Thomas Rabbitt



Fourteen poems, selected by Dan Albergotti:

See also An Interview with Thomas Rabbitt    




GARGOYLE



He looks down to watch the river twist
Like a dead vein into the suburbs.
From his height it is all flat, stone-grey
And ugly. He knows he himself is hideous,
Sterile, the artist’s pleasantry set up
To scare off devils. He knows nothing.
He is stunning in his pure impossibility.
Enough cherry trees blossom along the river.
Enough paired lovers gaze through the pink air.
Drab birds, disguised as money, sing prettily
And the sun blinds itself in the water.
He hears laughter. He knows nothing.
When the lovers glance up, they take him in.
Their looks are incidental, monumental, sweeping.


—from The Booth Interstate (Knopf, 1981)

 

 

TEACHING MY HORSES TO READ
 

One dark eye always looked away like
January and the wind took care of pages.
They chose anything: death, love, hearts that leak
Chamber to chamber, geometry, the stages
The Horse went through. What they’d been missing
Was the world beyond pasture when gods lived
And men breathed water. They were kissing
The leaves of the book and, had I not loved
Strange unalterable air, I’d have said
They were mistaking the pages for food.
Behind them, always, some danger about to erupt.
Overnight, grass became jimson and the dead
Browsed until dawn. They left nothing good.
Nothing one learned cannot delight or corrupt.

           

            —from The Booth Interstate (Knopf, 1981)


TORTOISE

  

I guess today’s another day among the days
When nothing ever happens well,
Another afternoon lost drinking, rocker
Jammed against the front porch wall.
Spring. And it has just stopped raining. Two boys
Coming loping up the muddy road.
The boys decide to stop, unload their load,
A turtle on the porch for me to praise,
Which I do, I do, box turtle, which they say
They found abandoned and alone
And nearly dead beside the road
And will I let them put it in my pond.
I will. I do. And when, just like a stone,
It sinks and does not rise again, I say,
Don’t worry, turtles always sink this way.
The boys spend hours watching and I sit back
To drink my beer. The ducks raise hell. The sun
Setting lights up the water while the boys
Gaze out over the pond. They shake their heads
And take this as their loss. Yes, I can lie.
Yes, I will tell them what I do not know.

           

            —from The Abandoned Country (Carnegie Mellon, 1988)

 



 

 

 

AMONG THE MISSING

 

 

The bay filly tied to the stoutest apple tree
Finds the right height sucker to break and put
Her left eye out. She is crying her left eye out.
Already the ooze of half her world is what I get
For my stupidity. With her face to the sun,
Her muzzle trapped by the small green apples,
She lets the black stud mount. Sour, green maternity.
She broods. This half of what she’ll ever see
Right now, through sharp leaves, the sunlight dapples.

 

            —from The Abandoned Country (Carnegie Mellon, 1988)


BERNADETTE MURPHY, 1943-1955


  

Fat girls have more fun in the woods
Is what boys said. What did I know?

An Indian fell from the cliff
To name Sally’s Rock. This was truth.

What did I know? The Army Camp
Was built to keep the Russians out.

This was truth. Ike was President.
Bernadette did it if you asked.

To keep Russians out of our woods
All day we slunk from tree to rock.

If you ask now what I saw then
I have to say what I said then.

Nothing. Bernadette was climbing
Sally’s Rock. It’s what we all did.

From tree to rock to cliff. For fun.
She’d found a cave where she could watch

While I looked everywhere for her
And no matter how mad I got

She would watch. She would not call out.
I saw then that she must hate me,

So I got mad. It did no good.
I found the ledge. It did no good.

I hated her. And ran away.
And told them at the Army Camp

That a stupid fat girl was naked
In a cave high on Sally’s Rock.

The Army Camp turned out to look
For Bernadette, and found her

Dead on the stones beneath the cliff,
And asked me again what I knew.

Fat girls have more fun in the woods.
The Army keeps the Russians out.

Bernadette does it if you ask.
An Indian fell from the cliff.

Beneath the cliff the soldiers found
Nothing. What did I know? Nothing.

Ike was President. This was truth.
Bernadette loved you if you asked.

 

            —from Enemies of the State (Black Belt, 2000)

 


 

 

 

THE BLACK WINE OF LI PO

 

 

Men die. My last friend told me that I might find
In the Chinese poets rare complexity
And depth of character. Dull joke, dead friend,
Who can neither commit prolixity
With me again nor reach to touch my hand.
One morning, when the air outside my window
Crackles with birdsong and the smell of pine,
I will set down my brush and let it blot.
I will take up the pot of ink and drink
Pine soot, carp skin, the dark draught of romance
Which, no matter its complex depths, will not
Deliver the cure against what I think.
My tongue could sketch the character for soul,
Tree or mountain. Instead I draw the fool.

 

            —from Enemies of the State (Black Belt, 2000)


THE CAVE OF THE WINDS

 

 

While the entire state of Alabama waits for the latest tornado
To blow over, some of us sit in Papa Boccaccio's wine cellar
And suck up the courage of the evening's breezy convictions.
Meanwhile the wind savagely strips spring's pale innocent leaves
From the saplings the city just planted. Where else might we go
And still pretend we were not intended to die in Tuscaloosa?

In barbaric China a ploughman unearths his Emperor's dream.
Erect in their underground bunkers handsome clay soldiers await
The invigorating kiss of war. Listen to the drumbeat, the bright fife,
The scream of dying horses. The witch whispers her magic too late
To save us from our dark basement. In the underworld of the afterlife,
This still air of art, we are but clay faces in the Emperor's empty head.

That head, my lord? Cleopatra asks, faced with an important choice.
Good my lord, we are all unplucked fruit. If you depend on me,
May I depend upon whichever head, my lord, it pleases me to chose?
She is fair Egypt, rare desert flower, as cruel as any king, wittier
Than any woman I have ever known. Her game I always lose.
If, like a fool, I listen, will I, while dying, hear the sword's swift voice?

In Eyre Square in Galway City a sculpted poet sits like a lump of wit.
Padraic O'Conaire has won: coldest, curtest, cutest of the Seven Dwarves.
With brazen souls the Irish have their way: the Hags with the Bags,
The Floozie in the Jacuzzi – all art must suck at the witch's tit.
Mad Ireland goes to Disney; so much mad lethal brilliance swerves
To avoid the truth. Yes, Paddy, the public Soul begs in greasy rags.

Most recently in cultured, cluttered Tuscaloosa a bit of statuary rape:
A fascist fountain – a rising pride of eyeless, sexless, hairless boys –
All ass and pectorals – upholding water and a pyramid of one another –
Seducing the eye with flesh, the willing ear with the playful noise
Of falling water – for what we sought to see was ever wet and ripe,
And therefore must be razed to rubble, like one more dead lover.

Maybe tomorrow morning we will wake to find socialist realism
At the cellar door, Marc Antony's head back on his unloved neck,
The bodies of the stone boys in Tuscaloosa still a promise of sin.
If we wake, we are alive. Should we ignore life's minor failures?
Stalin is toothless. The Chinese communes are the glum wreckage
Of intellectual desire. We are still the brilliant clay we burrow in.

            —from Prepositional Heaven (River City, 2001)


HALLOWEEN



When at last the sleet began to strike
My window, I pulled back. Ice shattered
Itself as if it could destroy the reflecting glass
And me behind it. Ice soon greased each spike
Of the black fence, each delinquent leaf in a battery
Of bleared hope, cruel Christ’s bright and suffocating mass.
Against my tongue the parlor window stuck like ice.
Against my eyes the cold panes wore a smudge
Of lips, my name erased, a grillwork lace
Of tic-tac-toe rubbed out. Could I begrudge
God’s wrath its weather? Rain should have been blood,
Red fog on the moon, not His wet ghost climbing
From the graveyard to fill my cold childhood
With a face like my own, glaring through the skull of time.

 

            —from Prepositional Heaven (River City, 2001)

 

 

 

THE BEASTS OF COOLE PARK

             

Their hearts have not grown old...

                                                 — W. B. Yeats

 

Like a wolf with wings I will circle back
Through a wet December dawn to the deer
Racing the high walls of their asylum.
These survive: the two does and the buck,
The green silence, the soft rain, and the fear
Like the ghost of a house where not one room
Still stands and none of those whose words could break
The wild heart still lives to open a door,
To breathe one bright syllable of welcome.
Like a wolf with wings I have circled back
Through the empty park to the frightened deer.
Their wild eyes bleed and scream, their wild hearts drum
Like great wings beating still, like the white birds
Who could bring back dead souls or lovely words
Were madness merely a matter of will.

 

            —from Prepositional Heaven (River City, 2001)


ORPHEUS AT THE RIVER




All these years and still his brain will recoil,
As mute thought rebels, against the edict:
A poet found wandering the high roads
Shall be stripped of lute and pen and the name
Of the unspeakable god shall be tattooed
Across his breast. Thenceforth the snake he wore
Flicked at one small nipple a tongue like teeth.
He was beheaded, his body left nude,
Skinned nearly raw, simulacrum removed,
Mere blackened meat to feed the Thracian crows.
Legless drunk all these centuries of turmoil,
Like flotsam his head tossed from whore to whore,
He loses in this game all sense of who
She was and why he sang for her before
The darkness and the thoughtful silence came.
 

            —from Prepositional Heaven (River City, 2001)

 

 

 

A FIELD IN TENNESSEE



The doe caught in the fence is dead of course.
Her fawns – cute as can be – wait in the weeds
For her to untangle herself from this.
Circling through their vortex of appetite
Buzzards soar, flight feathers slicing light,
Their shadows altering the way chance lies.
This is a waiting game. Cicadas buzz
In the woods beyond. A slow black snake slides
Across a stone. Nothing’s still and nothing
Seems to move. Even the tangled wires hum,
Carrying old news, these matters of fact.
Like dried blood on barbs deflecting the light,
Like the swarm of flies promising new life,
Nothing’s pointless under the spinning sun.



ON THE BEACH AT LACKAN BAY




She wondered as she drank that the cold sea
Didn't taste like sweat or tears. Who was Christ
The King that he didn't need one like Breege
To test his cup for him? Who was so chaste
Her tongue hadn't tasted her saviour's skin
Or felt his flesh crawling in the wet grit?
She knelt at the sea's edge. Washed by the foam,
She thought she heard the voice of her lost lover
Caught in the gull's wail. Poor Breege was mistaken.
Breege was disturbed. Angels whispered, Come, come
To grief, lie here and taste the living water.
They said he was lovesick. She understood
Their whispering. Poor faithless Breege whose lover
Has walked into the sea. Who was so good …

 



 

 

TO THE NEW WORLD

  

The neighbor has dragged his cow to the riverside
And dumped her in. Sure, hadn’t she died?
A gift for the gods who took her so.
And there she goes
Bobbing on the black Clare’s tide
Over the salmon weirs, under the bridge at Ballygaddy,
Down to Galway, down to the hungry sea.
Why wouldn’t she look like Brendan’s boat?
Riding her back, legs raised like oars in a stiff salute,
She’s saying goodbye to all this life’s misery.
She’s a saint. She’s off to the New World.
A man weary of wind and rain might hitch a ride,
Sure within the sprung ribs, safely curled
For the trip like a foetus inside the salted hide.

 

            —originally published in The Greensboro Review #72 (fall 2002)

 


 

 

THE CONFERENCE



Behind him, blackboards like grey palimpsests
Where his boys scrawled and erased glyphs and runes
Which, the mother saw, no one but a priest
Could ever read, would ever be allowed to.
Her son, she saw, was one of them and lost
To her forever. Now what could she do?
She lied: He reads books about dogs and horses,
Horses and dogs, nothing else. Chalk dust
Sifted through the air, built tiny dunes
In the corners and turned the priest’s hair grey.
No harm, the priest said, what the lad reads now.
She saw snow drifting and her son grown old.
In his soutane he stood outside the window
And shivered and stared at her through the cold.

 

 

The author of several books of poems—including Exile (1975), The Booth Interstate (1981), The Abandoned Country (1988), Enemies of the State  (2000), and Prepositional Heaven  (2001) — Thomas Rabbitt has retired from his teaching career and currently lives and writes in Tennessee.  In 1972, he founded the MFA program in creative writing at The University of Alabama.  In Fall 2004 NewSouth Books will release American Wake: New & Selected Poems.