JAMES ARMSTRONG

 

Elements

1.
When you left for Sweden I went every day
to the path you had shown me,
a place from your childhood.
There was a small pool, shaded with low trees,
and if I looked into it
I could sometimes see the still
form of a minnow
hanging in the light.
It was somehow you–
buoyant, breathing slowly
taking the world inside yourself
with a clear gaze and delicate fins.
Why do you live down there?
I wanted to shout—
in a different element?
The wind marred the pool’s surface.
You disappeared.
And that was the beginning of
my apprenticeship.

2.
I wandered far from you,
rode a bicycle through Scotland and
saw your face in a vault boss of Melrose
Abbey—that ruined place
where a people had changed their mind
and left their god
propped up under a shattered nave.

The river was beautiful the
hills were beautiful and
the rain was just old trembling
made charming by distance.
I stood for a long time under the fallen roof
doing my imitation
of the 19th century, sketching you in pencil,
your dreaming medieval face
at the apex.
The waves of your stone hair.
Someone—a stone cutter—had seen you
and said “angel.”
Had put you beyond the rain’s tears
or anyone.
Wide-open eyes.
Lips of stone.
 
 
 


 

Empire

I slept on the deck
of the overnight ferry to Tunis–
salt rime of night,
tremor of engines,
wet vowels of the sea–
I say sleep: it wasn’t.
More an extended reverie;
the radar turning and turning
like the head of an owl,
waves thudding the ferry’s steel.
It was August, 1979,
so many young people like me
on leave from university,
on holiday from their lives,
their long hair wind-tousled,
as they huddled with backpacks and sweaters
and bottles of wine. Also,
sitting slightly apart,
so many dark-eyed men
with three-day stubble,
their wives in headscarves
carrying plastic bags
full of bread and olives,
shushing their children,
who were fussing, rubbing their eyes.
We were all heading south,
on the flow of money and time,
late in the American century,
heading toward the continent
Aeneas abandoned long ago,
toward a city of souls,
of pungent stalls,
city of ruined Roman baths,
city of hushed suburbs
guarded by machine guns,
city where men in robes
sat in cafes
and drank foamy coffee
from tall glass beakers,
watching their women
clicking across the ancient stones
in French heels
and Jackie O sunglasses.
City whose queen once,
consumed with her grief and rage
went up in a beacon of flame.
 
 
 


JAMES ARMSTRONG is the author of two poetry books, “Monument in a Summer Hat” (New Issues Press, 1999) and “Blue Lash” (Milkweed Editions, 2006) and is the co-author of a book of essays; “Nature, Culture and Two Friends Talking” (North Star Press, 2015). Armstrong is a recipient of the PEN-New England Discovery Prize, an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship and a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship in poetry. He is a Professor of English at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota. He was Winona’s first Poet Laureate. He posts essays and drawings at https://thinearth.blog/


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