Salt Furnace (Southern Reliquaries)
IT'S A BRAND NEW DAY, the greasy spoon’s sign has recited each day for the last ten years. Eighteen-wheelers haul their hundred hands of empty space through an air hallowed by the smoke of a thousand-acre grass fire. New roads take on the shape of the old the way rivers tongue the drowned, eternal rush hour, eternal city: beneath the floodlights on the side of the highway the blue eye of the welder’s torch snaps open, a circular saw spins—disk galaxy, roulette wheel if the ball’s skipping through the working hours of the rest of their lives— then bites into concrete, teeth through stone. * Mouthful of cinders, the earth has begun to reel back its lines of chlorophyll. Birch shadows walk on their toes on their way to nowhere. Bark strips skiff from the sycamores, pale coracles, & set off into the world. Through a screen of falling rust-shot leaves it’s hard to tell the planes from the planets, but I know one is Flight 90, where last week a man confided that he’s collected over twenty thousand Pillsbury Doughboy dolls. I tried to remember the name of the horn player who used to play a club for a plate of spaghetti—something about being in between cities, in between lives & hours, had left me otherwise wordless, with nothing else to offer, with nothing more to say about need— * except, once, I rounded a corner & came face-to-face with a naked woman behind a door of glass. I saw her everywhere I went the next few days. Each time I saw myself in a window, in the canal below. I read a billboard a mile from the glass door: VOODOO INVERSO: BEFORE LEAVING NIGERIA, THIS TRAFFICKER TRICKED ME WITH A FAKE VOODOO CEREMONY. I WAS VERY FRIGHTENED. WHEN I STOPPED PAYING, THEY SENT SOMEONE TO THE VILLAGE AND CRUSHED MY FATHER'S LEGS. NOW I TURN THE VOODOO BACK ON HIM . . . Ten thousand days into my life, Lord, & not one more promised. Ten thousand days & I’ve nothing * to say in light of the overpass fire in front of me, a salt furnace except its only output is flame & ashes upon the air. You can take ten thousand steps & get no nearer to heaven, someone once said, but the smoke is halfway there. If the overpass is a temple, it’s a Parthenon blueprinted by the stars that are now fading overhead, one dedicated to elsewhere, that negative mirror, a thousand times more air than concrete, more not there than there: a dozen pillars & a cement roof, nameless place you only know by the places you’re on the way to: a via negativa of every place you’ve been. If the ashes on the air are inch-long vanishing points of veils, this temple had a million. And I’ll be its augur. Already I can see the bouquets & votives left there for its priestess, still buckled in her burning Corolla, her name unremembered everywhere.
Copyright © 2018 Mark Wagenaar. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in The Southern Review, Winter 2018.