The Bridge

by Rodney Jones

These fulsome nouns, these abbreviations of air,
Are not real, but two of them may fit a small man
I knew in high school who, seeing an accident,
Stopped one day, leapt over a mangled guardrail,
Took a mother and two children from a flooded creek,
And lifted them back to the world. In the dark,
I do not know, there is a saying, but he pulled
Them each up a tree, which was not the tree of life
But a stooped Alabama willow, flew three times
From the edge of that narrow bridge as though
From the selfless shore of a miracle, and came back
To the false name of a real man, Arthur Peavahouse.
He could sink a set shot from thirty feet. One night
I watched him field a punt and scat behind a wall
Of blockers like a butterfly hovering an outhouse.
He did not love the crashing of bodies. He
Did not know that mother and her three children
But went down one huge breath to their darkness.
There is no name for that place, you cannot
Find them following a white chain of bubbles
Down the muddy water of these words. But I saw
Where the rail sheared from the bridge—which is
Not real since it was replaced by a wider bridge.
Arthur Peavahouse weighed a hundred and twenty pounds.
Because he ran well in the broken field, men
Said he was afraid. I remember him best
At a laboratory table, holding a test tube
Up to the light, arranging equations like facts,
But the school is air over a parking lot. You
Are too far from that valley for it to come
All the way true, although it is not real.
Not two miles from that bridge, one afternoon
In March, in 1967, one of my great-uncles,
Clyde Maples, a farmer and a commissioner of roads,
And his neighbor, whose name I have forgotten,
Pulled more than a hundred crappies off three
Stickups in that creek—though the creek is not
Real and the valley is a valley of words. You
Would need Clyde Maples to find Arthur Peavahouse,
And you would need Clyde Maples’ side yard
Of roadgraders and bulldozers to get even part
Of Clyde Maples, need him like the crappies
Needed those stickups in the creek to tell them
Where they were. Every spring that creek
Darkens with the runoff of hog lots and barns,
Spreading sloughs, obscuring sorghum and corn.
On blind backwater full schoolbuses roll
Down buried roads. Arthur Peavahouse was smart
To run from the huge tackles and unthinking
To throw himself into that roiling water
And test the reality of his arms and lungs.
Many times I have thought everything I said
Or thought was a lie, moving some blame or credit
By changing a name, even the color of a lip or bush,
But whenever I think of the lie that stands for truth,
I think of Arthur Peavahouse, and not his good name,
But his deciding, as that car settled to the bottom,
To break free and live for at least one more moment
Upward toward light and the country of words
While the other child, the one he could not save,
Shrugged behind him in the unbreakable harness.

Rodney Jones from Salvation Blues (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), reprinted by permission from author.