North Carolina Poet of the Week
Each week this site features a North Carolina poet, complete with introduction, photo, biography, and, most important, the poetry. You’ll be able to discover some new poets as well as become reacquainted with some of our better-known ones. I hope this feature brings both pleasure and illumination. And I hope it makes each Monday of each new week a little easier to face! Enjoy!
–Kathryn Stripling Byer
Poet of the Week September 6 - 11, 2005: Lavonne Adams
Lavonne Adams was one of the first graduates of our department's MFA in Creative Writing program. She studied with one of our first Distinguished Visiting Writers, Philip Levine, who selected Lavonne as the one student from his workshop to give a public reading of her work. After I introduced Mr. Levine as the recipient of many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, he introduced Lavonne Adams by saying he was prouder of his students than of his prizes. What he found so refreshing about Lavonne's poetry was that she did not write about herself; instead she could project herself into other people, a talent that reflects the fact she is also an excellent writer of fiction and nonfiction.
photo by Kathy Rugoff
In her recent poetry, Lavonne has enlarged this talent by writing collections of poems based on historical research, such as these poems about the women who traversed the Santa Fe Trail. Combining archival research with visits to the Southwest, she writes dramatic monologues that have a wonderful violence and variety. Although she loves Latinate diction, her historical research inspires her to resuscitate such terms as "barouche," "pemmican," and "kinnikinnik." Ezra Pound, conjuring up the scene where Odysseus sheds the blood of sheep so that the dead may drink and speak, said the poet's duty was to give voice to the past and "tell the tale of the tribe." Lavonne's poetry does just that and, following Pound's corollary injunction, "makes it new."—Philip Furia
Philip Furia is chair of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He has a special interest in the lyricists of American popular songs of the first half of the twentieth century and has written four books on the subject—most recently, Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2003).
Of the following poems, Lavonne Adams writes:
In the summer of 2003, when visiting Santa Fe for the first time, I stumbled across a plaque that commemorated the end of the Santa Fe Trail. I knew nothing about the trail, had never been much of a history buff as far as the old west was concerned. Still, for months I kept seeing that plaque in my mind every time I sat down to write. I finally gave in to my own subconscious and visited Kenan Library, here at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where I stumbled across a book that contained journal excerpts of those who had traveled the trail in the mid-1800s. I found the female voices particularly compelling. That discovery led to months of additional research, culminating in a UNC-W Summer Research Initiative Grant, which enabled me to return to Santa Fe and drive along what was once the trail. These poems are part of the collection I have been working on, titled Through the Glorieta Pass, which focuses on these women, as well as the Native American and Hispanic women who already occupied the territory.
Yellow-Haired Woman, Cheyenne
Look at these arms. They throw spears,
wield knives, shoot bows. Why should I
be bound to camp waiting for the warriors'
return, to be satisfied with waving scalps
from the end of poles around the fire.
Is it enough to pray to the Great Spirit
for my husband the first four mornings
he is gone—each time I pull a pot of meat from the fire—
as if these muttered words could make him invisible
to enemy eyes? You have heard the stories of
what I have done. When the Shoshonis snuck
like coyotes into our camp, thinking we were weak,
I ran my knife between many ribs. How is killing
an enemy different from gutting a buffalo?
When we found their final warrior cowering
in the cleft of nearby rocks, it was not I
who wanted to question him—my only
question came from my knife as it sliced
beneath his arm, as I carved away his scalp.
Let me tell you a secret. In the society of women
who fight beside men, we have our own
red-stone pipe carved like a magpie's beak.
The bowl is female, the stem is male—
there is power only when they are joined.
Like the men, we fill the pipe with kinnikinnik,
light it with a buffalo chip, then pass it
from hand to hand, each of us lifting the pipe
toward the sky, the earth, the four sacred directions.
We understand truth, we know the strength of ceremony.
We are not women who will mourn for those lost in battle
by gashing our foreheads, by wandering the bush alone.
Instead we plan war parties, pound the pemmican and
sew sturdy moccasins, ride behind our warriors,
our war cries rising until they're clutched in
the Great Bird's claws, returned to the Earth as thunder.
Ernestine Huning, 1863
I traveled under a lucky star, expected much
worse than buffalo carcasses like trail markers,
than the five wagons abandoned like cast-off shoes
after an Indian raid. Near Casa Depollo spring,
I gathered wild gooseberries—clusters
of pearls guarded by thorns long as needles.
Each day we made a feast of eggs and biscuits,
of ham and beans seasoned by our hunger.
On the Oregon Trail, I have heard travel is worse:
exhausted men fall asleep, roll off their wagon's tongue,
are crushed beneath the wheels. Each family
packs a shroud and, for a coffin, clean boards.
Axels break, wheels shatter—to lighten the load,
what isn't needed is cast aside: clothing lying
in the dirt like orphans. With me,
a table and chairs, canned truffles
and a brass cage shaped like a corset
that holds ten canaries I refused to leave behind,
each a flurry of gold I can hold in my hand.
"It is a queer feeling to experience
a storm out on the open prairie."
(Journal, May 7)
Near dusk, a storm swept across the prairie.
The clouds were cliffs casting shadows
like dark continents. I felt each clap of thunder
in my heels, as if I were perched
on the skin of a drum. The sky seemed
heavier than land: I couldn't imagine that
anything could keep them apart, or
that there would still be air for me to breath.
Everything I valued seemed insignificant:
my china plates, my husband's eyes,
my own throbbing body.
Lightning cast the sky asunder
like the words of an angry prophet.
On the way to Santa Fe, our cook stared
at the lines in my palm, fingered each
rise and drift in my skull, told me my fortune.
She promised a large house full
of furniture polished smooth as a lake,
a porch wide enough for a dozen children,
a sky so blue it would make my eyes ache.
Yet how could she not hear the future
echo of my brother's screams?
How could she not see where an Indian's knife
would carve away my mother's breasts,
how feathers from her bed would stick
to each wound, how the hair of her scalp
would swing from a belt like the pelt
of some animal? Or my husband
as he galloped away, the taste of fear
like blood pooling in his mouth?
His first letter said only that
they had been attacked, that brother Fritz
was wounded. My mother, he added,
had been weakening on the trail—
her heart. He feared she wouldn't make it
through the day. The next letter said
she had calmly passed away,
and that my brother had followed,
an infection from the wound curdling
his blood. But the truth is
like cream that churns to the top.
I have learned that the Cheyennes
were on the warpath, that an entire village
of teepees had been burned. Still,
it was not my husband's fault
that they couldn't find a larger train to join,
or that my mother would be so pleased
by the field of sunflowers that unrolled like a quilt
before them—the barouche could travel
faster than the other five wagons,
so they ended up far ahead.
It was certainly not his fault
that at the time, the soldiers from Ft. Zarrah
were escorting their wenches on an excursion
of twelve miles to pick wild plums.
Certainly, it was not his fault
that he rode the only mule. Later,
he confessed that he turned back
toward the fort, raced seven miles
for help. While my husband has a temper,
he carries guns that never seem
to shoot. Instinct made him
dig his heels into the mule's side when
the Indians war-whooped toward him.
Some would say this was common sense.
Some would say I shouldn't feel shame
when meeting his eyes.
V. La Glorieta, Albuquerque
The Spanish women always dress
in black, one year's mourning
for a loved one lapping a year's
mourning for the next. I find my comfort
in a house scrubbed clean,
in a front walk bordered by lilacs.
Life will always be a balance between
what happens and
what could have happened.
Every day at four, I serve
the servants wine and cake.
When I ring the bell
that calls them in, the mass
of blackbirds smothering the cottonwood
rises, circles like a cyclone,
then settles back on the branches,
squawking like a harsh mistress.
Lavonne J. Adams is the recipient of the 2004 Randall Jarrell/Harperprints Chapbook Award for In the Shadow of the Mountain, the 1999 Persephone Poetry Award for Everyday Still Life, and read as an emerging artist at Vanderbilt University's "Millennial Gathering of the Writers of the New South." Her poems appear in numerous literary journals, most recently The Cimarron Review, The Comstock Review, and The MacGuffin. She teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. All the poems are presented here with permission of the author, who holds the copyright.
September 12 - 18, 2005: Mark Cox
photo by Karin Cox
Mark Cox was once an industrial painter on projects such as the bridges over the Mississippi into St. Louis. His poems explore essential connections—one's relationship to poetic tradition, the reader, the natural world, other lives, language itself. He renews strategies that have served poets across centuries and international borders: voice, rhythm, image, dream, vision, myth, metaphor, shrewd architectonics whether "free" or not, a willingness to bring the reader decisively into the transaction.
The poems generate dense, shifting constellations of metaphor, and Cox's voice carries a dreamlike, almost otherworldly power. Yet he often stays close to daily existence, mines it, giving especially clairvoyant attention to the difficult, beautiful life of families. He essays a huge terrain of subject and feeling, from layered fury to astringent violence to lamentation, from guarded hopefulness to quiet, intensely stirring affirmation. A lesser poet might see all this fly apart. Cox establishes supple coherence through richly consistent artistic command and scrupulous honesty of vision and voice. Tony Hoagland has said Mark Cox is "a veteran of the deep water; there's no one like him," and Thomas Lux has identified him as "one of the finest poets of his generation." No one speaks more effectively of the vital and enduring syntaxes of common, even communal, life.—Richard Simpson
Richard Simpson is a contributing editor of Tar River Poetry and NEO. His poems and reviews have also appeared in Shenandoah, Passages North, and The Laurel Review. He teaches literature and writing at St. Bonaventure University.
Pail of Eggs
The land is only ground now.
No footpaths, no ruins, not even
a slab where the root cellar stood.
Still, there is the slap of a screen door
when my son exits the car,
the squeal of a well pump
when my youngest wants juice,
and there I am in the sprouting field corn,
back brown as mud, crew cut blonde
as the hens' eggs I've never put down.
The adults are still patient,
awaiting breakfast in their graves,
the bacon still diminishing
in the blackened pan.
No one knows where I am.
Half-grown, tousled candle of a boy,
I have walked to where the vulture landed,
to his runway of symmetrical rows
where the fox, lame with poison,
swallowed her last breath.
Face up. Eyes widened and clear.
Wherever I go from here,
I will not go hungry.
Why hide where we can see you?
Because you could not find me
Why turn from fires to the outer dark?
Because the moth among sparks becomes a spark
How long can a flower be held and still be a flower?
There is no end to the ground of your hand
If the hand opens, where will the fist fall?
The fist is always a fist and grows again on your arm
How can the tree in granite flourish?
Because its root is memory. And because one brakeman stopped to give it water
How can we go on this way?
There is not enough room in the world to turn your life around
Kiefer, sweet boy, too far from me now,
the bobber dips so rarely in this life,
it's our job to be watching when it does.
Remember how brilliant and terrified
the little trout seemed, held up on your hook?
The gasp of joy it gave you?
Stop hiding, for a moment, whatever you've collected
in my shoe or your pillow case,
stop and listen this once.
That stone, greened with moss,
too big to be carried home,
is called a mountain.
You can sleep with the world for a while,
but then you have to put it back.
Mark Cox teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His honors include a Whiting Writers' Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Oklahoma Book Award, The Society of Midland Authors Poetry Prize, and a Burlington-Northern Faculty Achievement Award. He served as the 24th Poet-in-Residence at The Frost Place, and has received fellowships from the Kansas Arts Commission, the Vermont Council on the Arts, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. The poems presented here are drawn from Mr. Cox's most recent collection, Natural Causes: Poems, copyright Mark Cox 2004. All rights are controlled by the publisher—the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15261—and used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Mr. Cox's previous books are Barbells of the Gods, Smoulder, and Thirty-Seven Years from the Stone, also published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. He lives in Wilmington with his wife, Karin, and their three children.
September 19 – 25, 2005: Barbara Presnell
What a pleasure it is to write a few words about my friend and fellow poet, Barbara Presnell. And to say something about her latest poetry project—a full-length manuscript of poems written about a textile plant, the people who work there, and the ways they are affected by the mill's closing. These poems are full of heart, humor, and that honest and beautiful blend of words and lines that makes Barbara Presnell's narrative poems so alive and so believable. These finely crafted poems introduce the reader to many people living through workdays and home life. One of these authentic and compelling characters is Velma, the shrink-wrap lady. That's her job and she does it with a vengeance! Velma comes right off the page from the very first line and takes the reader for a marvelous ride. She is gritty and she is so real I'm pulling for her all the way.
Barbara has developed this collection of poems over the past few years and in doing so, she won the 2004 Linda Flowers Prize from the North Carolina Humanities Council. NCHC published more than 30,000 copies of a 10-page broadside consisting of some of these textile poems, titled Sherry's Prayer, and distributed them to schools and libraries all over the state. In past years, Barbara has also published three books of poetry. She has won the Brockman-Campbell Book Award and the Oscar Arnold Young Book Award for two of these collections. Much of her work has been included in many fine journals and magazines.
I can't imagine any reader or listener who wouldn't learn from Barbara Presnell's strong poems, and also be moved by them as I have. I am fortunate to be in a poetry-sharing workshop with Barbara and have benefited over the years from her depth of understanding and keen eye. And I'm always in awe of her way with words as she examines with great care and compassion the universal questions of the human heart. —Diana Pinckney
Diana Pinckney is the author of Alchemy, White Linen, and Fishing with Tall Women, which won the Persephone Press Book Award and South Carolina's Kinloch Rivers Memorial Chapbook Contest. Her poetry and prose has appeared in Cream City Review, Tar River Poetry, The Comstock Review, Gulf Stream, The Deep South Writers Chapbook, and in the anthologies Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, Earth and Soul: An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry, Trapping Time Between the Branches: An Anthology of Charlotte Poets, and Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from across the Carolinas. Two of her poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A native of South Carolina, she lives in Charlotte and teaches poetry writing in the Continuing Education Department at Queens University.
When I first began studying the T-shirt manufacturing company where my father worked, the plant was vibrant and productive. I was drawn to the dedication and skill of the employees—some of whom had worked there 35 years or more. I also saw in many faces the hardship they'd endured, both in the plant and in their lives. I knew I wanted to recreate authentic voices of real people, like the ones I grew up with and the ones I still know who have spent their lives in textiles and furniture and other production industries across the state. So I gave names and machines to invented characters and asked them to tell their stories.
Then without warning, the corporate office of the plant I was studying announced its closing. Just as suddenly, my fictional workers faced a new, uncertain future. I went back to them, one by one, to ask how they planned to cope.
These two poems are Velma's stories, before the closing and after. The shrink-wrapping machine she works is the last operation in the plant before cut-fabric pieces are shipped to Mexico, where they are assembled into T-shirts.
Velma in Packaging
If I could shrink-wrap misery
I'd put in all twelve years with Roy,
his bottles, lost paychecks, excuses,
and that sorry boy turned out to be
just like him. Pile the whole wad
on this belt and run ‘em through
like a pack a torsos, toss ‘em on the truck
to Jamaica or Mexico, wherever they're headed,
long as it's outta my life.
Don't do nothing all day but wait
for the loader to haul another batch
from the cutter, drop it down on my table,
hit that green button. Biggest thrill of all
is slapping that sticker on the poly-wrap
says what's in it—Boys' M arm, Men's L torso.
Now and then I think I might
mix it up, for spite, let ‘em sew a S to a XL,
something to ruin a whole order, but I ain't done it yet.
Two hundred thousand dozen t-shirts
they say this plant puts out a week.
I shrink-wrap every piece a cloth that's made.
Boredom makes me crazy all the time so
I think, if I could I'd shrink-wrap my whole life,
every summer I threw away on Daddy's tobacco.
Not full growed at 15 and stooped
like a old woman, yellow hands tough
as pig's hide. No wonder Roy's
the best I could do. I'd shrink-wrap Mama,
her hateful ways, every afternoon of her fits.
I'd shrink-wrap school, that rat-haired Miz Rauch
with her yardstick whip. Beauty college,
last fool chance for a goat like me.
I'd shrink-wrap this mill and ship it
off to Satan. Hell, I'd shrink-wrap
this shrink-wrap machine. Only thing
ain't misery is that three o'clock whistle.
Velma Wraps It Up
Why not? I ask myself.
It's not like I owed them beans,
eighteen year behind that machine,
then "We don't need you no more,"
like any monkey could turn
that switch on and off.
Maybe they do put my name on the board
at my birthday each year. Maybe they
give me a ten-year pin, fifteen-year pin.
I'll tell you, though, a pin stirred up with apples
in a pie'll get caught in your throat
every time. Now they give me a "package."
What the hell I need a package for?
Like I need toenail fungus is what I tell them.
I didn't let on to nobody, not even that gal
I take over at seven, not even the third shifter.
Soon's I get here, though, once I "Hey" everybody
just like any other day, I start switching my piles.
Keep my head down, working steady,
shifting Boys S to Mens XL. Mens S to Boys M.
Boys L Mens M. XL's to S's. M's to L's.
No rhyme or reason. Sometimes I split stacks,
half of both in one. You couldn't tell it
from the packaging. Slapping them labels on,
everything wrong from the first batch
run through at 7:03 to the very last one at 2:58.
I'm leaving the building, you know.
Everybody's like, "We're gonna miss you, Velma."
I play along. Best day in all my eighteen,
but I don't say it. Don't need no "package"
from them or nobody. Got my bonus
everytime I picture them monkeys
sitting behind their machines, stitching
them t-shirts all bass-ackwards,
compliments a Velma.
In addition to Sherry's Prayer, winner of the 2004 Linda Flowers Prize from the North Carolina Humanities Council, Barbara Presnell (www.barbarapresnell.com) has published three poetry collections: Snake Dreams, which won the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Award; Unravelings, which won the Oscar Arnold Young Award; and Los Hijos, set in Galeana, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. She holds an MFA degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and a master's degree in literature from the University of Kentucky and has been awarded writing fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the Kentucky Arts Council. Her poetry is included in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia; Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry; Claiming the Spirit Within: A Sourcebook of Women's Poetry; and Earth and Soul: An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Southern Review, Poet Lore, The Malahat Review, Cimarron Review, and The North Carolina Literary Review. "Velma in Packaging" first appeared in the Winter, 2005, issue of Calyx. Both this poem and "Velma Wraps It Up" appear here with permission of Ms. Presnell, who holds the copyright. She lives in Lexington with her husband, the journalist Bill Keesler, and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte
September 26 – October 2, 2005: Gibbons Ruark
The one image I retain most vividly of Gibbons Ruark from my early student days in the MFA program at UNC-G is Gib walking slowly toward the English Department building with his young daughter several paces behind, in her coat, leggings, and woolen cap. It was winter and the morning was cold. He would now and then stop and glance back, as if encouraging her, but he didn't hurry her along. He was a patient father. That was obvious, and we students, who often indulged in hero-worship when it came to our teachers, felt a special affection for Gib, his daughter, and his wife, Kay. What I didn't know then was that the loving patience he showed that day also described him as a poet. Gib's poetry has blossomed at its own pace over the years, written with care, craft, and a rare integrity. I have used his poems as models, and I have used Gib's life as poet as a model, too—his certainty that the roles of poet, father, husband, and son enrich one another. A native North Carolinian, he has moved to Raleigh after retiring from the University of Delaware. He is one of our country's finest poets. Those of us who know his work have cherished it through many readings and re-readings. Now North Carolina has him back again. Welcome home, Gib! —Kathryn Stripling Byer
photo by Robert Cohen
Some things happened every year, no matter what:
The air cooled down a little after a storm,
The fireflies rose and fell in total silence,
Unlike those mournful gnats along the river
In that poem the lovelorn teacher read us
We were every one too young to understand.
The berries fell from the chinaberry tree
And left the back yard slithery underfoot.
But this was the year of Mama's polio,
The summer when the epidemic kept us
On the block, then under the trees, and then,
When she came down with it and went away,
Behind the head-high railings of the balustrade.
Next door was the church, high sunlight angling
Through the steeple's stained glass, unfolding then
Like a flickering board game on the floor.
I stood on the steps and hollered "Polio!"
Then came the parade of openhearted aunts,
Spelling each other, stern and sweet by turns,
One not caring if we saw her naked,
Since we were only children, after all.
Beautiful and young, an Army nurse in the war,
Milk-pale except for the dark touch here and there,
Did I dream she made us buttered toast and eggs
Before remembering to put her clothes on?
She died in childbirth, fifty years ago,
And I have wondered at her all my days.
When Mama came home, there was the wheelchair,
Strange, like a marvelous oversized toy,
And then the crutches and the metal braces.
Crutches I knew, big boys with football injuries,
But the braces were hinged and ominous,
Not Mama's legs, not anything like them.
Only late at night could you not hear her coming.
Then she lay down and they were taken off
And stood till first light in a bedroom corner
Like parts of a skeleton, and she slept
As we all did, swimmers floating in a salt pond.
In those hours nobody needed to walk,
Unless you had to pee or the house caught fire.
Let us acknowledge first our ignorance,
The sweet impossibility of knowing
What it was like. All of us, it is true,
Have been under water, but we were diving
Then for pleasure, and the water's surface
Was a skin of bubbles we could break for air.
Hardly one of us has sucked on airless space.
We have known fire, but very few have felt
The acid fog of smoke invade our sleep,
Ballooning the lungs of a dream until
We wake and smash the glass out of a window
And leap below to watch the rafters fall.
We have known hot light, but even the sun
On the blistering desert sets, and we
Fall asleep, if not under trees, in welcome
Oases of darkness. Knowing such fears,
We know nothing. We see from where we are
The blackened cockpit, the intricate thatch
Of wires, the tangled mess of tubes like entrails
Of the living. Our televisions catch
The bugle's thinning echoes at West Point,
The shadow of the lame formation booming
Over Arlington, and we are ignorant.
Feeling the abstract grief that swells our hearts
With blood like directionless water, we must
Imagine the usual fiery vision:
Virgil Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Edward White,
Breathing their deaths in that unquenchable light.
Newbliss Remembered in Newquay
The bar beyond the field is closed for ruination.
No time ago at all, as the neighbors clock it,
We could stand together at the sunroom window
And watch the publican's helpmeet snipping spinach
In our white-walled garden. It was understood.
They'd put it in the soup there'd be for dinner.
Days he didn't come, the soup would be potato.
Now I drive the night roads looking for music,
The walls of the shuttered pub and then the garden's
White walls catching my lights when I return.
Watching the new spring night on Aughinish Bay,
Nightcap in my hand at another window,
The days in Monaghan come back to me in Clare.
"I'm going into Newbliss now," I say.
"Ah," says Bernard laughing, "Nouvelle Extase,
Is it? A damned sight better you than me."
A man who lives here will get used to anything,
Even, as the story has it most days, nothing.
Nothing but the sky, the little hills and hedges.
As the poet's wife in Dublin said to me,
"Three days of that, you'll be cadging a lift
Into Cootehill to lay odds on the bacon slicer.
'He'll not get a dozen out of that one.' "
A stranger, I still find it passing strange.
Three pubs, one off-limits for the politics,
Another for the beer, so that leaves Annie
And Mick McGinn's one-room establishment,
The only bar a man need ever want.
Once a day I idle in for a pint,
Then idle back, a good three miles each way,
Whether by the low road or over the Brae.
Here's what's happening there today:
Nobody's there at first (the men are haying),
But midafternoon a fellow strolls in
And begins to take up the world with Mick.
I'm in a corner with a pint and the paper.
"Mick," says the man, "did you hear it thunder
In the night?" "No," says Mick, "I never heard it."
"Mickey Reilly heard it thunder," says the man,
Puts down his glass and seals his news with a nod
And follows his muddy gumboots out the door.
There's a clock on every wall, but they're all wrong.
I've grown accustomed to knowing it's time to leave
When the shadows start working the crossword puzzle.
It's a long walk from the big house to the village,
And just as long going back, but worth it.
Here in Newquay, twenty-odd years later,
The incoming tide says "Time" to the darkness.
The bar beyond the field is closed for ruination.
Wildflowers Left to Live on Knocknarea
After a night of rain like a waterfall,
The stony lane that winds up Knocknarea
Is a runnel of swift water winding downward.
You should wear your Wellingtons and carry a stick.
The stones are slippery and the dog at the gate
Is fierce and requires a cheerful word in passing.
The way up is steep and then steeper and turns
On itself to give you again and again
The whole blue bay where it rummages the valley.
Nearing the top, the lane is nothing but a gully
Of wildflowers where you stretch for every foothold.
When, having stopped for breath, you can lift your eyes,
That stone shape just beginning to clear the high
Horizon is a queen's grave or nothing but stones.
Just over the final ridge, you can see it whole
At last, tired out and your breath entirely vanished,
So you simply sprawl out headlong in the heather
In an attitude a stranger might take for prayer.
But you are alone on the windy mountaintop.
North of the lighthouse are Rosses Point and the cliffs
Of Donegal. South and wild are the Mayo mountains.
If only the mist would lift you could see five counties,
But the low sky returns you to the near at hand.
There, nesting in the heather, you may uncover
The delicate wild blue harebell of Knocknarea.
If I know you, you will want to look at it long
And dream you can breathe the air it breathes forever,
Which is only to dream you can hold your breath forever
And not give in to the slow intake and exhalation
That keep you moving, even if your only way
Is the watery lane back down the mountainside.
The wind swings northward and cold. The mist is lifting.
It is high time you were picking your way downward.
Look for the blossoming ditch that brought you there.
Look. There is the spring gentian, there the small wild
Your turn has come to leave them there for another.
Gibbons Ruark was born in Raleigh in 1941 and holds degrees from the Universities of North Carolina and Massachusetts. His poems have appeared widely for many years in magazines such as Ploughshares , The New Republic, The New Yorker, and Poetry, and in various anthologies and texts, including three editions of X.J. Kennedy's Introduction to Poetry. They have also won the poet frequent awards, including three poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, and the 1984 Saxifrage Prize for the best book of poems appearing in the preceding two years. Collected earlier in A Program for Survival, Reeds, Keeping Company, Small Rain, Forms of Retrieval, and Rescue the Perishing, seventy of them appear in Passing Through Customs: New and Selected Poems (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1999). Mr. Ruark taught English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for three years, and in 1968 joined the faculty of the University of Delaware. He has recently retired and returned to Raleigh, where he lives with his wife, Kay. Click here for "The Day a Poem Comes Home," an essay on the writing of the first poem presented here—"Quarantine"—which appeared in the Winter, 2001, issue of The Cortland Review. All the poems featured here—published originally in a variety of literary journals—are reproduced on this web site with permission of Mr. Ruark, who holds the copyright.