Newspaper Blues

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Dear reader,

I am yesterday’s news, brittle & sepia’d
by over-exposure. My vivid blues
have turned Gray-Lady gray
& my yellow journaling has curdled
along with the leaves.
It’s the silly season of the soul.
I look for a late daisy to petal-pluck
but find only asters, blue rays
too numerous & disorderly for any kind
of in-depth, katydid-or-didn’t analysis.
The government thunders the fee
fie foe
of socialized risk
so gods can go on living in the sky,
go on disemboweling the mountains
for coal to run their air conditioners
& turn their sunlit mansions back
into caves. You don’t need a haruspex
to tell which way the blood flows.
When I came up from the cutting-room floor
last Sunday, my hands were red as lipstick
& stank of the other white meat.

Haruspex Blues

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Another poem from Teju Cole, in response to this.

Living in the body of a seal,
diffident as a crippled hound
stealing some shut-eye in the belly,
night office of the soul.

Enfolding not the future,
no gland of hope or glory,
the lobes will only testify
in favor of the shadowed now.

Solemn a temple of deception
as bird flight or other sign:
staves scattered across desert,
dowsing through text-terrain.

Wolf call hints at augury,
unfurls like lifting fog,
antenna pitched at gods who
are much too fond of sleeping.

© Teju Cole 2008

Fitter selves

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Brother Cole,

If I were to pray, I would start low
in the belly, among the slick viscera —
don’t call them tripe, those amulets,
that conjurer’s bag, the wine-dark

apotrope where I live, & a road
more convoluted than the tube of a tuba,
that’s where I’d start, there where medicine
(always the best laughter) bubbles up

like smoke through a hookah
into the vicinity of my underachieving heart
& the lungs’ bladderwrack, that’s
how I’d begin, letting the first note

climb of its own volition, gathering
strength in the chest before the voice box
warps it into sound & it joins the others,
which were also somehow there already

in the darkness just beyond the fire,
eyes aglint, our unfamiliar better natures,
so unlike the beast that once leapt for my throat
before its too-small owner — our neighbor–

could drag it away, & I walked into the house
holding my bloodied hand before me
like a waiter with a choice dish
(the zig-zag track of the stitches still marks

my ring-finger) but that was the savagery
of an untamed thing confined;
its muffled roars & strangled yelps
as it flung itself all night against the pen

were nothing like the call or response
of an untrammeled spirit, half-laugh, half-sob —
the way I would hope to sound
if ever I were to join the pack & pray.

Download the MP3
(N.B.: The audio is more important to this post than the text!)

Storm chronicle

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Dear Dana and Blythe,

The storm jarred me awake at 4:00,
at 4:30, at 5:00 — close strikes
are a fact of life here on the mountaintop.
The lightning came & went, came & went.
When I finally got up,
weariness flooded every muscle,
& I sat on the porch sipping black coffee
& enjoying the Brownian noise
of rain on the roof. The darkness
freed me from the labor of seeing,
the downpour, from listening.
Each flash & boom was painful,
the apparition of trees, yard, porch
all much too brief for my slow pupils
to shrink and take in.
Awakening is rarely a rapid thing;
dawning can’t be rushed.
I’ll admit, though, I pulled my pocket
notebook out & began writing blind —
too risky to go turn the computer on.
When I looked at it later, in the light,
I found I’d underestimated the spaces
between lines: words overlapped
as if on a palimpsest, ballpoint arabesques
interwove like fingers in hair.
Flashes, but not of insight,
I appeared to have written.
Ark of the Covenant — talking drums —
dyslexia of dark & light.

I am a cipher to myself. At least
the storm passed.

Into a Rightness

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Another poem from Teju Cole, in response to this.

For you shall be in league with the stones of the field
and the wild animals shall be at peace with you.
—Job 5:23

The hand emerges
from the pocket
on its own, its splodge
of low brown hills
a keloid map of how
I’d failed to heal.

Gnarled, tidal wind:
a leaf storm hassles the air.
Argumentative clouds.
This hand is strange to me.

I’d stretched it out
as makeshift landing gear,
like one reaching out
for help, or to bless,
and badged it instead
with dirt and blood,
red archipelago
from base of thumb to wrist.

The dog had stopped
and looked at me
with his mangy face,
and slowly turned away.
I left a part of myself there;
the road rehearsed itself in me.

“They can smell
your fear, you know.”
Yes, I’d thought of that.
This gift of theirs
was what I feared,
dull humanity unmoored
from the strangeness of a dog.

Cousin, I’ll go chasing trees,
wade ankle deep
in the soft coin they mint,
spend hours tailing memory,
a dog on scent,

a child in the creek
of full human being,
trampling prodigal bounty:
hand-sized leaves
—burlap, silk, damask—
weeping off the branch like sails,

blush-hued, wine-hued, gold:
healing scars that
protect the stones,
eyelids for their perfect eyes.

Let us agree to pray
for each other:
that the tidal wind
settle us into a rightness

and recreate from these faults
and fears, fitter selves,
as lean years follow fat.

© Teju Cole 2008

Download the MP3

In league with the stones

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

For thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field: and the beasts of the field shall be at peace with thee.
Job 5:23

Dear Teju,

Rocks are the roofs of a city
we barely know. On a dry ridgetop
at the end of a dry month,
I find little under them but burrows
leading deeper into the earth,
a colony of ants frantic
at the sudden inversion,
and on the talus slope, more rocks:
a puzzle that was put together wrong
8,000 years ago, but over the millenia
has settled into its own kind
of rightness. I follow a bear’s trail
through the woods, marked by black
cherry-pitted cairns of bear shit,
& note the series of overturned rocks,
flipped by an expert claw.
Only a human, uneasy at the way
our grotesque bodies no longer
quite fit into the matrix,
would ever return a flipped rock
to its bed. Birds have nests,
foxes have holes; culture
is not a thing unique to humans.
The song that makes the songbird
must be taught. Instinct borrows
always from improvisation —
the true two-step. But watch
a human child, too young
to hunger for our made world’s
humdrum El Dorados, playing
in the creek with a stick —
how she projects her dreams
into the teeming, pulsing flow,
how she punctuates
& fabricates — & tell me
this is not more wondrous
than any gold, this human

Shifting Load

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

a letter from Teju Cole

Nature: in the dream
it sounds like a thump,
a guest rapping
the floor boards from below.

Raccoon, groundhog,
milk snake in the walls,
the sound of summer
perfecting its two-step.

Country cousin,
I work a two-strand braid,
from outside in—
culture na yarn, na jolly

wey man dey take carry
burden for him head,
nature come dey help am
comot the load again.

The Soul Washer
protects another’s life.
Born the same week-day
as the Asante king,

he wears around his neck
a disc of solid gold—
the disc absorbs all evil
lofted at the king—

gold and man agree
to carry such a load.
Nature thumps again—
let me out or let me in,

the sound of summer
perfecting its two-step—
raccoon, groundhog,
milk snake in the walls.

Download the MP3

© Teju Cole 2008


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Dear Dana,

Three days of hurricane-remnant weather —
a tropical depression — have brought varying
& unpredictable amounts of rain. Today
we’re in a cloud, which acts as
an acoustic blanket, letting me fantasize
that I’m living in some mountain fastness
a thousand miles from the nearest factory
or highway instead of just two.
The night before last, hard rains
loosened the bark on the lower limbs
of the dead elm in my yard, and I woke
to find the tree half-stripped. A pair
of nuthatches — bark-gleaning birds —
flew in & discovered the change
while I watched, spiralling rapidly
down the bare columns of wood
on their big clown feet, poking,
calling. The fog reminds me of early June,
and makes me miss the wood thrushes
& their melancholy flutes.
It occurred to me that memory
provides its own layer of vibrato,
whether or not the original tone
still sounds. But sadness wasn’t
the whole of it: the low pressure
provokes a mild elation in me,
as what was once a boiling fury
passes over these tired, old mountains
without opening its eye.

With our internet connection
rapidly degrading here, I may soon get
my wish for isolation. Which
was never of course my wish.
So I wonder if I really could live
without the highway & the railroad,
the quarry & the factories,
the human presence implicit
in all that noise?

Scattered notes

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Dear Dana,

Cold out this morning, but
one cricket still managed
a sclerotic chirp. I watched
parallel furrows form
in the clouds to the east,
five lines. A large flock
of grackles flew across them,
accompanied by the usual
scattered notes. If I’d snapped
a photo at that precise moment,
there might’ve been a score
someone could play.
Instead, I sat thinking
how I’d like my own notes
to be so lightly anchored
to the page: an antidote
for all the heaviness
our tribe of meaning-makers
has inflicted on the world.
I am lodged in this body
not like a businessman
in some motel but like
a meteorite at the center
of a target its own impact created,
glowing for a short time
with the heat of its entry.
The truth isn’t out there
between the stars. The cricket
kept chirping in the herb bed,
and beyond, the wild rose
almost leafless now as the color
deepens in its shrinking
wrinkled capsules,
which are said to heal.

UPDATE: We’ve decided to broaden this conversation and invite others to join in, because why not? It’s a world-wide web. See Dana’s response to me, and Lirone’s response to Dana.

Red letters

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

chicken mushroom 2

Dear Dana,

I climbed the ridge to look for a poem
& came back with supper instead:
five pounds of chicken mushroom,
freshly sprouted from the end of a log
& dripping with moisture.

A couple of rove beetles scrambled
in & out of fissures as I began
breaking off hand-sized fans
& nestling the boneless yellow flesh
in a shopping bag. In this supermarket,

the shelves themselves are edible.
Red letters on the bag said
Have a Nice Day

Looking in at the bright crop, I felt as if
I’d raided the crayoned worlds of first graders
& lifted the sun from the top left
corner of every drawing.
I left a little behind for the beetles.

The beginning of a planned correspondence in poems with Dana Guthrie Martin, my co-conspirator in the new Postal Poetry venture. If it goes O.K., we may branch out and correspond with other online poets this way, too. And we hope to inspire imitators. Weblogs seem like an ideal medium for this kind of exchange.