Poem of the Week | May 04, 2015
Mark Irwin: "Otherwise Than Our Bodies"
This week we’re delighted to feature a new poem by Mark Irwin. Irwin’s seventh collection of poetry, Large White House Speaking, appeared from New Issues in spring of 2013, and his American Urn: New & Selected Poems (1987- 2014) was published in 2015. Recognition for his work includes The Nation / Discovery Award, two Colorado Book Awards, four Pushcart Prizes, and fellowships from the Fulbright, Lilly, NEA, and Wurlitzer Foundations. He teaches in the Ph.D. in Creative Writing & Literature Program at the University of Southern California and he lives in Los Angeles and Colorado.
“Otherwise Than Our Bodies” was written over a five-year period while I explored remote regions of Colorado, where I have lived part-time for over twenty years. Through focusing on particular places, landscapes, and things that appear unchanged by time, and juxtaposing those landscapes with people, animals, and events that have changed radically, the poem attempts to create a new place, a sanctuary of sorts in memory.
Otherwise Than Our Bodies
—White caps of peaks incandescent in sunlight and strophes of cloud.
Wind long there and our breath
here. Years, St. Mary’s
Glacier receding. We walked its blinding glare—ice and snow
at noon etching a slow
text on stone—
then headachy and sunburned went home.
—House, each with its petals of doors and windows.
Each one growing smaller and smaller till gone.
Lake O’Haver at dusk, the silken parachute of fish guts by our feet, I watched
the sky turn red where peaks rose in the jellied light
as trout flashed from our lines.
Or above White Creek the black bears that rolled big rocks down on the jeep trail.
We laughed, drinking beer, watching it on the night camera.
At the ranch, in the tall grass by the well house, one June I find a sickle, its dull blade
speckled with rust. The handle, carved from pine, holds two brass rivets, eyes
looking far into the green. I take
it to the barn and with whetstone begin sharpening, honing the blade
till its curve’s a clean-lit horizon. Later, walking
alongside the ditch by the well,
I put it back for someone else to find, the blade shining like water, the entire day gone.
In Ohio once, body to body, after moving through each other
for hours, we fumbled outside to watch kids at play
while the November sun pushed low
at noon. Screaming, running, laughing, they strove and strove—
giants in their small fenced world.
It’s desire we keep shoveling in memory, down to the last teaspoonful.
The white steeple slaving blue air or sometimes a mountain, the white steeple
where a crow lands, aperture through which this snapshot congeals again.
In October one evening, we move through a dry riverbed and can still feel
April’s bearded pull. Great cottonwoods and willows fill the day’s pink shell,
and I remember the man who planted kernels of corn
a thousand years old he’d found in an archeological cave.
Three months later the small green ears sprang like verbs from the dark.
Tonight from the black stem of sky the stars burst open like pods, all salt and shivering
form, when through the visible, glimpses of the invisible are gained.
—Dawn. —Full-blown sun daubing the cows, their god-weight on the land.
And now the bleating of sheep, frogs, as the earth falls back
through our bodies and we walk far into the speaking world.
Feeling her first teeth through pink gums and finding no words.
—Rags of sunlight, left by a rooster’s cry, rearranging the dusty air.
—Trout, pink and violet-sided, slit jaw to ass, still quaking on the grass.
—The moss smell through aspen and alder.
If I could remember more the snow would carve a thousand sopping meadows.
—Or Richard and I at the quarry in rain, Richard touching the granite
he would cut and polish, Richard who now has
Poetry has something to do with our bodies, flesh the soft wall we want to enter,
so to create it and give it names.
Otherwise we would not push dark letters across the page, allowing the words
to cut and suture.
I want to touch the moment’s scars, to lift both consonant and vowel
as the irises open in daylight, and the pollen lingers on the slow kite of the page.
A feather sticks to the branch of a cedar through rain, winds and hail,
through spring and summer.
A neighbor gives birth to a child, and a war begins and ends in Iraq.
Above, clouds pass. The sun sets and rises many times and names slip like tags
off lives I know. Still, the feather holds, its tether
a soft nail. Birds fly south. On a nearby limb a chrysalis becomes a moth.
Leaves flash, startling us with yellow, as though a window of green had shattered.
Just before the end of Mahler’s 10th, one hears the violins shear upward in a sudden wing
of grief as the body gasps, then a stillness within a stillness
builds an immeasurable height.
Time, how long we toss in the sleep of its wind.
Far into April, far into its green knives and teeth, the sun illumines
the gauze of leaves lifting something in us all
like hope, while light builds, layering the evening pond
that with the gold mouth of a trumpet
says and continues
to say Yes.
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