The Eye of Awe
(for Beth Rankin)
This barn is of the clouds--
the church that clouts
on the Randolph County plat
the mythic divide
between ether and plow-sole,
what writ divines
its loft, a scriptorium,
thatch of tin,
eaves of sky.
drape each eve at vespers,
lie upon the land;
the barn is of them,
In its nave bed lambs,
ewe mothers at vigil--
A wee gate of slat
and staddle-- like a staff
and clef, drooling notes--
silhouettes against the lone sash
night has lifted, the last dash
of sun, though hardly sun--
so wandering far, amnesiac,
more a moon, spectral,
the very eye of awe.
The shearer's come horse-back from Solo--
shaven head, golden beard, ear hoops.
The ewe cowers in the crib corner.
When she tries to run,
he clamps her between his chaps,
muscles her to her rump.
She sits the straw floor, prim as a sheep at tea, beneath thatch,
in a picture book, fore-hooves limp at the fetlock.
Her eyes are indigo, black-slash irises,
murky bodement of cataracts, teeth like feed corn.
Perhaps her name is Esther, Millicent: high-born,
elegant, about to remark in Shetland lilt
on the unseasonable chill, incessant mizzle jolly enough,
kettle on the hob, snug in her ancient gnarl of Appalachia.
Yet pensive, resigned to this final shearing,
she's exceeded her life span by half,
her carded dower the woolens of each baby born heir to this plait.
Clippers rev, then flash the comb and blade shears,
sweat of the shearer-- black leather singlet,
scarlet bandana, flannel trousers as he carves her,
cleaved to him, from her weir.
His work is a mercy.
She closes her eyes, rocks back in forgettery.
Fleece scrolls from her--
bound volumes, therein archived:
the milk-tooth of a bear cub, an eaglet's feather,
a bard owl's ossified heart, wedding band,
possum skull, Cherokee potsherds,
the 31st Chapter of Deuteronomy torn from King James.
Released, burnished and blinding as a chalice--Immaculata--
she barges into Holy Saturday's dripping emerald,
bundled in fog, pink the Mayapple blossoms,
then runs for the moon dangling from its nail on Agnes Ridge.
Beyond the Shipley line, from the balcony
ornamenting the front gable wings of the Horton place,
strains a mandolin, then a woman singing:
hard-hearted Barbry Allen.
To its shoulders in flood dread,
Linville Creek readies its bed.
Purple-shrouded mountains genuflect.
Requiem for the Living
When I pray for Phil on my morning run,
as I always have, and register
a small detonation in my chest
that he is gone, I call his name
loudly enough that crows lift
from the towering pines,
outdoing sorrow as they call back.
Dorothy Day believed prayers for the dead
help them while they were living on earth.
I don't understand this,
but Phil and Rose are together tonight.
Everything is ahead; and, if I'm quiet,
for just another moment,
I'll find my hand upon the secret panel
that swings open their world,
and there they'll be on the balcony
of their Polish Hill walk-up
on Beethoven Street.
It's April, a week from Easter.
Spring has decided not only to stick,
but dazzle: green and yellow,
trees and flowers, a madhouse of birds,
so warm, Phil wears his purple shirt,
the sun in Pittsburgh a miracle.
My impulse is to barge in, interrogate them.
But this is forbidden.
Absolved of the dark caprice of time,
they plan the future like monks.
Phil paints the Sycamores,
his famous triptych of enormous oils--
studies of a mythic tree in Highland Park,
that grows at the entrance of a black block tunnel.
Rose's mauve batik dries on a chair's ladder-back,
her hair the pert yellow of pears,
skin pale as frost.
Cigarette smoke swaddles
fetal angels at their heads.
The chartreuse Allegheny
rolls toward the Monongahela.
You can see it from their fire escape.
You can see the gardens
the old Italian people in Bloomfield
plant on their roofs,
then Liberty Avenue.
Joseph Bathanti, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina, is author of 17 books, and McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Education at Appalachian State University.
"Agnus Dei" from Light in the Seam, published by Louisiana State University Press. "Requiem for the Living," was published in the journal Presence. "The Eye of Awe" reprinted from Rising Meadow, from Horse and Buggy Press. All poems reprinted with the permission of the author.