2017-2018 FINALIST, COG POETRY AWARDS
This autumn, the fog
will not leave. For decades
mist hovered over the river
at first light
during September, October. By mid-morning
the whiteness diffused across
fields and lawns
to stare in every window
of the house for a few minutes
before lifting through the firs and spruces
of the ridge, transforming itself
to clear sky. This year
fog lingers in the valley bottom
all day, hanging like smoke
in the tangled empty limbs
of cottonwood, birch,
blurring the green pines and cedars
alongside driveways. The mist
floats close above chimneys
and barn roofs, waiting not far down lanes
as if it wishes to tell us something
but is too shy or diffident
or unsure how to begin,
perhaps compelled to impart
a message difficult to speak.
Hour after hour the fog persists
until another dusk, watching for the chance to
say its piece, or deciding how to phrase
the words, gathering its courage,
When she at last consented to meet the news media
after decades, generations
of communicating only through spokespersons,
her appearance was far from the svelte image
of a young Gaia that often accompanied
articles about her. Her face had broadened, become
coarse-featured atop a body thick with rolls and mounds of
fat, hair limp, unkempt.
She sat at a microphone behind a table, a wrinkled,
dark brown sleeveless dress descending from
pudgy shoulders, her speech rambling, tendentious,
blustering: full of praise for
what she claimed were her accomplishments.
Such declarations were pocked with
intermittent and unexpected silences
that she obviously considered dramatic pauses
intended to emphasize her words’ absolute truth,
to convince her listeners they needed to reflect on
her superior knowledge
compared to theirs: I burned down Fort McMurray.
I flooded Houston.
Then, after two beats: You still don’t get it.
As if recognizing, however, that some present
in the increasingly stuffy auditorium
were immune to her technique of strategic silences,
she began to follow each use of this device
with a mirthless laugh: Heh-heh-heh. As she did,
her mouth formed a smile and body jiggled
as her torso enacted how humor can ripple through
a chest and stomach. Her eyes, though,
did not alter their blank expression:
Mediterranean fish are now caught regularly
in the North Sea. Pause. Your scientists can’t figure it out.
Pause. What does that tell you?
Yet most people in her audience were sympathetic
to her situation, prepared to regard her behavior as
a consequence of her status as survivor or victim
of considerable abuse.
Nonetheless, with each fresh topic she chose,
those listening were disparaged, mocked
as if they possessed the power
to change her past and present: Oh, you newcomers.
You newcomers. What do you know?
She had announced at the start she would not
answer questions, so when her talk eventually dribbled
to an end, she pushed her chair back
and stared at the assembly, who looked at her
without a word. Then the TV lights
were extinguished, and a rustling sounded as the reporters
clambered to their feet, turned away from her,
and began filing toward the double doors
at the back of the hall, not talking much to one another
until they reached the corridor outside.
She sat in the vacated space alone,
her gaze fixed ahead, an animated conversation
now audible beyond the room. The air within
remained unpleasantly warm
despite seeming cooler for a few moments
after the lights were shut down.
Each time I entered that house
I felt something was seriously amiss.
Visit after visit, I was greeted by the owners,
kicked off my shoes, and padded into the living room.
Immediately, a sense of a malign presence
or situation descended.
One afternoon, as I walked from the porch
back toward my truck, the source of my disquiet
suddenly was evident in my mind:
the house is finished.
Unlike any other residence in this district
of valley acreages and small towns,
no cupboards here gaped without installed doors
nor were any unhung pictures stacked against the baseboards.
Indeed, every room had baseboards.
No recent addition to the building
needed siding. No wire out of the ceiling supported a single bulb
where one day a proper fixture would be attached.
In the basement, no boxes of tools, papers or
jars of preserves awaited sorting.
No pail was placed under the sink drain
in a new half-bath, nor did any framed-in wall
have sheetrock pending. Each window ledge
was duly sanded and stained.
disturbed me. The terminated construction
meant the end of a process: a living organism
become stone. What had been achieved,
against local custom and all odds, was a defeat:
a habitation denied a future—every possibility cancelled.
This house had become an artifact,
unlike the dwellings of the rest of us,
that had disappeared from imagination’s radar.
Street after street of identical townhouses
overlay the alfalfa field.
Details of the starlet’s nickname in her family,
how her father sold his drywall business
to act as her manager
crowd out any mention of the historical grievances
of the tribes her country’s air force is bombing.
The rationale for an increase in the cost of insurance
is carefully argued. Nowhere is itemized
the need of the insurance corporation’s CEO
for his recent surge in remuneration.
Trucks backing up to scrap the machinery
of the mill whose production
has been moved across the Pacific
sound no different than the highway tractors which last year
maneuvered flatbeds to where a forklift
could lower lumber onto them. Yet above the decibels
of the demolition company’s vehicles
the clatter of four hundred alarm clocks
is no longer audible.
Shouts and horns vibrating the stadium
as the home team enters to play the semifinal
drown out a fridge door opening and closing,
rattle of cutlery, tearing of plastic wrap
as a man in an apartment nearby
blearily assembles his lunch for night shift.
Also, in a house next door, the whisper of cloth on cloth
as a woman hides in the folds of a shirt in a drawer
surplus cash from grocery money
allotted to her by her husband.
Data streams noiselessly into a computer
as it uploads to a distant machine
other data. The person who watches the screen
of the device to amuse herself
forgets or does not care
how the same capability to exchange
megabytes each second
enriches a few investment speculators
whose success extracts value from her savings account
the same as if a thief ransacked her purse
and the wallets of hundreds of her neighbors.
The artists, the scholars are encouraged
via jobs, prizes, tenure
to produce work deliberately indecipherable
to all but an elect—thus rendering unnecessary
any forced compliance
with the goals of the regime. To reward the utterers of
the enigmatic, the nonsensical, the absurd
and thus isolate
these potential influencers of community opinion
who might otherwise lean toward oppositional programs
means that imprisonment, electric prods,
agents provocateurs are not required.
No one, nothing is silenced. The research grant jury
replaces the censor’s scissors, the hiring committee
the redactor’s black pen.