Everlasting Quail

(University of New England Press, 2001)

Winner of the 2000 Katherine Nason Bakeless Poetry Prize

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“Sam Witt’s poems are a rhapsody and ‘crisp singing’ both. The best are purest poetry—mixing beauty, the reaches of language, and an imagination equally made up of body and of grace. He speaks in all our tones. His equivalences are fresh and reveal an involved, likable world.” – Carol Frost, judge of the 2000 Breadloaf Bakeless Prize

“Wittgenstein once wrote that whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. But it is exactly the unspeakable, in both sense of the word, that Sam Witt’s poems speak and speak of, that speaks through them.” – Reginald Shepherd, author of Wrong and Some Are Drowning

“Sam Witt’s rich full poetic lines have just enough too-muchness, carrying along their collaged lengths riffs of the archaic, the scriptural, and the American sublime. It’s as if the apocalypse were not so much coming true as coming through.” – Aaron Shurin, author of The Paradise of Forms

“And indeed it is not just the body but the very world which is eroticized, complicating and broadcasting the tale of desire that echoes through the voices of Robinson Crusoe, Pentheus, and Dionysus, the refrigerator vegetable drawer, the ocean, the birds, and the light.” – D.A. Powell, author of Chronic and Cocktails

 


Selected Poems:

Everlasting Quail

Everlasting Quail

Then the air was a brutal architecture of sugar.

Boys wading to their knees
into blue carpeting,

centurions at dawn, waist-deep in the street
& drunk, looking for her—

Meanwhile the cherry tree was dripping with bees,
a tremble of everlasting quail. . .

I left my wife in a tall hotel.

Wasn’t that the room where they grew bigger trees?
There were tall buildings darkening in the clouds.

(Human: I must have been an enormous bishop
swinging a silver teaball in the kitchen.)

And today, a day so peaceful & sunny-side up,
a day for being alive.

The day I am scheduled to lose my mouth?
Everybody has spoken through this throat:

“I don’t think in the end God wishes us to be human”
where money lies down on the floor.

She was a smudged photo of sleep, her blonde
empty cheeks faceless & streaming.

I dropped a coin into her mouth
and walked off.

(At night I repeat the word ‘ pillow. ’

Pillow: a naked footstep slapping the pavement.
Orphan: the wind that eats my laughing chest)

empty: my laughing chest: my cheeks.

At the Greyhound Terminal Requiem

1.

On the platform, I found my tongue to be at once prehistoric.
Terminal, sister, of sunshine that opens 4:20 pm on the cement,

& plastic, if not new, waiting for a bus to pull away, the bus that carried me here,
Children at play
In the park across the lot, slowly declining through my ear
Which has become my entire body
In the uncertain requiem,
Of hydraulic brakes aching out their whalesongs of departure,
A small song the passengers will carry with them
To the corners of the demi-monde,
Away from me,
A collapsed, inhuman configuration, a shocked fabric in many ears—
Will last
Long after this brief, inconsequential messenger I have become
Has faded,
At least as far as Peoria;

Will hang to the ground as long as the sunshine,
With its blonde, discarded hairs, will last into a blue glow

That decays upward through the trees into dusk across the lot.

 

2.

When I say           ‘ You, whom the city slept ’

When I say           ‘ You, whom I attempt to visit in my sleep ’
I mean—

Dead movement of air through a horse’s mane lies on the terminal,
My tongue flattened to light,
Dead promise of escape, negative of flight lifeless on the cold cement.

Negative of wind, slow trace of what your hair was: a soft voice, a trace
Of many faces, all of them yours, all of them passing through me,

All of them mine as I follow it into the waiting room,
The ghost trace of my form bending away in the mirror
That faces another mirror, when I say you—

I mean this large man who lumbers towards me saying
“I’m afraid,” saying “I’m unacceptable, & cold.”

I mean ‘ ghost of children playing, ’ Cast through tall windows overhead
Ghost of           ‘ Tear me with your softness ’

( In whatever bedroom you open your eyes to a massive, constricted banging
In the pipes, what’s replaced my voice

In a room unlike this room— )

Hunched, occupied benches. A vaulted drafty ceiling. Fake marble floor.

Lain in lifelessness in a scrap of paper at my feet—

“Would you please give me a copy of the Lord Have Mercy
We’re using at Lent, Dear Fileman?”

( Says—      ‘ I came to you last night in my sleep ’

The plaster wing from a child’s pageant in my ripped knapsack
The movement in my fingers said           Brokentornplasterrun

When the absolute city slept.           I attempted to touch you.
The movement in my fingers attempted:

‘ Tears open the sky behind my face. ’

Each face which, just now, in my sleep, was worn to bluntness,
As in a city like this one, now, here, smothered in the beating

Of police helicopters,

& your neck as I held it—somehow long, then, in
my sleep,
Like a horse’s neck.

I saw my face, wrapped around itself & smearing away in a simple waterglass
On the bedside table.

I felt my face small,      worn smooth in your hand as you lifted it
Petrified Metropolis of crystal.

Moving against me like a horse, I held you.
Your breath was hard against my cheek,
A small, blue
Immaculate flame in that moment after waking:

Me, lying there, looking up at you, I say,

Like an alcohol flame that leaves the skin cold & without hair,
Small & blue,

Quivered, ran across my stomach I watched you walk out the door

I was running in my sleep, wrapped smooth in your hands I ran
As a crippled man must dream of running )

Until a shifting clunk in the pepsi machine startles me
With my finger paused between Mt. Dew & Dr. Pepper,

A message scrawled in black ink on the dollar bill : Jesus,
I ran, in a child’s hand :           please, Jesus . . .

 

3.

Only to wake now in the voice over the P.A.
5:15 — 6:25 — 11:20

A man’s wooden voice worn to bluntness
By the caressing of many hands, announces

Carbondale, Illinois, departing at 5:15
Detroit, 6:25, announces that a little girl’s sleeping face,

Carried in the arms of her teenage mom,
Will be passing through me,

With its low, famished voltage,
What’s left of your voice, hundreds of miles
Away, the closed eyelids saying, Cleveland,

Indianapolis, Iowa City, a place—
Like the bruises in the hollows of my arms—

Where I can be forgotten,
Destination Unborn, a city, like this one,

Where I wait for a second bus
To carry me away

To another station where I’ll stand
Before another vending machine,

Another can of exhaust delivered into my hand,
Where a man’s voice announces that to speak

In a place like this
Is to be as inescapable as laughter

In what was once the hour of prayer,
That he who listens hard does not see.

 

 

4.
Early this morning, across the aisle from that woman, her girl asleep,
The other four passengers asleep, & me, asleep,
She must have heard your voice
Muttered out of my mouth into the cold air
Against my cheek, your voice was real
Through the jammed-open,
Sliding window, it slapped my cheek softly
‘ I’m cold. I’m always cold, ’ she must have heard
Before I opened my eyes
& realized where I was, riding in a bus
Through what was once prairie,
Nebraska, maybe, or Kansas, a blue decay
Out of the mouth of clarity—your invisible mouth—
On the decay-line of the sky
Swallowing jagged bits of stars
One by one.

 

5.

Announces that everything is alive—
Uncertain light of childplay beyond me,

& I am born again as I wander outside once more
Only to stand here on the terminal

As that woman’s bus pulls away,
Carrying her little girl, carrying my empty seat in its belly,

Across the aisle from where, I’m cold,
Finds its way through the child’s mouth, hush,

Consumed in the buzz
Of the overhead light, diesel fumes, nausea,

The sounds she’ll make in her sleep,
A large man shifting in his plastic seat

Ahead of them, empty seats
Shifting with the engine,

& those small, plastic pieces of your voice,
Carried with them vibrating away into the hunger

Of many small, darkened kitchens.

Song of the Daughter

In my dreams night closes its dirty waters

around the apartment complex.
Your keys strike each other.
They clatter like unoiled machinery,
your cheeks coarse with iron-filings.
When I lift the dogwood blossom out of water
and glass, dripping with the only light
in the room, it grows immense, deepens,
white as milk around me, a fly
crouched on the pistil.

Father, when I was a girl,
you’d walk from the den at night,
the floorboards creaking like a thousand rusty hinges
flying open. You’d stand in my room,
in the muted flicker of the television,
a blue deep as the light thrown
from water. And then your zipper,
a sewn wound popping open, stitch by stitch, the flies
swarming from their nest, armpit, crotch. Even now
they glitter like scales, blue and green
in the streetlamp. Even now your tongue
slips, slow as the blossom from its sheath,
your arms, your hips, again, then again
and again and again until I am filled,
I am the red clay after a flood
I am the words trying to say father

Tonight I’ve been taken by the blossoms.
I float here like a burned child
in their blooming solution, here,
in the organic dark, root and bruised petal, leaf,
all joined in the drawing of water.
You are wading in from the doorway, neck-deep
and silent, brushing aside the fish,
the drifting weeds, your black chemicals
swallow me, swallow me.

Why I Hate the King

Yesterday, I snapped my silk suspenders

over my shoulders and thought about Charles I,
beheaded rather than hanged, “to spare him
the indignity of ejaculating in public.”
Every morning I try to save myself from this.

I’m thinking of a bearded lady as the axe falls.
I’m thinking of autumn pears, already
nailed to the ground in the backyard, already covered
by the silver shawl of my widowed season. It’s a dignity
we’d save ourselves from everyday, if only we could.