This is my pastoral: that used-car lot
where someone read Song of Myself over the loudspeaker
all afternoon, to customers who walked among the cars
mostly absent to what they heard,
except for the one or two who looked up
into the air, as though they recognized the reckless phrases
hovering there with the colored streamers,
their faces suddenly loose with a dreamy attention.
This is also my pastoral: once a week,
in the apartment above, the prayer group that would chant
for a sustained hour. I never saw them,
I didn’t know the words they sang, but I could feel
my breath running heavy or light
as the hour’s abstract narrative unfolded, rising and falling
like cicadas, sometimes changing in abrupt
turns of speed, as though a new cantor had taken the lead.
And this, too, is my pastoral: reading in my car
in the supermarket parking lot, reading the Spicer poem
where he wants to write a poem as long
as California. It was cold in the car, then it was too dark.
Why had I been so forlorn, when there was so much
just beyond, leaning into life? Even the cart
humped on a concrete island, the left-behind grapefruit
in the basket like a lost green sun.
And this is my pastoral: reading again and again
the paragraph in the novel by DeLillo where the family eats
the takeout fried chicken in their car,
not talking, trading the parts of the meal among themselves
in a primal choreography, a softly single consciousness,
while outside, everything stumbled apart,
the grim world pastoralizing their heavy coats,
the car’s windows, their breath and hands, the grease.
If, by pastoral, we mean a kind of peace,
this is my pastoral: walking up Grand Avenue, down Sixth
Avenue, up Charing Cross Road, down Canal,
then up Valencia, all the way back to Agua Dulce Street,
the street of my childhood, terrifying with roaring trucks
and stray dogs, but whose cold sweetness
flowed night and day from the artesian well at the corner,
where the poor got their water. And this is
also my pastoral: in 1502, when Albrecht Dürer painted
the young hare, he painted into its eye
the window of his studio. The hare is the color
of a winter meadow, brown and gold, each strand of fur
like a slip of grass holding an exact amount
of the season’s voltage. And the window within the eye,
which you don’t see until you see, is white as a winter sky,
though you know it is joy that is held there.
Copyright © 2017 Rick Barot. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Winter 2017.
1 When the moon appears and a few wind-stricken barns stand out in the low-domed hills and shine with a light that is veiled and dust-filled and that floats upon the fields, my mother, with her hair in a bun, her face in shadow, and the smoke from her cigarette coiling close to the faint yellow sheen of her dress, stands near the house and watches the seepage of late light down through the sedges, the last gray islands of cloud taken from view, and the wind ruffling the moon's ash-colored coat on the black bay. 2 Soon the house, with its shades drawn closed, will send small carpets of lampglow into the haze and the bay will begin its loud heaving and the pines, frayed finials climbing the hill, will seem to graze the dim cinders of heaven. And my mother will stare into the starlanes, the endless tunnels of nothing, and as she gazes, under the hour's spell, she will think how we yield each night to the soundless storms of decay that tear at the folding flesh, and she will not know why she is here or what she is prisoner of if not the conditions of love that brought her to this. 3 My mother will go indoors and the fields, the bare stones will drift in peace, small creatures -- the mouse and the swift -- will sleep at opposite ends of the house. Only the cricket will be up, repeating its one shrill note to the rotten boards of the porch, to the rusted screens, to the air, to the rimless dark, to the sea that keeps to itself. Why should my mother awake? The earth is not yet a garden about to be turned. The stars are not yet bells that ring at night for the lost. It is much too late.
From Mark Strand: Selected Poems, by Mark Strand, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1979 by Mark Strand. Used with permission.