At the Visitor’s Center
The river came through here once, and when it left it was steam. Bad ears, that river—thought our oxbow promised stream, didn’t know our shores so sharp they sometimes carve the consonants away. What did it expect, that river? This is a land of shattered bottles, slivered glass for sand.
You ask if all our men have artificial legs, if every door’s a mirror, every woman named -Conundra? There’s our hotel: stay a while, see. (What’s a while? Time here, it’s measured in vials, meted out by a five-year-old child.) And of your other questions: do all our stinging nettles sing as they sting, our wasps whisper their scent for flesh, all our birds rat-tat-tat on metal all day? Stay!
Nothing dystopic about us here, don’t worry. Not a pickpocket in the place. (So what if we have no pockets? our Head Comedian says.) Though we live in glass houses, we have no stones. (It’s true that we were prairie once, that switchgrass grew, but that was before the mountains moved in with their suitcases of white & green, the deer armed with 22s poured out of the four-o’clock train.)
And for you today, special: we’ve opened our vault of secrets, for in secrets we find happiness, & there’s no end to our secrets: they’re like our money: we just make more.
Y’all have terrible taste, a tour guide shouted at us once, so to gratify his group we gathered in the public square, cut out our tongues. What a dumb thing to do, they said, so in chorus we said Who’s gonna give you directions out of town now, lost ones? but it didn’t sound so good, all vowel & pain, & they fled in horror, & we laughed, the old tongue-tucked-down-the-throat trick, ketchup-packet trick— that’s the kind of fun we have here, we with our armed deer, sun setting through the steam of our spent river, our women’s triple-callused feet strolling the strands of slivered glass, lovers spreading copper blankets for picnics.
Sister, they called him,
& it’s too complicated to get into here: let’s just say it had to do with this family of sixteen (five parents, Wyoming), the Sixties, shared clothes, few shoes, one bureau of drawers to serve thirteen kids less than nine months apart, competition (frantic hands in those drawers), five parents in the stone-strewn field all day, field that yielded nothing—desiccated carrots, cabbages like cardboard—those same parents giving each child a name as was legal (after #7, though, papers filled out, never turned in, “6.5” they called the one buried near the failed kale, “not notated,” the father decreed, “no need—should have fed it to the others” (no laughter from the women) and Sister, not quite the youngest (not clear who was the youngest), him not ever informed what underwear to wear, what shirts (if any were left), & anyway this was just about the time the parents, Our Parents, they called them (though one of the kids, an older girl, once joked that Father-parent should be called Faster Get It Over, that’s what the Mother-parents called him up there in the room), but only a few knew that was a joke & the boy didn’t, that’s for sure, & anyway his Random Clothes Period (lasted nine years) was around the time the Parents stopped calling them any names at all, just hollered Brother or Sister (Suster, one of the mothers pronounced it) and because of what he often ended up wearing they called him Sister, but there was one girl, the one who joked the Faster Get It Over thing, who whispered to him one day, You’re not Sister, Sister: you’re Brother, and don’t forget that, but that one, she walked out of the house the night Father-parent said Come upstairs, I want to teach you fealty & she went upstairs & learned fealty and then just before the sun came up Sister sat up in the middle of the floor-blankets & snorers & saw her go to the drawers, pull out some things & not put on shoes but carry shoes & she was gone, Sister never saw her again—& I’m sorry, I just can’t get into all the history of the Sister thing & why he kept that name even after the Authorities came in their blue vans & by the time Sister was in the group home, by the time he was as old as the girl who left, they said We want to give you a name, what about Cody, what about Cheyenne, what about Orrin, but Sister, he kept saying, Sister, so they gave him Sister, & of course that part is just a part of it, not the Before Part about the Father-horsewhip or the Mother-shotgun (them taking turns & all that) & the Father-accident & sirens & the other Authorities, so Sister he goes out into the world, finds Our Lord Jesus Christ & meets a priest who says You have a vocation and we’re sending you to a special place, and Sister thinks he’d said vacation & anyway likes it where they send him, he has his own room & soon they call him Father Sister, and that’s where the trouble started, they say, it had to do with a certain sermon, one that went south they say on the Immaculate Conception—but that part, that’s a really confusing story...
The Black Book
Each Sunday he does this: wide-nibbed #3 Permanent pen, starts at the edges—sure hand, careful rectangles, works his way in, the sheets of paper blacken, the white space contracting with each stroke, obscuring permanently what he wrote the week before. Yesterday, his poem: September, calm waters / warp of mirror-light / the solitary fisherman / twenty-two days at sea / bends / sees his own kind face… lines disappearing now in the black ink, the air heavy with fumes of it, first one pass: September, calm / warp of mirror / the solitary / twenty-two days / bends... the poem’s sense lost now as the old space filigreed with words drowns in ink, soon the whole script gone, fish & fisherman, warp & mirror—bound to heavier black, the page put away now, added to the rest, then at year’s end the whole sheaf of it covered in goatskin, sewn, its red-inked cover (picture of a schooner, drawn by a friend) sent into the dark, too, and now it’s all black, the black bleed on the back of pages like bruises, someone said, and he calls it—as he always calls it—The Black Book.
New Year’s Eve he has a party at his place, his friends drink to the new Black Book, take turns holding it—see if they can find a word or two (they rarely do). They like holding it, but at last they do give it up, gather at the woodstove, watch him toss it in.
Gerald Fleming's most recent book is One, an experiment in monosyllabic prose poems (Hanging Loose, Brooklyn). His next book, The Bastard and the Bishop, is due out in spring, also from Hanging Loose. Fleming's most recent editing work is The Collected Poetry and Prose of Lawrence Fixel, out this year from Sixteen Rivers Press in San Francisco.