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Brian Barker

Crow Gospel Coming Down From The Mountain


In the winter of 1980, when the landfill 

Was bulldozed over, the crows strutted into town 
To roost in the trees along Beaver Creek 
And spar over the trash bins on State Street.


The mountain shone a pale gray-purple,--
The color of a crushed crocus,
                                           or the dying skin of a god


Who turned his back on our town, the double-wides 
Sinking in a field of mud, the dim housing projects 
With Christmas lights twittering in windows, their chimneys 
Scrawling the sour smoke of whatever might burn.


Defeat smelled like a lumbering feathered mustiness,

Something vinegar-breathed--


It sounded like the dozens of rusty caws that swung 
Down through branches, through telephone wires 
And television antennas


The day Little Jimmy Jenkins and his ilk, white-robed, 
A few of the men playing instruments, 
Zig-zagged towards City Hall.


I saw it from the second floor of my elementary school 
After someone shouted Parade! and the windows filled 
With waving, giggling third graders. 
                                                    Mrs. Rutherford tried to shoo us 
Back to our desks, then finally gave up, wrote freedom on

    the board 
And smoothed out the front of her dress, waiting


For the clangs and squeaks, for the thin 
Backs of the men and their sharp, shiny hats 
To whittle away in the winter wind.




That winter, when the wind tumbled down the dark, 
I slept
          and took it all inside me--


The mountain looming in my bedroom window, 
Covered in ice, its light waning 
From within, daub of leafrot and foxfire going under, 
Black branches clicking like turnstiles--


And the crows in the pines behind the Piggly Wiggly 
Speaking in tongues, spread-winged and gaff-eyed 
When they kited down through snow to the dumpsters--


And Jimmy Jenkins, and Mrs. Rutherford wiping chalk 
From her hands, and my parents whispering 
About the black and white couple who moved in

    down the street.


Winter wind on my neck, flashback and backlash 
Of the past, it all whorls inside me--
                                                    the Christmas decorations 
Downtown, bells and the jostle of bright lights,


Shopping at JCPenneys with my mother 
When the battered Job Corps bus sputtered up 
And a line of black men filed off,


Dirty and exhausted from working 
Construction the whole day, dynamiting 
And bulldozing a hole that would become, by summer, 
The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81.


What comes back are their blue coveralls, 
And how they hung their heads when their foreman, 
The one they called Mr. J. D., seethed at them--


Perk up you bunch of goddamn sissy fusses and wipe off 
Your grubby hands before you touch anything.


And maybe this is a story told best by hands:

The sales clerk twisting her pencil; my mother 
Clutching her purse, squeezing my arm 
Tighter and tighter; the security guard tapping 
The handle of his blackjack.


Each man's hands with their fingerprints and palmprints, 
Their sheen of salt and oil, reaching out to cup 
The hem of a silk negligee, to stroke the collar of a wool coat.


And one hand ghosting against the warm glass, 
The white light of the jewelry counter, 
Reminded me of a bird,
                                   its delicate hinges and slender bones.




Defeat brindles on the crows' calls, snags 
In the thick scumble of pines.


It shakes itself from the green needles, a poison
Tunneling through snow, 
                                     sifting through a mizzle of sleet.


It's the knifelight in the water moccasin's eye. 
It's an absence, a presence, siltslide and cutbank 
Where the rhododendron roots fray mid-air.


Gauze and black sticks, halo of coal dust,
It drowns the poor in the backwater,
                                                     in the whiskeylight of winter.


Defeat unscrolls like a scrawl of smoke,
It slurs and spiders in the dark: fractured prayers 
Blistering like headlights on icy asphalt.




I remember my grandmother--a neat woman, 
A kind woman, a staunch Christian--


Looking out the picture window in her apartment 
On the hill, a little tatter of Kleenex 
In her fist, her lips pursed as she looked down


On the rooftops of the projects, the mildewed brick 
And scraps of tarpaper lifting in the wind.


She turned to me and said, The coloreds ruin everything

    they touch. 
She said, You watch who you make friends with, you hear?


And I did hear, and heard again, a little later, 
When she asked me over my cheese and juice, 
Do you think if you died tonight you'd go to Heaven?


Later, when I lay in bed fearing an end 
I couldn't even imagine, I gave God a body 
And a name, and tried to pray:


I'm an honest boy, Hoss. 
My heart is clay, Hoss. 
O please Hoss, hollow me out before they do.




Who is it that saunters there on State Street, holding his hat 
With one chalky hand, flashing his polished flask in the other?


Brother Defeat in his swank suit, 
                                               hankie sprouting like a little flame.


Brother Defeat in his starched shirt and his tie 
Snug in its Windsor knot, 
His skin cloyed with the scent of rotting gardenias,


Heading down to the corner of Has Been & Never Will Be, 
Where Sisyphus--
                          hunched on his milk crate, polyester shoulders 
Worn down to a sheen, pants too tight and riding up 
Like a bad dream--
                           plays his broken accordion,
Busking for gum wrappers and pocket lint.


Of all his busted instruments, he loves the accordion 
The most, loves its duct-tape suture and the grooves 
Fingered out on the whalebone buttons,
Loves the mice shit rattling around inside it.


Brother Defeat leans against the lamp post, tapping his foot 
And stroking his white beard, tossing cashews to the crows


As Sisyphus, eyes shut tight, feels the mountain 
Crumbling on his back, feels the night 
Sweat through his three-piece suit,


And leans into his wheezing skeleton of song.




Because I wanted to believe in something, 
I took the mountain inside me.


Because I believed it couldn't be moved, 
I thought it wouldn't betray me.


It's the oldest story I know


But now a hole unfurls through it, through you, 
Hoss, to the golf course and the country club,


And now you're nothing but the lost geography 
Of the soul, not the place but the ideal of the place,


Some old longing, unattainable.




Once, God was the land without end, 
And those at one with the land


Were at one with God, and work was not work 
But a type of prayer, the sun warm on your neck, 
The breeze blowing right through you


As your soul stepped out and ran ahead a little 
Through the high grasses, through the tangled swell 
Of woodbine and buckthorn, through the pines 
Beyond the rimrock, and the mountain,


Which was the slow revelation of time itself.


Each thing the soul passed through left its outline, 
Left its impression, like a wet feather plastered on glass.


It's one truth I know older than crows, 
But it's been mapped, cut up, divvied out


So many times, it's worth nothing more now 
Than the broken Christmas ornament 
Strewn across the sidewalk as it begins to snow,


And Sisyphus shuffles back onto the bus 
For the long ride back to the Get By.


It's too late for him now, but for a moment 
Let me become part of each thing he knows--


Part of the snow planing down, then blown 
Into waves of static. Part of the gold glass in the gutter, 
The faint light locked behind each piece.


Part of the stray dog trotting around the corner 
And its teats trotting in the air beneath it.


Part of the sighs the mountain swallows 
And will not fling back.


Part of the sky that unfurls when he cradles 
His head in his hands. Part of the crows that strut there.


Part of the watch ticking in his pocket and growing louder,


Time no longer contained but unbridled, one end of his-
Story folding over onto the other,


Endlessly, the way each thin flame of a fire 
Lays down on the next, until what's left


Is the color of defeat, and weighs nothing.




I don't know what set the crows going, shovel-thump 
Or shotgun, or perhaps the kiss of flint in the backs of their minds, 
The way the snow kissed the asphalt, and the asphalt snuffed it out.

I don't know what it was, but one evening they disappeared.

Not for good at first, but they ended up 
Where they were for a reason:


                                            there at Carter's Crossing, 
On the hill behind the construction company, the dead burr oak
Alive now with their shifting and preening, their smoky skirls.


Fire on the mountain, fire in the heart 
And all those eyes flecked with gold


As Little Jimmy, and the one they called Mr. J.D., 
And Red the security guard from the store, 
Stumbled from a pick-up, tossing the tarp off the back 
Where Sisyphus was bound and gagged 
For a watch lifted from beneath the glass.


They only meant to teach him a lesson, they said,


Until the shotgun was fumbled, snub-nose 
Down, into the blue-black whump and nightsuck--


And this is where the story swirls and drifts, where I lose my

For the watch has quit ticking and the men have stepped

    into the trees 
As if stepping backstage, another act done, the theater dark

    and quiet 
And filling with snow.


Sisyphus is curled where the spotlight once was, his mask 
Peeled back to the face of a man, the wound beneath his eye 
A wilted flower he's already become,


Just as he's become the clods of dirt that dribbled 
Down his back, and the sound of cars siphoning from one side 
To the next, the sweep and bounce of their headlights--


A man becoming something flawless 
And iridescent, like the neck of a crow in a family of crows, 
Or their measured slap of wings,
                                               first one, then another,

Then all of them lifting through the molten smalt of memory, 
Undulating, as if each bird was of one mind, was a single feather 
On some larger bird, 
                              emptied of flight one more time.




One by one, the men vanished into the landscape,


And the children returned to their desks, 
Only to cradle their heads in their arms and forget 
And drift, for good, out of the story into the chatter 
And laughter echoing through the corridor.


How can I get it right? How can I push the pieces 
Back into place now that the classroom has emptied


And dead leaves flutter in the coat closet, 
Now that all the textbooks have filled with flames?


Tonight, my remembering is nothing more 
Than a record of my forgetting, and the boy is where
I left him, alone, a blurry face at the window,


Waving now to the white men, comical in their pointy hats, 
Now to the black men on the bus, their heads 
Bowed, their shoulders slumped to the arc of the sledge.


I am him and not him, trembling in the air 
Around his body as the snow 
Exhausts its options against the glass.


I am him and not him, the crows long gone, 
The day's lesson done and streaked across the blackboard,
A word that weighed nothing more than the lace handkerchief


Mrs. Rutherford coughed into,
Until the cough, or the memory of the cough, is all
I remember, all the truth has become,


A warm mist where a body once stood.


                    -from The Animal Gospels 


BIO: Brian Barker's first book of poems, The Animal Gospels, won the Tupelo Press Editors' Prize. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in such journals as Poetry, Agni, Quarterly West, American Book Review, The Writer's Chronicle, The Indiana Review, Blackbird, Sou'wester, and River Styx. He has earned a B.A. from Virginia Commonwealth University , an M.F.A. from George Mason University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. He has taught at the University of Houston and the University of Missouri and will begin as an Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of Undergraduate Creative Writing at Murray State in the fall of 2006.

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