what life remains?
These bones rattle in an empty house.
Do they yet recognize that they're alone?
To change your language you must change your life.*
I cannot read the world I left behind.
I wake, the road still underneath my wheels.
Curves bend into curves,
and trees all look the same.
How long was I away?
What kept me driving when I wasn't here?
In a vast desert, sun always at noon,
no water and no road, no way across,
did ravens pick my bones, teach me to speak,
while all the time, alone, I felt life change,
words changing in my bones?
Have I been to the horizon and returned?
Washed up on this new beach, scoured to dry bones,
I rattle in an empty house,
but cannot fault it for its emptiness.
After the autoclave, the desert sand, the sea,
What animates these bones?
What pulls them forward,
ties them to the past,
that foreign world?
This snapshot looks like me.
Laughing, in a wide field,
I carry a huge pumpkin on my head,
Beneath a low sky, gray like drifting ash.
What can this mean?
Without the words to tell them what they were,
how can these bones know what they must become?
*(The italicized line is from Derek Walcott, "Codicil.")
I recognize these bog men, dupes of love.
With craggy features (squashed a bit,
it's true) and ragged hair,
and stubble on their chins,
they look a lot like me.
True, their eye sockets are empty,
and their skin
is stained the color of my favorite shoes,
but those stark cheekbones,
those receding chins?
That's me: a dirty mirror.
They don't look happy, have no need to smile.
That anthropologist looked in their bellies?
He found cracked barley, millet:
crap from a birdfeeder.
So food is fuel, still I'd hate
for the last thing in my guts to be granola.
And it gets worse. These poor guys died for love.
Each went to the bog to spend the hereafter
rubbing bellies with a Goddess.
Perhaps even I
could die for such love,
could spend eternity with an immortal,
invest an afterworld with bliss.
But then I try to do the math,
and though I cannot count these sacrificial men
(there are more buried than have been dug up)
I can count their Goddess: only One.
Each one of these guys bought a bill of goods.
Each, killed for love eternal, spent
a single winter knocking boots with a Goddess,
then found, the first warm day,
the contract null and void.
Imagine that first summer spent
alone and dead, garroted
or gap-throated, millet-gutted,
curing in a bog.
What's there to smile about:
come autumn a new romantic in her bed?
Nothing left now but patience.
They lie in the lowlands with granola in their guts.
They wait for peat cutters and scientists,
a glass case, a museum,
a caption, an etched label--
a chance to warn by example.
DARWIN CONSOLES THE FROZEN BABY
The world in places has been so befouled,
That infants are sometimes born without brains.
Anencephalic babies only live
A few days. Was your death so preordained?
Born to a couple without common sense,
Who took you cross-country skiing. If you'd been poor,
And starved, Malthus would have excused your death.
My speculations run a different path:
Is common sense a heritable trait?
Did Nature, merciless, planning ahead,
Cull you unverified from the gene pool?
Selection works both ways: unfit parents
Must fail, at last, to reproduce themselves
Regardless of the fitness of their young.
One cannot know, of course, what other traits
May have converged in you and been effaced.
Perhaps your parents' too-developed sense
Of wonder in the face of the sublime
Was amplified in you. Alone you rode,
Inadequately swathed, your father's back,
You shivered some, but then were struck to calm
By shades of sky reflected in the snow
And all the delicate crystal spark and flash
Of sun on ice forms growing from the rocks.
DROWNING IN AIR
On moving day, in the farmhouse,
I find a chimney swift
Like a big dried leaf
Dead on the kitchen floor.
I didn't notice him
Until I caught him with my toe,
Heard him skitter away like a live thing.
In the living room, the study, the bedroom,
Flecks of birdlime.
A few around each window,
One on the fireplace screen,
Testimony to persistence,
Failed patterns, hope.
In a disused cistern,
To the echoed slap and rattle
Of my footfalls,
I find a skull, and then another.
Raccoons. Five. All drowned.
Beyond the ladder and hatch it is August.
But down here, sweat turns clammy.
My tee shirt, clinging, chills.
I wrap the skulls in my bandana,
Climb back up the ladder toward the sky.
I lock the hatch, in my imagination,
On a lone raccoon swimming dark, cold waters,
Relentless in the patterns of his hope.
I'm terrified of drowning:
The sudden plunge, the shore too far to reach,
The wet embrace
Of one who holds me suspended
until, exhausted and trusting,
I lay my head on her breast and breathe.
I know that the swift took a long time to die,
That he suffered and starved in his trap,
But his death seems familiar: a stepwise progression
From the known to the unexplored.
Then, sudden recognition,
The remembered world through dirty windows
And no return.
Jim Hilgartner has published fiction in Mid-American Review, New Orleans Review, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, The Distillery, Greensboro Review, The Worcester Review, Red Mountain Review, and elsewhere. Recipient of a Fellowship in Literature from the Alabama State Council on the Arts, he currently lives in Monroeville, where he serves as Director of the Alabama Center for Literary Arts. A lifelong martial artist, he also runs a small dojo in Monroeville, teaching Bujinkan budo taijutsu, the ancient warrior art of Japanís historic ninja.