10-13-2016

Austin Smith

Autumn's Velocity

A spherical acre of the lower night is lit 
and they drive in in droves, their faces sea-
green with radio, to watch the last rage 
and violence of adolescence burn itself out
in the bodies of boys who, years from now,
having become their fathers, will come 
watch their sons do the same, and on and on 
like this forever. They shook upon this night 
and town years before and descend upon it now, 
driving down Main Street slow in the long 
shadow of a defeat suffered decades ago, 
remembering a late hit or somebody's spit.
Now they're meeting on this field in the bodies 
of their sons to finally settle it. The sonless ones 
either stay home listening on battered radios 
or remain in the bleacher shadows, picking 
a number for a son, rooting him on as if it is 
their blood that purls in his body. But first 
the band: some of them will never touch
their instruments again, but a few have begun
to become obsessed. They march in
militarily, the music angular, incantatory, 
the drums booming like distant cannon, 
the music the music of a field more ancient 
and ragged than this one. The loudspeaker 
speaks and the voice of the local mechanic 
reaches into the oak grove where boys who don't
care who wins smoke. Beyond the egg of light 
in which a violence is incubating and beyond 
even the smoking boys is darkness, tools 
of harvest left in fields taken two months before, 
legendarily huge and elusive deer, and something 
unnamable. Above the packed bleachers hovers
a firmament of breath and steam from hot chocolate.
Silver flasks are pulled from pockets and passed 
around tight pockets of men, the history teacher 
muttering, "For God's sake this is a school," 
but where there is violence there will be whiskey 
and they take the shots hard like soldiers 
about to have a limb sawn off. Indeed, watching 
their sons play is like watching some part 
of themselves breaking off and becoming winged. 
Across the way even the visitor stands are full. 
The other town is dead tonight: almost no
one walks down the dark and leaf-strewn streets. 
The visiting team emerges first, their cleats 
clicking on the asphalt like the hooves of a cavalry.
Their helmets glaring, they're savage looking 
in their foreignness, though they're just boys 
from the next town north trotting around a field. 
Programs flutter out and the air becomes ordered
into names and numbers. This will be the last 
autumn the senior's last name will find itself 
in the strange mouths of another town,
his last chance to be interviewed for the paper,
to get free breakfast at the cafe for the hit 
or catch he will or won't make tonight. Soon 
he'll be one of the watchers too, clinging to 
the chain link fence; older, he will stand 
in the bleacher shadows, picking a kid
about his size and speed to breathe through. 
Some are aware that soon all all this will be will be 
a memory, especially those whose fathers drove 
them hardest: for these, each second rings 
with the knowledge they are nearing the end. 
There are those who, no matter how good 
they are, cannot wait for this last game to be over, 
who would, if they could, be one of the boys 
smoking in the oaks (who, hearing something 
in the corn, have turned their backs to the game). 
But now the home team appears, the crowd 
stands as one and roars and it is clear it is time: 
the game must be played. What took them 
so long was the prayer, the boys kneeling 
as if receiving absolution, and in a way they were, 
though what sins they were being absolved of 
it is difficult to say. Maybe it was the sin of being 
sons at all. Tonight they have been asked to be 
great for the sake of their fathers. If the bleachers 
were empty they would play with the giddiness 
of schoolboys. Instead, because their fathers are 
watching, they approach the field solemnly, 
despite the fact they're sprinting now. Deep 
in their facemasks their faces are pale, 
as if it's perfectly possible they could die.

 

The Silo

In the country there was nothing
to do some days but make ourselves 
scared and nothing haunted us like the silo.

It was of gray concrete and girded round 
with rusted cables, several of which had snapped,
hanging down like severed vines. For years

the silo had stood there swinging its shadow
round and round itself like a flail. In summer
grass blades silvered in its shade

and in winter we shivered in its shadow,
baling our white breath out of the holds
of our lungs. Some nights I'd rise and go

to the window to see it eclipsing stars:
I thought they were being stored in there,
bright as the eyes of captives. Some nights

I watched the moon himself rising right up
out of it and it was like catching your uncle
leaving a dark house and not knowing

what business he had there. We had to be 
in a certain mood to even approach the silo,
much less climb the rebar rungs that clung

to its side, enclosed in a trachea of aluminum. 
Those were rare days we brothers 
took turns climbing to the top to see

grain our grandfather had harvested,
black and numerous now as teeth 
in a mass grave. ... But the real

reason we climbed the silo was to see it.
What it was was a great hook that hung 
ten feet above the rotten grain like the mechane

that lifted a blood-stained wax effigy 
of Caesar over the heads of the mourners 
while Mark Antony spoke, spinning

the body around so the crowd could see
his twenty-three wounds and believe him
dead. One day one fall our father

decided to have the silo taken down
and all that grain finally fell to earth.
But for years the grass there struggled

to grow, the first to frost and the last 
to thaw. The wind seemed to glance 
off an invisible pillar the birds

circled around. And one morning 
after a night of rain (the only thing 
that would go in there), I found tracks

where deer had stepped gingerly 
around that blighted ring like children 
who know not to walk on graves.

 

The Night My Mother

found the lump under her breast
we tried to take our usual walk
up through the fields
but even the clover blossoms
transfiguring into white
butterflies angered me
she went to bed when it was still
light tired from worry
and my father and I we
sat on the porch drinking beer
in silence until a car started
gunning it up and down Winneshiek
I could tell by the way the bottle
popped off his lips my father
was getting ready to blow
my mother lying above us
in the white glow of bedrooms
at dusk feeling her breast
and this guy flooring it
up and over Colberg's hill
my father bolted for the truck
so fast I had to run to hop in it
before he took off bucking
down that gravel lane
we always drove so carefully
we chased this guy all the hell
over Stephenson County
the back of his head brutish
and cruel as other lives
can seem but couldn't quite
catch him and when he hit
the highway I was glad
for him because I'm certain
my father would've killed him
when we got home my mother
was standing on the porch
in her white nightgown
wondering where in the world
we'd been it turned out
the lump was only a deposit
of calcium something harmless
her body had made we laugh
about it now but never once
have we mentioned how
we disappeared for an hour
to chase a man whose face
we never saw while she lay alone
in bed like a young woman
moved hugely by a novel

-from Almanac

BIO: Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He received a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an MA from the University of California-Davis, and an MFA from the University of Virginia. Most recently he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University, where he is currently a Jones Lecturer. He has published four poetry collections: In the Silence of the Migrated Birds; Wheat and Distance; Instructions for How to Put an Old Horse Down; and Almanac, which was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. Austin's poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Yale Review, Sewanee Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Poetry East, ZYZZYVA, Pleiades, Virginia Quarterly Review, Asheville Poetry Review, and Cortland Review, amongst others. His stories have appeared or will appear in Harper's, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review, EPOCH, Sewanee Review, Threepenny Review, Fiction and Narrative Magazine. He was the recipient of the 2015 Narrative Prize for his short story, "The Halverson Brothers". He is currently a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University, and lives in San Francisco.