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Frank Standford

The Nocturnal Ships Of The Past

There was always a great darkness

moving out
like a forest of arrows

So many ships in the past

their bows bearing women
as stalks bear eyes

The burning ships

that drove their bowspirits
between the thighs of dreams

With my ear to the ground
I hear the black prows coming

plowing the night
into water

and the wind comes up
and I smell the sour wood

leaving a wake I want to be
left alone with

Night after night

like a sleeping knife that runs deep
through the belly

the tomb ships come


Freedom, Revolt, and Love 

They caught them.
They were sitting at a table in the kitchen.
It was early.
They had on bathrobes.
They were drinking coffee and smiling.
She had one of his cigarillos in her fingers.
She had her legs tucked up under her in the chair.
They saw them through the window.
She thought of them stepping out of a bath
And him wrapping cloth around her.
He thought of her walking up in a small white building,
He thought of stones settling into the ground.
Then they were gone.
Then they came in through the back.
Her cat ran out.
The house was near the road.
She didn't like the cat going out.
They stayed at the table.
The others were out of breath.
The man and the woman reached across the table.
They were afraid, they smiled.
The other poured themselves the last of the coffee.
Burning their tongues.
The man and the woman looked at them.
They didn't say anything.
The man and the woman moved closer to each other,
The round table between them.
The stove was still on and burned the empty pot.
She started to get up.
One of them shot her.
She leaned over the table like a schoolgirl doing her lessons.
She thought about being beside him, being asleep.
They took her long gray socks
Put them over the barrel of a rifle
And shot him.
He went back in his chair, holding himself.
She told him hers didn't hurt much,
Like in the fall when everything you touch
Makes a spark.
He thought about her getting up in the dark
Wrapping a quilt around herself.
And standing in the doorway.
She asked the men if they shot them again
Not to hurt their faces.
One of them lit him one of his cigarettes.
He thought what it would be like
Being children together.
He was dead before he finished it.
She asked them could she take it out of his mouth.
So it wouldn't burn his lips.
She reached over and touched his hair.
She thought about him walking through the dark singing.
She died on the table like that,
Smoke coming out of his mouth.

The Snake Doctors

              -for Nicholas Fuhrmann

I   Pig

I was in the outhouse 
I heard somebody at the pump 
I looked out the chink hole 
It was the two fishermen 
They stole fish

One man gave the other one some money 
He flipped a fifty-cent piece up 
I lost it in the sun 
I saw the snake doctors riding each other 
The other man said “You lose” 
He took something else out of his pocket 
It shined 
They had a tow sack 
I thought they were cleaning fish 
I looked up 
I saw the snake doctors riding each other

I took my eye away 
It was dark in the outhouse 
I whistled

I heard the pump again 
It sounded broken 
I looked out the chink hole 
It wasn’t the pump 
It was the pig

The guitar player cut them out 
The midget helped him 
“Pump me some water, midget” he said

The pig ran off

The guitar player washed off his hands 
The midget washed off the nuts 
He got a drink 
My eye hurt

He laughed 
He cleaned the blood off his knife    He wiped   
      it on his leg 
He started singing 
The dog tried to get the nuts 
But the midget kicked him

The guitar player picked them up 
He put them in his pocket 
The dog went over to the pig 
He licked him

I pulled my pants up 
I went outside

I got the pig 
I walked over to the pump 
I said “Don’t you ever lay a hand   
            on this pig again” 
The guitar player laughed

He asked me if I wanted the nuts back 
He took them out of his pocket 
He spit on them 

He shook them like dice 
He threw them on the ground 
He said “Hah” 
The midget stomped on them

I had the pig under my arm 
He was bleeding on my foot    I said 
“Midget, I got friends on that river”

II   The Acolyte

The men rode by

I passed them on the road 
They smelled like dead fish

The one in front had a guitar on his back 
The other one had a chain saw

I was riding the hog 
He weighed three-hundred pounds 
I called him Holy Ghost

The midget flashed a knife 
He thumbed the blade 
He smiled at me 
He called me “Pig Rider”

I rode over to Baby Gauge’s 
I was on my way to church 
I had to get the red cassock 
I tied the hog to the front porch 
Baby Gauge was swinging in a tire 
Born In The Camp With Six Toes was sleeping in the icebox

Baby Gauge said “Be at the levee at three o’clock” 
I put the robe on 
I said “I almost got drowned last time” 
“Going to have a mighty good time” he said 
“Going to be an eclipse” Born In The Camp With Six Toes said

I rode the hog to church

I took the new shoes off 

I lit the candles 
I changed the book 
I rung the bell

I was drinking the wine 
I heard Baby Gauge yell

I ran down the aisle 
I saw the men at the trough 
They were beating the hog over the head with sledge hammers 
It was like the clock in the German pilot’s shack

One of his eyes was hanging out 
And the trough was running over with blood

They held his head under the water 
He was rooting in his own blood 
He pumped it out in a mist 
Like a buck shot in the lung 
It was black

He broke loose

I ran down the road yelling 
I stepped on soda bottle caps 
I ran through sardine cans 
I tripped on the cassock

The hog was crazy 
He ran into the church 
He ran into tombstones

I said “Somebody throw me something” 
Chinaman threw me a knife

I ran after the hog 
He was heading for the river 
I jumped on his back

I rode the hog 
I hugged his neck 
I stabbed him seven times 
I wanted the knife to go into me 
He kept running 
I ran the knife across his throat 
And the blood came out like a bird

We ran into a sycamore tree

When the cloud passed over the moon 
Like a turkey shutting its eye 
I rowed out into the slew 
Not allowing myself to sing gospel music

I woke up in a boat 
It was full of blood 
My feet were dragging through the water 
A knife was sticking in the prow 
And the sun was black

It was dark 
But I saw the snake doctors riding each other

I saw my new shoes 
I put them on 
They filled up with blood

I took the surplice off 
I threw it in the river 
I watched it sink 
There was hog blood in my hair

I knelt in the prow with the knife in my mouth 
I looked at myself in the water 
I heard someone singing on the levee

I was buried in a boat 
I woke up 
I set it afire with the taper 
I watched myself burn 
I reached in the ashes and found a red knife

I held my head under the water 
      so I wouldn’t go crazy 
It was some commotion 
I rowed the boat in a circle with one oar

A hundred people were in the water 
They had white robes on 
Some of them had umbrellas 
They jumped up and down on the bank 
They rowed down the levee 
They were yelling and singing 
One of them saw me 
I saw a horse with tassels

I put my head under the water 
I thought I was dead 
I hit it on a cypress knee

Two Negroes came riding through the river 
They rode towards me on the moon-blind horse

One of them was drinking soda water 
“Where are you going, boy” Baby Gauge said

The horse swam back to the levee 
I was with them 
The boat drifted away 
A man said “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego”

III   Hambone

They tied his hind legs together 
And hung him in a tree with a log chain

I saw them 
I was on Baby Gauge’s horse 
I threw a knife at the midget 
So they hung me up by the feet too

I saw them break his neck 
I saw them pull his legs apart 
    like a wishbone 
I wished the dead came back

The midget stood on a bucket 
He reached up in the hog’s throat 
And pulled the heart out

The dog was lying on the ground 
With his mouth open

It took all day to butcher the hog 
I got dizzy 
I saw the snake doctors riding each other

They turned the bucket over 
It filled up with blood

They made a fire

The guitar player beat his hand over his leg 
He put some meat on the fire

They tried to make me eat it

The midget spit a bone on the ground

The other one picked it up 
He put it on his finger

He went over and got his guitar 
He tried to play it like a Negro 
There was too much grease on his hands 
He got blood on the guitar

The midget danced around the campfire 
I wanted to cut his throat

The dog bayed at the moon 
And the blue Andalusian rooster played with a snake 
I was bleeding out my nose

The fish bandits loaded the hog on Baby Gauge’s horse 
They threw blood on the fire 
And filled the bucket up with guts for fish bait 
When they rode off I yelled “Peckerwoods”

I dreamed I saw Holy Ghost walking around the campfire 
He was a wild hog with blood on his tushes

Along about midnight I heard a boat 
    but no rowing 
Somebody short came walking out of the woods 
With a light on his head 
The light went out I couldn’t see 
He drew something out of his boot 
He grabbed me by the hair 
I saw a knife in the moonlight 
“Sweet Jesus” I said

Born In The Camp With Six Toes cut me down

IV   Chainsaw

The man cut his hand off at dawn 
I heard him yell 
I set up in bed

He ran past the window 
“Don’t let the dog get it” he said

I got out of bed 
I had the long handles on 
It was cold 
I threw some wood on the fire 
I put the dime around my ankle 
I put my boots on 
I put a knife in the boot

I walked out to the road 
The blue Andalusian rooster followed me 
It was dark

I heard the chainsaw in the woods 
I heard him singing all night 
He was cutting firewood 
He was drunk

The dog quit barking

I drew the knife out of my boot 
I looked for the midget 
I saw the blood and I tracked it 
I saw the sun and the moon 
I saw the snake doctors riding each other

The hand was in the sawdust 
It was moving

The hambone was on the finger 
It was morning 
The dog didn’t get it 
I did

There was blood on the chainsaw 
I told the blue rooster 
“He thought it was a guitar”

I walked around the hand seven times 
I poked it with a stick 
I sung to it 
I picked it up like a snake 
I took the hambone off the finger 
I put Holy Ghost’s bone in my boot 
I put the hand on a stump

I danced on the hand 
I peed on it 
I broke a wine bottle over it 
I threw it up in the air and a hawk 
    hit it 
The dog licked the blood out of the dust

I saw the fish bandit’s guitar 
The blue rooster pecked it 
I beat the hand with it 
I threw the guitar in the river 
The snake doctors lit on it 
It floated away

I went down to the bank 
I got a pole 
I put a hook through the hand 
I washed it off 
When I touched the wound with my knife 
    it rolled up in a fist

Somebody came by in a boat 
They held up a big fish 
So I held up the hand

They jumped out of the boat 
They thought I crossed them 
One of them said “That wasn’t no hoodoo, was it” 
It was Baby Gauge 
I said “No, it was the guitar player’s hand” 
They swam to the bank 
I told them how I came by it 
Born In The Camp With Six Toes said “It won’t 
Take another fish off my lines”

I asked them “You want to shake it” 
Baby Gauge said “No, I want to spit on it” 
We spit on the hand

They left

I wrapped it up in newspaper like fish 
I took it home

I put it under Jimmy’s pillow 
and he knocked my teeth out 
I put it in a cigar box with a picture 
      of Elvis Presley 
I took it to town

I walked over to the dance hall 
The guitar player was bleeding in the back of the pickup

I gave him the cigar box 
He passed out

The midget pulled a knife on me 
I picked up the hand 
He ran off

On the way home I ran folks off the road 
When the truck came by the house 
The guitar player raised up in the bed 
He said “Give me my hand back”

When it was dark 
I tied fish line to it and hung it 
    in the outhouse 
I sung to it 
The moon shined through the chink hole 
on the hand

I took it down 
I threw it in a yellow jacket nest 
I stomped on it

I took it to the palm reader 
I said “Sister, read this”

A lot of evenings I listened for them 
I knew they would come back

When a stranger got a drink at night 
I thought it was the Holy Ghost 
And sometimes a cloud went by like a three-legged dog 
And the thunder was someone with a shotgun 
Letting him have it

Now the moon was a fifty-cent piece 
It was a belly I wanted 
      to cut open

When the flies got bad 
I kept the hand in the smokehouse

V   Swimming at Night

The midget ran his finger across his neck 
The other one said “Give it back”

I waited in the outhouse 
I had a sawed-off shotgun 
The men rode off

In the afternoon they sold fish 
They cleaned them at the pump 
The scales dried up on their faces 
They loaded the meat on stolen horses

At night they rode up shooting pistols 
I slept with an ice pick under my pillow

One night they rode up drunk 
The midget was sitting in the guitar player’s lap 
He said “Come on out”

They tied a bale of hay to Baby Gauge’s horse 
They poured coal oil on it 
They set it on fire 
They laughed

The horse with the moon eye pranced around them 
He galloped home

I carved wild hog out of a cypress knee 
I made it the handle 
I made four tushes out of the hambone 
I used the blade I brought out of the fire 
And sealed the pig with 
It was the blade I put the burning horse to sleep with 
I called the knife the Holy Ghost

To make me go crazy 
I took all my clothes off 
And jumped down the hole in the outhouse 
I grabbed the yellow jacket nest 
And held it over my heart 
I pumped cold water over myself 
And wallowed in the mud 
I walked through the snake den barefooted 
I swam the river at midnight 
With the hand and a blue feather in my mouth 
And the Holy Ghost around my neck

And the hooks caught in my arms    they caught in my legs 
I cut the trot lines in two 
I saw the guitar player stealing the fish

I was swimming beneath the shack 
Under the sleeping midget 
With the fish bandit’s hand in my mouth

I climbed through the trap door 
I crawled under the bed 
I cut the hooks out 
I believe I was snake bit 
I put the hand in the slop jar 
I reached up and tickled his nose with the feather

He got out of bed 
He turned the lights on 
He let down his pants 
He reached under the bed for the slop jar 
He took the lid off 
He screamed 
I brought the knife across his leg 
I hamstrung the midget

I swam under the water 
With the hand in my mouth

I came up near the guitar player’s boat 
He was running the lines

I swam to the other end of the trot line 
I put the hand on a hook 
I jerked the lines like a big fish

The guitar player worked his way down 
He thought he had a good one

I let go of the line 
He saw his left hand 
He screamed 
He fell out of the boat

I swam back through the river 
I buried the knife in the levee

I was sleeping in the Negro’s lap 
He was spitting snuff on my wounds

Born In The Camp With Six Toes cut me with a knife 
Baby Gauge sucked the poison out 
Oh Sweet Jesus the levees that break in my heart

                       -from The Light The Dead See

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