Mudlark Poster No. 18 (1999)

Van K. Brock

On a Bluff at Elrod Mill
My South, My Russia

Van K. Brock is Editor-in-Chief of International Quarterly. His poetry includes Unspeakable Strangers (Anhinga Press), The Hard Essential Landscape (Contemporary Poetry Series, University Presses of Florida); several chapbooks, including A Conversation with Martin Heidegger (Mudlark); poems in journals—including The American Voice, Georgia Review, New England Review/Breadloaf Quarterly, New Yorker, North American Review, Ploughshares, Southern Review, and Yale Review; and in anthologies—including Strong Measures: Contemporary American Poetry in Traditional Forms, The Made Thing: Contemporary Southern Poetry, Blood to Remember: Poets on the Holocaust, and Sweet Nothings: The Poetry of Rock 'n' Roll. He lives in Tallahassee, where he is Professor of English at Florida State University.

Photograph (Elrod Mill)

On a Bluff at Elrod Mill

            The fiction of resolution, with its beginning,
                  middle and end, are all that we have.

Your thought shadows the layered rock you sit on
rising from earth below to go above you.
Her lens surprised you. Nor am I less
if you are the age of my son, and I am not even
your distant thought, and you will die before
I am born. Your face troubles the future
I tell you now. You will teach three years,
war will draw you abroad. Heavy trees echo
your thoughts until all shadows fuse in
your high school graduate's suit.
                         Below you,
a woman's shadow, long thick hair, full coat,
looking down into the reflex lens,
does not touch you. Not your mother,
dead when you were six, nor mine,
whom you have not met.
                   The leafless bush
between you pierces her. Dark pines keep
your clear face young, like that snapshot where I sat,
legs crossed in the driveway, while in college,
several wars later, masking other troubles
in the clear lens of a doting cousin.
Window on myself, blind echo. Young, serious, lost,
     You returned from trenched fields to outlive
a giddy, greedy, broken decade, which we echo.
Your death winged my birth, but I have learned
hard on my own slow self, on daughters and sons
who also knew the reverberating hollows
your shortened life left me.
                     The past is loss,
and I think the loss past then find a photograph
I never saw, charting what no one could tell me:
yourself, the boy who fled his father's fields
for school, now a graduate bound for the university,
the only one in your family, then further causes,
a far war, weaponless, dressing wounds—leaving
the unborn with the bones of a myth to put flesh on.

I've woven these threads into my clothes, escaping
for you, with you, in steps I never knew you took,
nor you could know in those full too few years,
before a careless practitioner failed to read
the flame exploding in your abdomen walls.
You died, I was born, as payment, for you and me,
he took the trucks you never drove empty. Now
you are what I have made of whatever clues you left
as you hauled food amidst hunger,
leaving gain, replenishing loss.

My South, My Russia

I was born perfect,
my mother still steeped in father's death,
and I was baptized with tears.
Even the neighbors mixed tears with laughter
when they saw how flawless I was,
and as I grew and met distant relatives
for the first time, they would look my way
and say, you dear boy.
                  I learned to translate
gaudy sentences, whose obscure syntax
had troubled me for years.

Like or unlike the poor widow, I became
their unwilling talisman. My difference,
I learned, was discomforting, and it was
more important to them that I be ordinary
in an extraordinary way.

Though my mother was broken, it was her joy
to make me whole. She prayed much about it
and never doubted her life was bent on
making mine straight. "Father-and-mother-both"
she always said, but father was there also,
never aging, perfect husband to the perfect wife.

Through dreambanks of fog, quite early,
I came to hear two things simultaneously,
and answered only what I was meant to hear.
I confounded the singular person everyone knew
I was meant to be, except in appearances.
Years afterwards, I hear two sentences at once,
grinding cacophonies, see multiple images on faces.

I can teach you how to translate: begin
with the simple evasions, note the rises and falls
of pitch in a name, the delicate systems of stress—
but why bother? No one is deceived
except by himself, and the shock of translation
has disfigured the loveliest faces.
Thus, I am glad I can say all's well
in the deepest stretches of tundra between us.

Copyright © Mudlark 1999
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