I slipped off from the bruising light
of the yard, from the scorched play
of those endless summer visits,
to trespass where all were forbidden,
the dark quiet in the bedroom a silken relief,
no matter the sour fug of tobacco smoke
or earthen dank from the faults
of that exhausted foundation.
The uncle we cousins had never met
watched everything, in his school football
uniform, grinning and rakish
beside the framed letter about his bravery.
I knelt before the encyclopedia they had bought for him,
touching the pebbled, creamwhite cover of S,
the volume I kept coming back to, that I needed.
Ragged from old handling, it fell
open without a search to my favorites and his,
the once-glossy pages smudged at “snakes”
and “swords” with his fingerprints,
a boy who must have loved dangerous things.
Light Whispers Through the Skin of the World
–for Ingrid, whom you remember
At the riverbank, it is dawn, or it is dusk,
blushing like a plain confession
that wisely avoids “light” and “whispers”
and isn’t sure one can say anything
about “the world,” though the ghost of wanting to
is still restless in the bramble and sloughs
like mist off the surface of the water. It has been
a long time since you thought you understood,
so long that you might not recognize clarity,
if you saw it stripped bare of language.
Memory goes back far, but not all the way,
not even all your own life, and what it favors
is random or irrelevant or hard to interpret.
You once read that the simplest organisms
have the most accurate perceptions, free
from the glimmer and sludge of thinking.
If a skittish doe came to drink, you would look
into her eyes with no idea what she is seeing.
There are beetles that drag bubbles of air
beneath the water, like lenses they live in.
What do they see, when you stand here moping?
Of even greater privilege, are the mussels
that lash themselves to the sides of rocks
and filter what comes, inflow and outflow,
so they know only matter and force
and think nothing of it. A mussel’s life
might not be as you imagine. How solitary
they are in their clusters of shells,
how timeless. We are different, we think.
Remember, all the way back, all
the way back in first grade, you knew a girl
named Ingrid, a pretty girl with long dark hair
and delicate hands—and she is somewhere now,
just as altered as you are—but you recall
the day she brought an awfully fine-looking
slice of pie for lunch and ate it at her desk.
JAMES OWENS’s most recent book is Family Portrait with Scythe, due out in spring, 2020, from Bottom Dog Press. His poems and translations appear widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in Atlanta Review, The Shore, Relief Magazine, The Honest Ulsterman, and Southword. He earned an MFA at the University of Alabama and lives in a small town in northern Ontario.