The Robert Watson Literary Prize Poem MISS SAHAR LISTENS TO FAIRUZ SING “THE BEES’ PATH”

If you’re going to go,
if you’re going to scorch this heart
and leave a desert in your absence,
tell me now and I’ll follow the bees.

If you’re going to scorch this heart,
I’ll hem the horizon in solitude.
Tell me now and I’ll follow the bees
inside the anemones scarring the hillside.

I’ll hem the horizon in solitude,
the light lengthening, breaking
inside the anemones scarring the hillside.
I’ll spiral inside the dome of the sky.

The light lengthening, breaking,
this moment gathered around us
as I spiral inside the dome of the sky.
Spring is a ravishment forever dying dying dying.

This moment gathered around us is
honey and wild greens and the promise
of ravishment forever dying dying dying.
We’re just another love song, remembered or forgotten.

Honey and wild greens and the promise
of losing you in the desert of what happens next.
We’re just another love song, remembered or forgotten.
Will you stay until the anemones fold back into the land?

Will you stay until the anemones fold back into the land
or leave a desert in your absence?
Are we just another love song, remembered or forgotten?
Tell me now and I’ll follow the bees.

The Amon Liner Poetry Award APPALOOSA RIDER UNCHAINED

Your horses ride today to set you free.
No longer shall your voices be contained,
Or chained to the watchman’s land without a key.
Here, blades and bows—weapons keep the peace,
Yet who provides shelter beyond the walls of rain?
Your friend will yell your name, then set you free.
Ignite the fires. The song becomes the key.
Unlock yourselves from umber cages, terrains
Of soot no longer bind you. Never lose this key.
Longboats await offshore. Together we
Ford rivers of golden grain. Steady the reins
Of your horses. Let them break away. Let them be
Unafraid. When darkness falls we ride across the plains.
Unbury your family plainsongs from the grave deep
Inside your throat. Sing out the missing key.
Reclaim your ancient speech from amber plains. See
Beaches aflame. History ashen again.
Our friends will yell our names. They set us free.
If your horse breaks away, let them be.

WOMEN WRITERS VISIT THE CAVE OF THE MOUNDS IN WISCONSIN

Too dark to see one’s hand before one’s face
Too dark to see any part of oneself

A silence so final we were afraid to speak,
The five of us accustomed to speaking freely,

Accustomed to shaping language into art,
Jolted mute by our corporeal knowledge,

Now and new, of the grave, crypt, catacomb,
The tomb and time and generations gone

As thoroughly as if they never existed,
Of helplessness before the fact of death,

The pit flat black, the surrounding black as dense
As a dead man’s brain.

The guide turned on a light and we were back
In the world but it was no longer the same world.

It was clear now how foolish were our ambitions
And how necessary to our survival.

The Amon Liner Poetry Award BELLS WHICH WILL NOT RING

I might have learned to hear in any stray rotting log
what rot has reached the very root of us.

This infinity forced down the gullet,
this string of bees that once turned

honey into sun does not answer.
One by one they open in my head.

There is, I know, a science
of separation, an infinite inch between

that sweetness and your hand.
In night’s disheveled elegies,

stifled laments—a trapped hum
crazes in your brain that it may lie

rough and real against your collarbone.
Soft atrocity, sweet fright.

Even the chandelier shakes.
I watch my telephone with a watched eye

like a bee, completed, dying hiveless.
You, with your square windows, holding

on to some airless annihilating height—
eat your god, child, and love it!

The clockwork oxen jaws, the tense
anticipation, eating money by the lemon river

for the country that comes when I close
my eyes. The world wears its

nerves in the screams of children
playing at war, playing

your sad, your same, your only air.
And the splendid official, all otherness

and air, sighs like a vent in the earth
and breaks like a black wave above my bed.

 

 

Note: “Bells Which Will Not Ring” is a cento
composed of lines from the work of Osip Mandelstam

OF AIR AND EARTH

Of course they’re only dreams: the face of God,

the daughter drawn from constellation flames,

an ever-present sky devoid of void,

the peace you hoped your mother found at home.

They speak of nothing meaningful as mud.

Sometimes, though, you wish you could buy those dreams,

accept that world of elder men who toyed

with callow minds, who shook their heavy tome

of answers in your face.

                                        Beneath the sod,

mute bodies lie below their stone-carved names.

Sometimes you lie in dreams until you’re cloyed

with doubt of doubt.

                                  Keats lies unnamed in Rome.

Your body roils with air and earth alloyed.

Of air we make dreams.

                                        Of earth we make loam.

THIS BE THE OYSTER

This be the cup, brimming fathoms of nectar
This, the well that flows from forever

This be the saltcellar, trencher of tears,
and also the teardrop, stone-wept from ocean

This be the stone, lost among cairns,
and there, another, hidden in middens

This be the hull that casts off its seed—
thus grows the reef, encrusted with life—

This, ancient vessel, anchored to reef,
This be the ark where life resides

and this, tiny cradle, bearer of treasure,
This be the oyster, slow-rocked by tides.

ORIGINS

“Crowds of people, walking round in a ring”—1

That’s us, collating the first Greensboro Review.2

The “academics” thought we were a zoo:

Frauds and phonies, our Program a plaything

For poseur slackers unfit for studying;3

And, to be honest, I guess there were a few;4

But most were earnest and to their art were true

And gathered notice what note honest work may bring,5

Though that was nothing they would prophesy,

Bob Watson and Peter Taylor, when they planned

A program to square with the resources on hand.6

“We do not want an artists’ colony.

Let’s teach them,” Peter said, “to learn to read.”7

That sounded duly modest. So Bob agreed.8

 

1. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, I, 56. This line became something of a refrain during the activity described in Note 2. I think, but cannot avow, that Bob Watson first recalled it to mind.

2. The Greensboro Review was the brainchild of one of the students, Curtis Fields, a fiction writer and jazz saxophonist. The first issue was delivered to the MFA office from a local printer in separate sheets. The students began collating by laying all the sheets out on tables and then walking from one stack to another, putting them in order. Bob Watson was directing the action. After a while he called me and I came over.

3. Here is a sampling of remarks I heard from my academic colleagues as I walked to and fro from classes: “How’s your little nest of singing birds?” “How many geniuses have we got this year?” “How many Pulitzers have your little crew picked up so far?” “Got ’em writing Odes to Spring yet?” “Can you really teach someone how to write?” “Melville (Hemingway, Steinbeck, Milton, Shakespeare, et al.) would never have taken an MFA degree.” “When’s your first Nobel laureate due?” Etc. Routine stuff.

4. Names omitted to protect the dubious.

5. You may find their works here in Walter Clinton Jackson Library and in thousands of other libraries around the world.

6. The MFA Writing Program was born of desperation. The state legislature, having decided that North Carolina needed fewer colleges and more universities, made it imperative that graduate programs be installed in institutions unready for such and not enthusiastic about the prospect. The English Department was ordered to furnish one and the chair, Dr. Joseph Bryant, came up with the idea of a creative writing program. He hated the idea, but library resources were not sufficient for a solid scholarly graduate program. Once the writing program was installed, he was no friend to it. This made the situation harder for all concerned.

7. Pretty nearly an exact quote.

8. Because a sonnet has only 14 lines, Bob Watson’s contributions are direly slighted here. But to do his labors justice would require an epic about the length of The Faerie Queen . . . Not that he would countenance any such thing.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Poem ALMA REDEMPTORIS MATER

Marketed by Purdue Pharma as a strong, but non-addictive relief for chronic pain, OxyContin was received as a miracle drug and widely prescribed throughout the Appalachian region.
                                                                                                    —Communities Digital News, March 11, 2014

 

Pray for this heavy, lightning-scraped body.
Pray for the halved mountains and sludge fills,

the ridges of fingernails, the ache of the knees.
Pray for the whites of the wrist, the salt-spilled

milk of the breasts, for our swollen hazel eyes
and each of their stolen colors. Pray for the muddled mines

and jagged gas lines, the sky’s hyperventilating blue,
the white-knuckled river waiting for a sign. Pray to

the flicked cigarette, the heap of pine needles, that there
will be no flared uprising in the night, that our blackened

lungs will burn out, vanish like monarch wings midair,
leave us as if we had never been here, cleaved, pinned

against the light. Let us raise our drought-choked throats.
Let us step to the edge and hope the sky can hold us.

ANOTHER MARIA MITCHELL READS THE FORECAST

Snow is water cooled crystal-quick,
mineral and posed;

sleet is snow cast off a lattice,
scaffoldless and smooth;

and hail is rain that fell up, gathered like belief
until its weight gave in to the fact of Earth.

Tonight the sky is clear but
late October in southern New England

I ought to be ready for anything. I take off
my ragged hat. I stand upon my roof alone,

hunched apostrophe waiting for the telescope
to fill with a light that falls only in darkness.

Up here no one to speculate how fast
I might descend.

From the shared and unpredictable night
I pull a new precipitation,

drop a comet on the world.

The Amon Liner Poetry Award IN THE HUMMINGBIRD EXHIBIT AT THE ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT MUSEUM

A green bird hovers above red rock
and disappears into a thicket of ocotillo.

Dashes of color flit around our heads,
dive between branches, rise
to the netted ceiling, scatter

like flecks of paint: blue topaz,
magenta, tangerine.

You grab my shoulder and point
to the cactus beside us—Remember
that one, Kate? Jumping cholla.

My ankle like a spiked bat
in your lap as you pulled the two-inch
spindles from my flesh.

How could I forget? It only takes one time
to learn what not to touch in the desert—

seat-belt buckles, the horned toad,
the blood that shot from its eyes
when I brought it in the house.

Your hand still gripping my shoulder,
the words I knew would come spill
softly from your mouth: diagnosis,

prognosis, atrophy, months. There are tears
in your blue eyes, and my whole body
feels far away, trapped under rock.

You take my sun-warmed hands in yours.
We watch the birds, the fierce choreography

of their rituals, until it’s time to pass
back through the curtain of long rubber slats,
the antechamber and two sets of doors

that keep them inside. As I help you
to your feet, a sliver of purple lands
on your shoulder, decides you’re its flower

for a moment, then shudders from sight—
a piece of dust blown from a band of light.

I read that if a hummingbird lingers
near, it brings with it the power to achieve
something impossible. But when

a sliver of sunlight kisses
the wrinkles of your neck, tickles
your skin with the tips of its wings,

what does that mean? The ruby-throated bird
lifts from the cotton of your shirt, floats

as close as it can get to the sky,
and I wonder where it would go,
what it would do in the world

if it could. Drink chuparosa in Oaxaca?
Steal thread from a red skirt drying on the line?

When the sun staggers behind the Catalinas,
the hummingbirds hold their breath.