by Ryan Harper
I said, “I will water my garden and drench my flower-beds.” And lo, my canal became a river, and my river a sea. –Sirach 24:31
I. St. Francis
He has tamed the wild dogs of the mountains,
Angelenos. Dream light:
valved and fixed behind him wag the converts
steady, contracting, the snowpack heeling
through the valley. Restless
groves of orange men congest the city
gates, palms up,
hailing in return the browning master
of nature, rapt with the vast
inner resource, leashed and channeled, given
mass, spilled out for you,
Angelenos. Drink—no longer strangers
to the passed cup;
take as charity, as right, the healing
waters, the long
dole, the great repairer of the valley
final swab across his golden brow. Your
life, friends, is pouring.
Rolled in the earthenware there is a deed.
when the spillway opens
the big white tears up
the Mandan lodges in pocked state
holed up and broken.
In the sky there is a watcher.
in winter she walks her sundogs
across the lake
they flank her through
the fish house colony
scenting the course
of this present world
the promise of return
settling in tired frames
for the seasonal claims
In spring the northern pike will grow aggressive.
flanked with hard light
mottled and horny
charging at every opening
all ears will be on the water
they will have faces
which will have ears
listening for the breaches
watching earthward for the deed.
Within our gates
only nothing comes
to no good: really
crappie—black mark set
across the hybrid
face, bred for capture;
white female, black
male, shining, battered
against the roiled rock
of waters. Sardis
anglers use live bait,
fingers soiled, clothes ash.
Is the river
moving—the dammed fry
without time to think
streamwise pecks in still
shallows, will fly full
to jig, gull, sky, slab.
Bye bye blackbird—
I do not know how
I am involved; I
know I am, this old
down, snagged in my ribs,
mad to rush heartwise.
Fo fum—the round earth bored
to the bedrock, the buried corps
shakes the lone woman crying thunder
on the hunch of old giants.
Some pipes are sacred; some keep
time in knots, when big men and lesser nodes
abjure the swells of unencompassed earth,
attempting to ease passage, moony and exact.
But true flow is firm, grounded as kin,
passing light to dark and back. Standing rock.
No lives, friends, are made boring
the ground—for issue of blood,
for inner resource, cast your own round
core into the deep, see what you strike.
I heard it before I felt it,
the flood riding seismic
down Main Street, a river
running backward, big catch
thrashing in the polyp
of the Tennessee Valley—
the head of the rush, not as white
as one would think, but white enough.
Birmingham: a sundown town
at its day’s end. I was dead to it
as the upstream smelt, dark men
arming a confederacy
at the edge of plantation country—
iron and night terrors
in the upper regions, nothing
to no good. Ask the last
healers what to call a land
between made waters—
this volunteer separation,
this trace, tallest at withers,
baldest in wallows. Drowned,
involved in recreation
I troll marinas, wide loops
in the summer. I am tangled
ever in the hidden snarls
of the old home place.
That may change. In the dry days
Birmingham again goes visible.
You will see it before you feel it,
when surfaces recede.
Big heads in feather-burst
and a secret dance:
the men of Ophir knew
how to weather, possibly,
the promise of returns—
the rumble, the latest rush
down the spillway; the frequency
of emergency, the amplitude—
a known beat by then. In the dance,
the story: how the first hot-breathed
suitors circled Table Mountain—
purple, winded to the falls,
claiming low, working up
the seams, gold to water,
every vertical rush
a prospect, a fault, a bank
broken. Most are gone.
Their circle remains
on the southern face, almost
ready to last. The morning star
in secret rises—as the river
succeeds the promise—
the old weather returns.
The men of Ophir
make for the high places;
the latest suitors erode headward.
He has toned the valley for the great waking;
lay you every burden down,
who would drink. Sunrise on Shasta, the bellmouth
yawns daemonic, gathering
the waters skyward. This will be the closing,
the last drawdown. The blackbird
has spoken his fill; now for the kingfisher
rattling hell on the riprap,
broken crest and rust belt, pray
to dash the steelhead against the rocks, mad skell
shoring against the ruins,
Shasta called down, thin brown man at riverside
lighting his golden fire
at angels’ feet—every valley exalted—
your death and your life—touching
Shasta—shadowless—drunk in morning glory.
Ryan Harper is a faculty fellow in Colby College’s Department of Religious Studies. He is the author of The Gaithers and Southern Gospel: Homecoming in the Twenty First Century (University Press of Mississippi, 2017) and My Beloved Had a Vineyard, winner of the 2017 Prize Americana in poetry (Poetry Press of Press Americana, 2018). Some of his recent poems and essays have appeared in Jelly Bucket, La Presa, Cimarron Review, Chattahoochee Review, America, Alligator Juniper, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere.