Four Poems by Wes Mullen, first place winner,
The College Alumni Society Prizes, 2004
She saw it loose out west of Erie, the
rough sod edge, the dotted line barely torn,
but still the gap. A minute, maybe, a
single grubbing fingernail through, then
moisture and cold when she slipped
Pennsylvania over her head.
She could see it all, and she
saw it like the underside of a dirty
quilt or the sky over a refinery,
only heavier. Then the feeling
of space, her reflection in the tile
floor, the fat and creeping roots
of Ohio and the long-dry oil
pipes down Venango. She thought
of Dad, his homemade darkroom
and the Chevy, then her husband
who fell down New England like
it was a flight of stairs. She could
see Venus through a manhole in
Oil City, far above the frozen river,
the fast ice like clouds on the Allegheny.
It snowed in the orchard
and the only color we saw
was the last apple swinging.
You stood on the white ground,
amid the whirling flakes,
as if you were lost in a school of ivory fish.
When the wind blew on the apple, it spun,
always in the same direction. But the stem
never broke, only twirled itself tighter.
The apple stood still when I looked at the snowflakes;
The snowflakes were still when I looked at you.
You are only still when I close my eyes.
For a moment, I was unsure
whether you were under the apple
or under every other tree.
The winds are nice up here,
under such an open sky as this one.
I recline here with my brothers
on round, new leaves and springy wood.
Just below me I can see my parents
loafing in the green shadows
as they admire the foliage. Grandma
has one foot in a hole she has carved
in her fat, browning limb, and she
is grumpy at all the noise coming
from Uncle Charlie The Drunk,
who is hauling away at something
with a chainsaw. We all glance
downward from time to time, down
to where the thick trunks disappear
into the darkness, but we are not
afraid. Here in this tree it is all
relative, we are all strapped to the
lattice together. Even you, reader;
holler up and you will find me.
He had learned by now not to trust the
neighbors. Outside, the red bush was
full of sparrows, so full he could no
longer be sure they were not giant, angry bees.
The dog he fed from the back porch
had not come for weeks.
When it returned, all its food was rotten
and he shuddered when he noticed
its different-colored eyes: one blue, one lazy
and red. After that he locked all the doors before bed.
He blew out the candles that used to ease him into
sleep, and gave the cat to a neighbor.
He was careful not to walk too close
past the windows at night, especially
when the headlights shined through to the kitchen
like prison spots. At his desk, he scribbled poems
to a woman he had never met,
who wore sweaters and no watch, who knew
the capitals of South American countries.
When he had run out of paper, he pulled the dusty
atlases from their shelves, opened them on the floor,
then cut the maps along county lines and
rearranged the states in the shape of her face:
lakes for eyes and railroads to trace the
shadows of her neck. Soon there were no more
borders to slice, no more highways for her eyelashes
which were like the ribs of small birds. His hair
had grown long and all the food in the house tasted
like cellar stairs, like tin or dust. In the attic,
where he slept, he found a stamp album, held
open over the bed and shook the stamps
loose to flutter down like moths. He
covered the old bed with postage
and fell asleep hoping. In a dream he
flew over Connecticut with his atlas-love,
letting her point out the topographic,
ever arguing over the political. When in the morning
he awoke to find himself undelivered, not even
routed or cancelled, he cut all his poems from
the spine of his book, fixed them with the last crumbling
stamps, and stuffed them in the postbox on the corner.
Once he was sure the sparrows had flown
he hid himself and lay in the red bush, waiting to