Umbrian Odes

In memory of Joseph Brodsky

I.

Stacked stone holds its cutout against the
blue.
Old window arches are bricked, having
been first covered with concrete
and that slagged off. Swallows loop
from cracks to air and back, and pigeons
perched like gargoyles gently into sleepy,
perishable sentries. What is looked at
persists
as the seen, in archaic recirculation.

Was this the old structure of the world —
to rise skyward on the sturdy back of
matter?
Or was the ambition less, the organized
rubble only keeping pace with bodies?
As it happens, we are sitting by a pool
discussing cloth’s impersonations of flesh.

While I like the indolence of silk, you
like the thing itself, even when it is

the shirt stuffed, a movement container.
The bald, smoking father orders
his cowed girls around the water. Enough
of the centurion survives his linteled brow
and granite nose to explain more
than towers, but he seems out of place,
subdued by his offspring’s gaucherie,
as if the facial bearing were indifference’s

rebuttal. A boatload of Darwins
could not console him for the arrival
of the rich couple and their aquiline,
disheveled children whose nearly
rotted innocence alerts the pornographer’s
instrument. He knows that they are closer
to stone than he and quick to assume
the castelli for their backdrop needs.

You hint that silk is a good thing because
it forces one to admit that violence
begets taste, if only that to pose words
in the manner of our sentience is to have
left capriciously on a long journey.
Like lying on our deathbeds, I add.
At which point, the pool takes, like
Narcissus, heaven’s emptiness for itself.

II.

In sunlight, the landscape reverses Corot:
the front field of vision bright,
a hillside of attentive sunflowers, followed
by some darker stand of greenówhat life
summer puts in the way of life: ennui
of leaf-weight! An unstruggling tangle of
grass
promises the skink to go with the hare.
Summer cancels and dispenses indifferently,
as the artist knew, who framed golden
clearings
from the nearer embrace of indistinct

branches sedged with bitten leaves
and spotted fruit, Romantic props for a time
when selves let nature interrogate their
obscurity, wondering when the ball of gnats
would land or whether two sizes of viper supported the theory that lower phyla
traveled en famille. Impossible, then, to
turn
the sunflowers away from an allegory
of sunflowers, to resist thinking that
such doughty sunlit belonged to the past

and that things tightened up a bit once
the creek marked the sloping field’s edge.
Perhaps the old fields were always in the
business
of leading the eye to the edge of the page,
after the sleep of the fantastic flowersó
that felt you were watching them
through the page’s tiny bars, and the change
that came over your face was like
the cloud that drifted behind your blown
hair
and set by the roof of the old toolshed.

III.

Plow and harvest over the dead
and summer sunlight falling straight.
This, and the yolk compete with the fields
of sunflowers standing precisely at salute
until their fingers curl, but not the
yellow.
The hog’s destiny resembles the poem’s,
in its way superior to the empty churches
watched over by the local police.

Fruits swell faster than a cloud.
Better to let them spot and fall, food
for wasps and inchworms making an alphabet
through their alimentary canals. Like
paratroopers
peas straphang the whole length of July,
and when wheat exits via the dirt road
beside the beheaded grass, an owl is in
no better position than the useless twig

a canopy covered for. Gnawed by beetles,
sooted by harvest’s systematic monsters,
a broadleaf sallies forth into Diesel air:
everywhere the same leaf claims its solar
privilege upon mountainous racks of the
dead,
so sturdily inanimate that no question
can ever break through to the obtuse skulls
of the unfallen animals. But a farmer

sits in his cab as the truck pulls round
with its gaping hopper. Trailed by swallows
and a floating wake of dust, he pauses
to wipe the rearview mirror, his hand
extending to the window of the beast,
returning to cradle his own jaw that houses
his toothache, while his colleagues look on
and finish the lunch, that turns into
siesta.

IV.

Trees and hedgerows, like an ink trail,
rewrite the hills into that realistic novel,
Joseph, you wondered the last century had
missed.
Of the three segments of the vodka bottle,
the first,
alone, seems incapable of bestowing poetry.
Three
balls of gnats juggle for the favor of an
apricot tree.
The local group, a few feet before my face,
give both force and nuance to the evening
breeze.
Doves start up behind me, intoning
the bare syllable of their stony comfort.

A blue bus negotiates the road to town,
in which the cappuccino keeps dendrites
from drooping into winter kudzu.
Neither is the white care put off by geology.
The spiral up holds no improvement, save
the way down, etc. Consistency beats out
surprise
in land, as in cuisine, eliminating any
shadow
that would streak the yolk. Say what you
will,
the mind pulls back from the brink in time
to switch either Tyson or Titian for Lucy.

Every day the Duomo tower indicates nothing
but diversifying clouds pulling back to
reveal
a sky depopulated of everything save more
clouds
and the occasional raptor touring emptiness
like Satan savoring the chaos. The wasp
felt
a reassurance, that bare thermal pillar,
though once the grub’s aspirations ranged
across
the sexy fuzz of a peach. Epic vacillations
require hexameters designed to scythe
any shape that comes down the pike.

As for us, our best lines lie in canceled
stanzas,
no doubt, homogenized by a silence as thick
as ennui. Let the thought, like a grub,
climb out
the tops of our peach fuzz, for otherwise,
how keep past vividness from sinking to a
level
that lets mediocrities step forward as
maestros?
Existence merely arrived, Parnassian, but
not
Parnassus. Still, a few molecules peeled
from
the aqueduct, and pretty soon the whole
Empire
faded before the more ancient snow of a
television.

V.

When I turn, you are gone,
and it doesn’t matter if I specify
that the number of chairs, or simply
imply a renewed brightness around
the edge of the pool. No one observes
the mirror held to heaven. The sun
is having to work today, clouds
like gesso refigure portions of sky.

Soon the whole. Meanwhile, I have
identified the dry sound, something
between a chitter and a buzz, by which
grasses hold forth when light eases.
A grasshopper, like a sprinter in his
blocks,
kicks one hind leg into motion,
is answered by another enthusiast
not bound by sight, elsewhere in the yard.

In the distance, elemental thunder
expounds its critique against the eye’s
regime, the regime of Piero and Cimabue,
who understood that the spectacle
of the hanged man secured meaning,
which is to say, proportion and difference,
crossing the retinal threshold to take
up residence in the soft place of matter.

Now, amphibian belchings intersect
but don’t combine with birds’ litanies.
My daily interventions inchworm across
the paper’s flatland on their way to you:
but how oblique still, to the daisy’s
silent,
unmediated thrust that takes it a little bit
toward the sun, after having shouldered
its stuff above the paving stones.

Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) lived in Brooklyn in the early 1990s.

Contributor

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of the forthcoming The Dissolving Island, a book of poems (BkMk Press), and coeditor of the forthcoming Invited Guest: An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry (Virginia).

ADVERTISEMENTS