. In Memoriam Thomas James Smith, 1936-2016
Still this land the lotus
Devoured: still the frenzy
In our limbs. Some spirit
Takes this rutted track,
The stag rears, bites a blade
Of grass. Day recoils into dawn,
Wave and cloud and water
Scud over fields. At the cusp
Of Scorpio and zero, see
Each season end in longing
For the axe. When rain bilges
Around this Earth we sense
Death: the last syllable
Of any season, ruined fruit
Swarming with rot-drunk wasps.
And you, my darling, with me
Though I am dying like
The wasps, the fruit, the deer
The rain, the world:
Be near me, my love.
Old Town Square
Someone tosses crusts and scraps to the doves
as a clock tells midnight, its numbers wrought in gold.
This city shuts its heart against the cold
and drunks doze under bridges, dreaming methylated love.
Morning drops heavy on the drowsy streets,
birds scatter at the bawl of the matins bell.
A priest mumbles about deliverance from hell
as a shopkeeper gropes his wife beneath the sheets.
Bent against sunlit cobbles, an old drunk
drags a last draught from his smoke alone.
The shopkeeper, nearly there, ignores the phone
and gypsies flog tourists knocked-off junk.
The bells peal twelve: the shopkeeper gets there,
the priest intones a last, regretful O:
a baker rolls out the afternoon dough
and the drunks buy more booze: much better than prayer.
Solzhenitsyn in Vermont
Unfettered potentate in another’s kingdom,
Your eyes parse sharpened conifer oceans
Searching for parentheses. In each undulation
Of this landscape, a letter, a word: a letter
From the past, importing more than culture,
Each word an insect, teeming frantic
Primal commotion. This country half formed,
Born before its time, incubating under axe,
Spade and saw – yours a world lost, of double crosses,
Europe’s secret language, lemon tea with sugar
. In some truck stop diner, a starak
Enters, erect his broad-shouldered frame, beard
A tableau of too many winters spent
Where warmth is a reward, comfort a chimera.
His hands clutch the waxed cup (room
For cream? A shaken head) while on TV
A Black Hawk spirals downwards in the desert,
That face deadpans to camera I did not
Have sexual relations with that woman
And ten centuries of culture crumble into green
Facsimiles of Presidential achievement –
The talking dead. For man has forgotten God
(your words): why your homeland’s gyroscope
Spun out of control in nineteen-seventeen
And ours now wobbles perilously. Already pear-shaped
(As the English have it), we oscillate
Between the veiled and all-too naked,
From cesspit to minaret and every stage
Amongst these. Who am I to argue? No-one
Could have foreseen this tragedy of permission,
That God is dead: do what thou wilt
Might end in gnashing, wailing and did they
Do it for the cameras on live TV? Last
Sentinel of the old ways, testifying for the disparus
Or disparaissants, hierophant
Of orthodoxy’s heterogeneity: rest now,
Your prophecy fulfilled.
. Cobwebs collude
Across the thirty-volume Collected Works;
A red wheel spins somewhere still in space
And your archipelago’s wires work their way
Around the world, every typed utterance
A brick in Facebook’s gulag. I turn to my shelved
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, for
We are all Ivan, we are all in the Cancer Ward,
We are that red wheel, forever spinning,
Going nowhere unless we select
That path of most resistance destined
To take us to safety. This truth
You swallowed in hirsute silence
Among Vermont’s pines and splintered ice: home,
This landscape vide you longed to leave
To find your own, void in every sense,
Not so much changed as deflated, like this sphere
That promises much, but seems tiny compared
To the weight of technology you fought
Against and foresaw would be
Our dissolution. Sleep, old artificer,
Stand by us as we slide into dark-lit knowing,
Everything available at and for all time, not like
Fresh-spined books thick with dust, or
An old man alone in a truck-stop diner
Half a world away from his people’s soul.
The Final Mile
Tar-pitch night, and the proverbial
pedal at metal, or more precisely
foot-filthed shag carpet: hard
to predict when you’re running
on fumes and searching for an exit
what you might find in the end. The dread
of leaving pressed in your lips, eyes
on the road ahead. Accelero-speedo
flickers on the dash, querulous quivering
as that green-and-white sign looms up
announcing your destination
and the engine lowers
to a growl. You gear down, signal
and veer into darkness.
A heart hangs high over the white horses.
Your open-topped car; her bikini
a lithe cello. Azure azimuth, Bob Marley
asking what we all wanted to know – Could
You Be Loved? – on your pulsing backseat stereo.
We shuffled round that red-dirt diamond, a proving
ground for hearts and egos, rough beer
and weed’s sick scent. Ultraviolet light, spliced
mirror shades reflect the highway,
driving like hell to go cliff diving in the late
nineteen eighties. And on the radio now
it is the 80s always: Cheap Trick, Kon Kan, The Men
They Couldn’t Hang play today as they did then,
you who loved them not here to hear. Your face
stubbled under a bad night prior, lit cigarette
obtuse to your lip as you fill the tank; stealing
beer from student halls, getting drunk and back
to those Parthenon cliffs, incongruous reproduction,
Ancient Greece appended to North America’s edge.
Our champion jester, you eschewed the work-worn
path of College, grew thicker like the rest
but ran out of space to play, gone before
we could Say Hello, Wave Goodbye. So you will
spin forever in this air, never flailing or hitting
the water, suspended like the Sybil, upside down
against the tide and longing for what would never come:
over the white horses a heart hangs high.
. 9.11.2001 – 11.9.2016
We will never believe those mythic beasts
Suppressed by our laws exist
No matter how we trample them
With data, root, square and rule.
Watch them rise through the mist,
Ignored for decades, not slouching
To some birthplace, but formed, grown
In full violence and rearing to the sun
For blessing. Smoke from old fires
Catches our minds, thorn and sword
Scar humanity and yet digits
Are all we dare to believe,
Not finger touching finger in discovery
But bipolar pixellature, the unreal flip
Of plus or minus as this animal’s jaws
Gape over us in greeting.
-James W. Wood
James W. Wood
James W. Wood is the author of five books of poetry, most recently The Emigrant’s Farewell (The High Window Press, Leeds, UK, 2016). James was born in Scotland and now lives in Canada. His work has appeared across the USA, UK and Canada in publications such as The Boston Review (USA), The Fiddlehead (Canada), and The Times Literary Supplement (UK). He reviews books and music for Canada’s National Post group – find him @James_W_Wood.
James W. Wood: Biographical Note