The Shark's Parlor

- 1923-1997

Memory: I can take my head and strike it on a wall     on Cumberland Island
Where the night tide came crawling under the stairs     came up the first
Two or three steps     and the cottage stood on poles all night
With the sea sprawled under it     as we dreamed of the great fin circling
Under the bedroom floor. In daylight there was my first brassy taste of beer
And Payton Ford and I came back from the Glynn County slaughterhouse
With a bucket of entrails and blood. We tied one end of a hawser
To a spindling porch-pillar and rowed straight out of the house
Three hundred yards into the vast front yard of windless blue water
The rope out slithering its coil     the two-gallon jug stoppered and sealed
With wax     and a ten-foot chain leader     a drop-forged shark-hook nestling.
We cast our blood on the waters     the land blood easily passing
For sea blood     and we sat in it for a moment with the stain spreading
Out from the boat     sat in a new radiance     in the pond of blood in the sea
Waiting for fins     waiting to spill our guts also in the glowing water.
We dumped the bucket, and baited the hook with a run-over collie pup. The jug
Bobbed, trying to shake off the sun as a dog would shake off the sea.
We rowed to the house     feeling the same water lift the boat a new way,
All the time seeing where we lived rise and dip with the oars.
We tied up and sat down in rocking chairs, one eye on the other responding
To the blue-eye wink of the jug. Payton got us a beer and we sat
All morning sat there with blood on our minds     the red mark out
In the harbor slowly failing us     then     the house groaned     the rope
Sprang out of the water     splinters flew     we leapt from our chairs
And grabbed the rope     hauled     did nothing     the house coming subtly
Apart     all around us     underfoot     boards beginning to sparkle like sand
Pulling out     the tarred poles we slept propped-up on     leaning to sea
As in land-wind     crabs scuttling from under the floor     as we took runs about
Two more porch-pillars     and looked out and saw     something     a fish-flash
An almighty fin in trouble a moiling of secret forces     a false start
Of water a round wave growing     in the whole of Cumberland Sound the one ripple.
Payton took off without a word     I could not hold him either
But clung to the rope anyway     it was the whole house bending
Its nails that held whatever it was     coming in a little and like a fool
I took up the slack on my wrist. The rope drew gently     jerked     I lifted
Clean off the porch and hit the water     the same water it was in
I felt in blue blazing terror at the bottom of the stairs and scrambled
Back up looking desperately into the human house as deeply as I could
Stopping my gaze before it went out the wire screen of the back door
Stopped it on the thistled rattan     the rugs I lay on and read
On my mother's sewing basket with next winter's socks spilling from it
The flimsy vacation furniture     a bucktoothed picture of myself.
Payton came back with three men from a filling station     and glanced at me
Dripping water     inexplicable     then we all grabbed hold like a tug-of-war.
We were gaining a little     from us a cry went up     from everywhere
People came running. Behind us the house filled with men and boys.
On the third step from the sea I took my place     looking down the rope
Going into the ocean, humming and shaking off drops. A houseful
Of people put their backs into it     going up the steps from me
Into the living room     through the kitchen     down the back stairs
Up and over a hill of sand     across a dust road     and onto a raised field
Of dunes     we were gaining     the rope in my hands began to be wet
With deeper water     all other haulers retreated through the house
But Payton and I on the stairs     drawing hand over hand on our blood
Drawing into existence by the nose     a huge body     becoming
A hammerhead     rolling in beery shallows     and I began to let up
But the rope strained behind me     the town had gone
Pulling-mad in our house     far away in a field of sand they struggled
They had turned their backs on the sea     bent double     some on their knees
The rope over their shoulders like a bag of gold     they strove for the ideal
Esso station across the scorched meadow     with the distant fish coming up
The front stairs     the sagging boards     still coming in     up     taking
Another step     toward the empty house     where the rope stood straining
By itself through the rooms     in the middle of the air.     "Pass the word,"
Payton said, and I screamed it     "Let up, good God, let up!"     to no one there.
The shark flopped on the porch, grating with salt-sand     driving back in
The nails he had pulled out     coughing chunks of his formless blood.
The screen door banged and tore off     he scrambled on his tail     slid
Curved     did a thing from another world     and was out of his element and in
Our vacation paradise     cutting all four legs from under the dinner table
With one deep-water move     he unwove the rugs in a moment     throwing pints
Of blood over everything we owned     knocked the buckteeth out of my picture
His odd head full of crashed jelly-glass splinters and radio tubes     thrashing
Among the pages of fan magazines     all the movie stars drenched in sea-blood
Each time we thought he was dead     he struggled back and smashed
One more thing     in all coming back to die     three or four more times after death.
At last we got him out     logrolling him     greasing his sandpaper skin
With lard to slide him     pulling on his chained lips as the tide came,
Tumbled him down the steps as the first night wave went under the floor.
He drifted off     head back     belly white as the moon. What could I do but buy
That house     for the one black mark still there     against death     a forehead-
    toucher in the room he circles beneath     and has been invited to wreck?
Blood hard as iron on the wall     black with time     still bloodlike
Can be touched whenever the brow is drunk enough. All changes. Memory:
Something like three-dimensional dancing in the limbs     with age
Feeling more in two worlds than one     in all worlds the growing encounters.

Hunting Civil War Relics at Nimblewill Creek

As he moves the mine detector
A few inches over the ground,
Making it vitally float
Among the ferns and weeds,
I come into this war
Slowly, with my one brother,
Watching his face grow deep
Between the earphones,
For I can tell
If we enter the buried battle
Of Nimblewill
Only by his expression.

Softly he wanders, parting
The grass with a dreaming hand.
No dead cry yet takes root
In his clapped ears
Or can be seen in his smile.
But underfoot I feel 
The dead regroup,
The burst metals all in place,
The battle lines be drawn
Anew to include us
In Nimblewill,
And I carry the shovel and pick

More as if they were
Bright weapons that I bore.
A bird's cry breaks 
In two, and into three parts.
We cross the creek; the cry
Shifts into another,
Nearer, bird, and is
Like the shout of a shadow—
Lived-with, appallingly close—
Or the soul, pronouncing
Three tones; your being changes.

We climb the bank;
A faint light glows
On my brother's mouth.
I listen, as two birds fight
For a single voice, but he
Must be hearing the grave,
In pieces, all singing
To his clamped head,
For he smiles as if 
He rose from the dead within
Green Nimblewill
And stood in his grandson's shape.

No shot from the buried war
Shall kill me now,
For the dead have waited here
A hundred years to create
Only the look on the face
Of my one brother,
Who stands among them, offering
A metal dish
Afloat in the trembling weeds,
With a long-buried light on his lips
At Nimblewill
And the dead outsinging two birds.

I choke the handle
Of the pick, and fall to my knees
To dig wherever he points,
To bring up mess tin or bullet,
To go underground
Still singing, myself,
Without a sound,
Like a man who renounces war,
Or one who shall lift up the past,
Not breathing "Father,"
At Nimblewill,
But saying, "Fathers! Fathers!"

The Dusk of Horses

Right under their noses, the green
Of the field is paling away
Because of something fallen from the sky. 

They see this, and put down
Their long heads deeper in grass
That only just escapes reflecting them

As the dream of a millpond would.
The color green flees over the grass
Like an insect, following the red sun over

The next hill. The grass is white.
There is no cloud so dark and white at once;
There is no pool at dawn that deepens

Their faces and thirsts as this does.
Now they are feeding on solid
Cloud, and, one by one,

With nails as silent as stars among the wood
Hewed down years ago and now rotten,
The stalls are put up around them.

Now if they lean, they come
On wood on any side. Not touching it, they sleep.
No beast ever lived who understood

What happened among the sun's fields,
Or cared why the color of grass 
Fled over the hill while he stumbled,

Led by the halter to sleep
On his four taxed, worthy legs.
Each thinks he awakens where 

The sun is black on the rooftop,
That the green is dancing in the next pasture,
And that the way to sleep

In a cloud, or in a risen lake,
Is to walk as though he were still 
in the drained field standing, head down,

To pretend to sleep when led,
And thus to go under the ancient white
Of the meadow, as green goes

And whiteness comes up through his face
Holding stars and rotten rafters,
Quiet, fragrant, and relieved.

The Bee

                       to the football coaches of 
                             Clemson College, 1942

One dot
Grainily shifting   we at roadside and
The smallest wings coming   along the rail fence out
Of the woods   one dot   of all that green. It now
Becomes flesh-crawling   then the quite still
Of stinging. I must live faster for my terrified
Small son   it is on him. Has come. Clings.

Old wingback, come
To life. If your knee action is high
Enough, the fat may fall in time   God damn
You, Dickey, dig   this is your last time to cut
And run   but you must give it everything you have
Left, for screaming near your screaming child is the sheer
Murder of California traffic: some bee hangs driving

Your child
Blindly onto the highway. Get there however
Is still possible. Long live what I badly did
At Clemson   and all of my clumsiest drives
For the ball   all of my trying to turn
The corner downfield   and my spindling explosions
Through the five-hole over tackle. O backfield

Coach Shag Norton,
Tell me as you never yet have told me
To get the lead out scream   whatever will get
The slow-motion of middle age off me   I cannot
Make it this way   I will have to leave
My feet   they are gone   I have him where
He lives   and down we go singing with screams into

The dirt,
Son-screams of fathers   screams of dead coaches turning
To approval   and from between us the bee rises screaming
With flight   grainily shifting   riding the rail fence
Back into the woods   traffic blasting past us
Unchanged, nothing heard through the air-
conditioning glass   we lying at roadside full

Of the forearm prints
Of roadrocks   strawberries on our elbows as from
Scrimmage with the varsity   now we can get
Up   stand   turn away from the highway   look straight
Into trees. See, there is nothing coming out   no
Smallest wing   no shift of a flight-grain   nothing
Nothing. Let us go in, son, and listen

For some tobacco-
mumbling voice in the branches   to say “That’s
a little better,”   to our lives still hanging
By a hair. There is nothing to stop us   we can go
Deep   deeper   into elms, and listen to traffic die
Roaring, like a football crowd from which we have
Vanished. Dead coaches live in the air, son   live

In the ear
Like fathers, and urge   and urge. They want you better
Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you   they scream
When something must be saved. Here, under this tree,
We can sit down. You can sleep, and I can try
To give back what I have earned by keeping us
Alive, and safe from bees: the smile of some kind

Of savior—
Of touchdowns, of fumbles, battles,
Lives. Let me sit here with you, son
As on the bench, while the first string takes back
Over, far away   and say with my silentest tongue, with the man-
creating bruises of my arms   with a live leaf a quick
Dead hand on my shoulder, “Coach Norton, I am your boy.”