When I stared too long into these Missouri hills,
they curled like slings around broken limbs,
and out came creepers edging the treeline, men with maps,
ancestral black earth, raw childless wind, water.
None of these things were mine. I gave them back
to a minister named Perry, so he might deliver them
from his Sunday pulpit, so he might
find within his open Bible an angel’s wing
that holds a place, that holds a passage
from this earth to the next, and he would keep it
for himself. That minister was and will forever
be a fool. He never did represent me
or my country, which I gave back
and found waiting under the same
bridge I crept out from. When I was young,
our cherry tree squirmed its roots towards
China and brought the truly exotic
women within reach. Summer. Noon. I would
fall asleep under the canopy and dream of them.
I imagined their lips were already songs.
Women like that lit fires in the belly
of my father’s Buick when it wouldn’t
turn over. I watched him lug it from the garage,
beat the hood with a sledge and call it a lousy
American tramp. My father spelled disasters.
You could find him everywhere.
He was like these hills. He towered over
engines that misfired or didn’t fire at all.
He knew the mechanics of anger
and frustration because his life
was complete and adorned with roadways
that led him to upper management.
I found it nonsensical, chose instead to let
a few musicians show me the true meaning
of a fifth of bourbon and a barstool
too far from any rocky coast to conjure
an ocean, this river had to suffice.
Stack-O-Lee shot Billy Lyons next to it.
Down near Morgan Street. He didn’t shoot him
over a Stetson or cards. It was politics.
And then I became a man, and acted like one.
I followed his trail to the city to find or buy love
somewhere in the music that boomed
from the stacks of steamboats
broken on the Mississippi’s filthy shore.
I crossed over one night and came back
married to my own desires, which meant
I’d found the strip clubs and drank all night.
Someone called out the river’s depth
as I passed over, and it began to rain.
The city tucked itself under its wing.
A barge dredged for constellations
in the water, and the youthful deities
of wine and dance got covered in it,
plastered in river sludge from head to foot.
I got into my car and turned away
from the sunrise toward the hills and ruins
of a speakeasy. Nothing left but a stone chimney.
Castlewood, Missouri. Al Capone sought refuge
when he was this way, heading for those
always distant hills, and soon the time came
when even I had to pull over and shake
the stink of stripper from my jacket.
I felt like a big Italian woman. My great great
grandmother beating Sienna from her rugs
till its dust swelled in her lungs and she tasted
all the misfortune and suffering to come.
Even my death hovered in her sloppy arm
before it swooped and landed another blow.
Her veins, which were bluer than any river,
became a river worth living next to. That woman
never felt useless or outmoded a day in her life.
One morning, I went to grab the paper and minister Perry
was waiting outside chanting snakes. He lured me
to a fishing boat and set me into the river.
This is God’s river, he said. Your heritage is
as holy and wet as the noses of catfish under
this skiff. I lowered my hat brim and watched two
squirrels scramble loose from oak branch
to maple and back for almost an hour,
one of them caught up in the rush of wanting
to be on top of the other. I busted the sun
peeking and smelled honeysuckle drifting
from the ether. It reminded me of those Chinese
women under the cherry tree singing
on the other side of the earth, in silk,
in clouds of red silk, and that’s when I knew
I loved my father but could never replicate
his body. His back was as tall as a hill
rising to meet a red-tailed hawk
for breakfast. I felt his hands touch
my shoulders as gently as he touched
anything in his entire life, and although I cannot
understand the certitude of cosmologies,
I know that I was born late and frail.
My star hovered over the water at night
then sank under its unbearable weight.
I waved goodbye to the ghosts
of my childhood and married a woman
who was better than jasmine on my tongue.
She took me to a peasant’s Paris to float
on the Seine, which was not my river,
which was not my cathedral or carnival feast.
There is no Mediterranean I can’t absolve
with a garland of soot, thorn and backwater.
The church bells said goodbye and waved
the way an old man once shook out his hanky
to wipe the tears from the cheek of his bride,
my mother, her mother and every mother
who has borne a body of water that went
nowhere and stank brighter than the halos
of angels. My wife Regina came to understand.
She is the single sweetness I have tasted
and not turned bitter from, the tasting, fell
as a meteorite onto the string of the guitar
a Creole man with four fingers played.
His eyes were closed. He didn’t know I was there.
He didn’t know his harmonies sizzled in dry grass,
but he halted just the same and sipped an oyster
clean from its shell down to the gullet.
Later, a six-foot snake slipped into the graveyard
at my grandfather’s funeral, climbed a tree, wound
its body around a branch and ate robin eggs
out of the nest, one at a time. It might have been
that guitar player. The eggs probably tasted
of freshwater oysters, and Perry’s church choir
sang about a shopkeeper who never dies,
who only counts his stock and dusts
his shelves and waits patiently for the time
of burning grace to descend.
Their music scattered like seed. I listened
to the distant barge traffic curdle and knew
I could never leave home, even if I wanted to.
Regina and I watched that minister
bury my grandfather at our feet
in a pit on a hill with a black snake run up
the tree like the flag of this country.
He sermonized an afterlife without peril.
Afterwards, we walked a mile through blight
and found a hawk on a dumpster behind the Chinese
restaurant. It was still morning, but we could smell
last night’s braised pork hanging from its beak.
To him, we were no bother.
His head dipped in and out of plastic bags
like a torch that can’t be extinguished.
We settled into a cantina booth a few blocks
up the road. The footsteps of the waitress
startled me, and I felt I was being over dramatic.
Like how my father waited years for the mechanic’s
whiskered prognosis, timing belt, thermostat
housing, sway bar, junkyard. The dead
abdicate these small privileges and disintegrate.
The gastronomy of hills takes over.
I ordered what passed for huevos rancheros
and went to the bathroom.
Pissing on that blue urinal cake felt nothing like Greece.
I never was a supplicant to Achilles.
My education was public.
The Mississippi creased the back of my country
like the spine of an open book titled patriotism.
I never fought pigeons for scraps to call breakfast,
never plucked the whites out of a man’s eyes
in new issue boots. I daydreamed women
underneath a cherry tree, traversed
the glory of blue afternoon skies,
was tricked by a minister at the river,
waded into the current to be baptized.
There, knee deep in bilge, all my shortcomings
were forgiven, my doom made certain.
Nothing miraculous can be forestalled.
My father became the glorious red-tailed hawk
on the edge of a rancid dumpster,
the twentieth century.
Still, he square danced with my mother
every Saturday when someone booked
a caller, drifted from the dance floor
into an orchard and conceived a family
on a bed of constellations, the streaming hair
of apple trees, while all those men and women
who danced simply faded from the planet.
Funny. Our kitchen table had a pine veneer.
My father polyurethaned three extra coats.
It was like staring at a felled tree in a shallow
bend in the river every time
we sat down to pray.
All of this I’m remembering now, at a desk,
peeling an orange,
as the universe gets its virginity back
to lose again during the next meteor shower.
We may be reborn like this, although
most of us end up mounted to the wall
in a museum like a dull axe, as forgotten
and worthless as a coin buried in the hillside,
our bodies cursed or filled with baptismal light.
Only invisible things are worth weeping for.
When I was young I thought words like majesty
had a purpose and were not just decorations
for the divinely inbred, but I have been wrong
about many things. I held my wife by the tail end
in the elevator going up to our honeymoon suite,
and she had a current stronger than any Mississippi.
The clerk at the desk brought us ice in the morning.
A few years later we lost a week in a Parisian hostel.
It was abstract. The lost time boiled off as vapor.
Light streamed around her, changed her. Not holy.
The river wasn’t holy. Nobody I knew would’ve dared
to eat a fish out of it. Not my father,
until he became a hawk and gleamed,
and I don’t know much about Apollinaire,
other than how I imagine him, looking into the Seine
and thinking about the things that remain, weeping
for the things that disappear. I was dramatic
about my country once and tried to give it back
to some minister with his angel feather
tucked in a Bible that would get him to heaven,
and the Creole guitar player I listened to
at an oyster bar the night I met my wife became
a snake in a cemetery tree eating robin eggs,
became an omen or the flag of my country
I’m tired of retelling the story of the cosmos
one hill, one river, one sloppy armed great great
Italian grandmother at a time. I laugh,
and a sunset overtakes me, closes me down.
The natural world is full of this arrogance,
therefore I’m full of arrogance,
with my minor secrets,
my small history rotting me from the inside out,
my sun stalled over the Missouri hills where
my father’s Buick has finally rolled to a stop.