’s him up to his arm in an ice chest
fishing for a Grapette. Across the brick street
after leaving the church, a young man helps
an older woman under bulging shade.
This must be the fifth funeral she’s been to today —
a whistle goes off like it’s lunchtime.
Fiddle music gooses bed sheets on the line
between poetry and prose.
There must be an air where his grandfather
rises each day at seven to open the gas and grocery station
and hose off concrete and a spider in the left
quadrant of a window, which gives
six squares of light to the painted wood floor whose
grain gives back a river in mildewy commerce.
He thinks he remembered this photo somewhere
near the horse races. In Hot Springs, Arkansas.
Sea Trek was 35 to one. He must’ve just dreamed
about being somewhere in route to somewhere else,
and the people looked familiar in an atmosphere
of hills and cars streaming past.
It’s about here where he usually gets into trouble.
He reaches through ice and feels the cold rumble
inside like the woman walking
from death to death, so much that no one
can remember or preserve that it’s necessary to
turn to what was and never will be.
She moves with the kind of attention that knows
she’s being watched, stepping
from shadow to saffron change,
glinting, fixing herself. He is here a few feet away
slumped like zinnias his grandmother
always made people see.
The Best Room in the House
He’s been giving it every night the old dog water,
the volunteer tomato plant. How do
they volunteer? One yellow blossom
like a star — its fragrance seems tomato-y.
It hugs earth like a man in a storm; it never
sails. When he thinks about his old man
he would have to say it’s wide open, the possible —
his father raised a pellet gun from his perch
in bed, the only air-conditioned room in the house,
with a half-bath where he shaved, where
in truth he first masturbated — well, Lord,
he’s so far off subject that he feels like
a ceramic donkey, the one his father shot at
with dead aim, who lost both ears.
What volunteers? Who enters a room
which is colder than the others?
Who sits in bed half naked and holds a gun,
who sights a donkey on a dresser
so ugly the cufflinks and change and portrait
of parental dotage disappear?
He smells the shaving cream and after shave.
He holds himself. He thinks somewhere
he’s in the line of fire. His wife says he’s crazy.
They dance. To music so various
he holds on to her and wonders
what he hears, volunteer strain
of distance, old association, water which
they carry, both pack out.
He’d have to say the coal pits seemed
to rise like shapes of women, that
it took too long to get there stopping
for cars, avoiding the bull dog,
forcing the hurricane fence gate open.
Water nibbled blue-black cinders,
a copper beech with no bark,
tracks marking a perimeter, blackberry
stain which left fingerprints on blouses.
Oh you know — the time elements
and place elements dance around the red rim
of sun, and when we grow old, rain
on the way home, stone steps, the opening
door and light pouring out is the same music.
Ralph Burns has published six books of poetry, most recently Ghost Notes, winner of the Field Poetry Prize,
and Swamp Candles, winner of the Iowa Poetry Award. He also has recent poems in The Southern Review,
Field, and Epoch.
Copyright © Mudlark 2012
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