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J. Scott Brownlee
Into the Valley Oak That Will Not Sing, That Will Not Even Talk
We commend the spirits
of dead cows whose bones
bleach in the cruel radiance
of the sun god Ra's land,
these Egyptian pastures.
Mirages melt salt pyramids
at the edge of escarpment
and cedar thicket. Snag
yourself on a limb or a great-
horned owl's call navigating
back roads or the guitar music
at the local pool shack
referred to as "a bar"
despite only Shiner
in its beverage coolers.
The drunk dart players spin
on their axes of booze,
smoke, and country lyrics
but remain beautiful
in their constant twirling
back into each other.
Have you ever watched them?
Have you ever listened
to the sermon of bodies
relaxed and laughing?
To commune as they do
you must give up
your good life, the city,
the Q train, Park Slope,
and pizza. Traveler,
settle here if you know
what work is and cannot
escape it without feeling guilty.
Come and teach school
at least. You're the man
with two wives caught
the two cities you keep
like two young families
who don't know each other
though they met on the 4th
of July at the fireworks
show in this two-bit
county that includes Llano,
Kingsland, and part of a vast
lake that touches the sky
when you stand beside it
as the thunderheads build
the same blue erasure
they are building today
with their ruthless anvils.
Disappear here and no one
will ever find you. Steal
a truck and head out on 16
to the coast, or the border,
or hell--drive wherever
you want with the lover
you miss and have not
written yet but will write
to today when the rainfall
ceases, and you're left
in a Ford with some paper,
a pen, and your fingertips
inked blue as if dipped
in blood from a vein
in your arm extending
for miles if you stretch it out
in your imagination all the way
from Brooklyn to your heart
in Texas: just the way you like it.
-for Phil Levine
The rain pounding on tin but not passing through it cannot conjure blue
rust in the way feeling can
-oxidizing an iris to slate gray, to storm cloud, to fog gathering
on the April morning
when my father was born & cried out, mattering. In Burnet County
there were wildflowers then.
I like to think: little crucifixions. He kissed my cheek each night
before bed until tenderness
missed its mark. Arrows he loosed forty-five yards away striking bull's-eye
targets were more measurable
than the space between us. The largest buck he ever saw he never shot
he was fond of saying.
I slowly came to understand the distances we were both creating every time
he told me about Troy,
Greece, Helen, & the ships sent for her. I want to hear his voice again & know
our Athens is interstellar
as a comet's orbit though my own failing vision will not permit me to trace
constellations or apologies yet.
What am I but weakness when the past tense claims me? Salt of the earth
to the earth returning
or a spit-flecked prophet? Supernova, maybe? At the end of the world
I'll hear his voice
& our conversations will return him to me & those wildflowers.
The sun will swell
to ten times its size, rise, & my father will draw back his bowstring again
without any effort.
Give me the bull nettle's bloom so that I may pluck it.
Tear my skin into strips the color of laughter which is whiter
than this page, this preaching, even. My life is not a pinch
of ash or caliche powder unless first captured here & held
--photographic & as faint as Jesus on the Shroud of Turin
whether or not his bones were collected in it. Synaptic caw
of the homesick crow perched on a wire fence, teach me
to turn from famine so that I may flourish in my own
unknowing as the trough of water that is algae-ridden
in this pasture until a whitetail tongue parts it. I want
to be the clean spring water beneath that greenness.
Each feather left now in dust, totemic, beckons back
a black bit of my incarnation before snakeskin claimed me.
My body grows & has grown Germanic as a river mouth
swallowing up another. Let my tongue not confess
what my soul is about, since I do not know where
river reaches ocean & sea jellyfish ease into catfish marshes.
The sky between here & the stars has its own alphabet & clear
mathematics, all dark matter & mass heavy without measure.
I've heard the body is meant to be left, or it isn't. The soul sieves
a black hole, maybe. Imagine the weight of that spiraling: absence
or presence so dense it makes time its elaborate puppet. If I believe
in anything, it's the slow pull of that. Who's to say the soul
isn't a destination we approach gradually in an empty pasture?
I have a kind of ritual--you might call it praying--that involves
listening to a mockingbird's call on the far fence line's edge & then
following it into oblivion. Sundown obscures her perch from me,
the nest she tends in a live oak's branches. Even so, she is there.
& I am here. & neither of us needs a hymnal to take turns singing.
-from Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, selected by Guest Editor Phillip B. Williams
BIO: J. Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas. His work appears widely and includes the chapbooks Highway or Belief (2013 Button Poetry Prize), Ascension, (2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize), and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County (2015 Tree Light Books Prize). His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison Poetry Prize, named a finalist for the National Poetry Series and Writers' League of Texas Book Award, and received the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes place-based writing of personal witness, cultural memory, and the aesthetically marginalized working class. He teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member and is a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he earned his MFA. Brownlee currently lives in Philadelphia and is at work on The City Irrevocably, a novel set in Austin, Texas and Redneck Interregnum, a second full-length poetry collection.