09-22-2015

Doug Ramspeck

 

Life in the Woods

 

In my uncle's diary of symptoms, light
is described as washed out moon. 
Color as winter fields: gray sky, gray earth. 
Shapes forming of their own volition, 
strange geometries of line, lacquered splotches 
coalescing then disappearing. He blamed
decades of wind, dust kicking up, grit catching 
and congealing-or witnessing a younger 
brother dying slowly from metastatic brain tumors.
Eventually the pages of the diary dissolved 
for him into dark hallways, so I transcribed 
the symptoms for the doctor, a task that reminded
me of high school when I copied out long passages
from Walden: whip-poor-wills chanting their vespers, 
fluviatile trees, the ceaseless roar and pelting 
of rainstorms. At sixteen I gave my lone copy- 
spine fissured, pages bent back and loose from 
their moorings-to a girl I hoped would understand, 
but she returned the book in less
than an hour to say, I wouldn't ever live like that.
Which I recalled the August morning I arrived 
at my uncle's farm to find him on his front porch, 
a compendium of crows calling from the willows
by the wire fence. The old man was sitting on a lawn
chair with nothing but his quietude, his face dark 
and obdurate, stoic with years. He looked up
with emptied eyes as my shoes creaked the front step-
here is what the dark brooms have swept away-and not
until my voice was familiar in the air did he rise
from his chair and gesture me into his house. 

 

Field Numerology

Nine crows in five days. 
And if there are six snakes, and one

 

shucks its skin, becomes incorporeal, 
is the sky still forever with birds,

 

these birds that map the grass
with their black stains?

 

And when the corn comes down, 
four field mice enter the house

 

and hide behind the kitchen sink. 
Then come winter, one horse dies

 

and waits for spring to be buried,
mounded in a lump of white.

 

It snows in our lungs, and driving
down the road we see the flakes

 

drifting like dust in air. Last
winter the bridge was out

 

for nineteen days, and the widower
who hanged himself

 

was spotted by seven children 
on a school bus.

 

And then, this morning, there were
spots of blood on two eggs,

 

more beads sliding on
the imagined abacus.

 

Or now our monologue 
of moonlight makes of the field

 

this arithmetic of grief. At dawn
we count three deer at the field's

 

edge, two fissures in the window
glass. And the crows count

 

slowly with each call: one, two,
three, four, five.

 

Economics

                Depression is rage spread thin. -George Santayana

It was a form of weakness, my father said,
an embarrassment, the men after the War
who were hollowed out, were grass
in the field behind the house, men who slept
amid the shadows of their days, who existed
like cigarette smoke-idle and drifting-
and shuddered at backfiring pickups and saw 
their life's labor as a stroll to the mailbox 
for the government check. When I was twelve,
my father returned from a trip to Chicago 
with 500 off-brand batteries purchased 
on the cheap from a company going out 
of business, and so I was sent on my bicycle 
to the farm houses and clusters of neighborhoods
in our small Ohio town. There was something
holy in labor, my father believed, but what I
remember is how discouraging it felt to ask 
strangers again and again to reach into their pockets 
for cash they didn't have. Sometimes the old
women or men who opened the doors 
eyed me the way the moon eyes the earth, 
the way the clouds are part of the sky 
but also separate from it. Then, in college, 
I worked one summer on mosquito abatement, 
and my primary job was to step from the truck
to the road's verge and count how many
mosquitoes bit me in a minute. I was a poor
man's St. Francis of Assisi, but my father
was impressed by the work ethic evident in
the manifold bumps on my arms and legs,
impressed the way he never was with my meager 
sales of the batteries that mostly still remained
in a cardboard box in his garage during the final 
years of his life, when I would find him sitting
on the couch with the television blaring the same 
cycle of news, over and over. There was a stillness
about him then, a smallness, as though the grass
had grown up around him in great, empty stalks.
The years and the sun had freckled his hands 
with dark splotches, and often he seemed to be 
studying their hieroglyphics, pondering what
the slow decades had wrought, and his unshaven 
face was listless as the clouds. The days blurred 
together after that, were like the fallen oak by
the fence, hollowed at the middle and spilling 
its dark salt. My father had little, if anything, 
to say, though he did tell me one early morning
that he imagined the advantage of being dead 
was that the living would finally leave you be.

 

-from Original Bodies

 

BIO: Doug Ramspeck is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Original Bodies (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2014), and Mechanical Fireflies (Barrow Street Press, 2011). His first book, Black Tupelo County (BkMk Press at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2008), received the John Cardi Prize. He teaches at The Ohio State University at Lima.