A Path Between Houses

       Where is the dwelling place of light?
       And where is the house of darkness?
       Go about; walk the limits of the land.
       Do you know a path between them? 
               Job 38:19-20

The enigma of August. 
Season of dust and teenage arson. 
The nightly whine of pickup trucks 
bouncing through the sumac 
beneath the Co-Operative power lines, 
country & western booming from woofers 
carved into the doors. A trace of smoke 
when the wind shifts, 
spun gravel rattling the fenders of cars, 
the groan of clutch and transaxle, 
pickup trucks, arriving at a friction point,
gunning from nowhere to nowhere. 
The duets begin. A compact disc, 
a single line of muted trumpet, 
plays against the sirens 
pursuing the smoke of grass fires.

I love a painter. On a new canvas, 
she paints the neighbor’s field. 
She paints it without trees, 
and paints the field beyond the field, 
the field that has no trees, 
and the upturned Jesus boat, 
made into a planter, 
“For God so loved the world . . .” 
a citation from John, chapter and verse,
splattered across the bow 
the boat spills roses into the weeds. 
What does the stray dog know, 
after a taste of what is holy? 
The sun pulls her shadow toward me, 
an undulant shape that shelters the grass, 
an unaimed thing.

In the gray house, the tiny house, 
in ’52 there was a fire. The old woman,
drunk and smoking cigarettes, fell asleep. 
The winter of the blizzard and her son 
Not coming home from the Yalu. 
There are times I still smell smoke.
There are days I know she set the fire 
and why.

Last night, lightning to the south. 
Here, nothing, though along the river
the wind upends a willow, 
a gorgon of leaves and bottom-up clod 
browning in the afternoon sun. 
In the museum we dispute 
the poet's epiphany call—
white light or more warmth? 
And what is the Greek word for the flesh, 
and the body apart from the spirit, 
meaning even the body opposed to the spirit? 
I do not know this word.
Dante claims there are pools of fire 
in the middle regions of hell, 
but the lowest circles are lakes of ice, 
offering the hope our greatest sins 
aren't the passions but indifference. 
And the willow grew for years 
With no real hold upon the ground.

How the accident occurred 
and how the sky got dark:
Six miles from my house, 
a drunk leaves the Holiday Inn
spins on 104 and smacks a utility pole. 
The power line sparks
across the hood of his Ford
and illuminates the crazed spider web 
of the windshield. His bloody tongue burns 
with a slurry gospel. Around me, 
the lights go down, 
the way death is described 
as armor crashing to the ground, 
the soul having already departed
for another place. Was it his body I heard 
leaning against the horn, 
the body’s final song, before the body 
slumped sideways in the seat?

When I was a child, 
I would wake at night
and imagine a field of asteroids, rolling 
across the walls of my room.
In fact, I’ve seen them, 
like the last herd of buffalo, 
grazing against the background of fixed stars.
Plate 420 shows the asteroid 433 Eros, 
the bright point of light, as it closes its approach 
to light. I loose myself in Cygnus, 
ancient kamikaze swan,
rising or diving to earth, 
Draco, snarling at the polestar, 
and Pegasus, stone horse of the gods, 
ecstatic, looking one last time at home.

August and the enigma it is. 
Days when I move in crabbed circles, 
nights when I walk with Jesus through the fields. 
What finally stands between us
and the world of flying things? 
Mobbed by jays, the Cooper‘s hawk 
drops the dead bird. It tumbles 
beneath the cedar tree, 
tiny acrobat of death, 
a dead bird released
in a failed act of atonement.
A nest of wasps buzzing beneath the shingles, 
flickers drilling the cottonwood, 
jays, sparrows, the insistent wrens, 
the language of birds, heads cocked, 
staring the moon-eyed through the air. 
Sedge, asters, and fleabane, 
red tins of gasoline and glowing cigarettes, 
the midnight voice of a fourteen-year-old girl 
wailing the word “blue” from the pickup’s open doors, 
illuminated by the dome light, 
the sulphurous rasp of another struck match, 
and foxglove, goldenrod and chicory, 
the dry flowers of late summer,
an exhaustion I no longer look at.

Time passes. The authorities 
gather the wreckage, the whirr 
of cicadas, and light dissembles the sky. 
A wind shift, and the Cedar Creek fire 
snaps the backfire line
and roars through the cemetery. 
In the morning, 
I walk a path between houses. 
I cross to the water 
and circle again, the redwings 
forcing me back from the marsh. 
Smoke rises from a fire 
still smoldering along the power lines, 
flaring and exhausting itself 
in the shape of something lost. 
Grass fires, fires through the scrub 
of the clear-cut, fires in the pulpwood,
cemetery fires,
the powder of ash still untracked 
beneath the enormous trees, 
fires that explode the seed cones 
on the pines, the smoke of set fires 
and every good intention gone wrong, 
scorching the monuments 
above the graves of the dead.

From A Path Between Houses by Greg Rappleye. Winner of the 2000 Brittingham Prize in Poetry. Copyright © 2000 by Greg Rappleye. Reprinted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press. All rights reserved.