One Island by Gretchen Steele Pratt


One Island is an earthy, delightfully vibrant collection by a fine new poet, full of sacred and profane registers. Gretchen Pratt's poems are full of tribes and communities, stories and landscapes from our recognizably shared world. An openness of feeling is jazzily counterpointed by the thousand apprehended things of the world. What we get in the end is a cosmos in which selfhood and world are at play with each other, recombining and changing in encounter after encounter. - Tony Hoagland

Neruda's sea-swept, earth-bound questions might begin each poem in the lovely sequence from which this remarkable book gets its name but Gretchen Steele Pratt goes far beyond "one island" for her answers. She watches and records with precise, heart-stopping invention matters of grief and wet grass, of bare-knuckled hard labor, working through litany and shards by way of ghostly tobacco nets and dismembered barns and pianos from childhood that kneel and ache. Above all, who sings this? she asks back. -- Marianne Boruch



Not even rustles from your red dress, rustles


Coming down the stairs before the red. Not reindeer coming

Toward the fence with their antlers sawed off, toward

Small hands shoved through the chained link, small

Fingernails licked by their dry tongues. Not even fingernails

Sinking into grass. Not even winter sunlight sinking

Without finding me asleep on the rug without

Blankets under the potted Norfolk pine. Not river green blanket

Humidity hanging in the trees. Not Mom and Dad, their humidity,

Amber cocktails melting their veins at that hour. Not amber

Bobby pins sunk in brown pomaded hair. Not even bobby pins

Dropping on the red aisle. Not even that dime dropping

Into my flute before I go on stage. Not the night falling into

Clicking dials of an old gas pump or a cream umbrella clicking

Open. Just bats softening out of the chimney into the open

Backyard blue darkness. Not even me in the wet backyard

Taking off my shirt in front of the new roses taking off.


Church by the Sea


Out the windows goes the darkness of pews,
The cries of the red-headed twins in white
Linen. Beyond, the fog clears, the asphalt
Trembles in fresh sun, the foundation of a

Mansion crumbles. Beyond,
The suck of the tide.
Out the windows goes the creed,
The homily, the fat lady strumming

A guitar. Beyond, naked strangers
Wake and open their hotel windows.
Out the windows goes the white
Scent of ripe lilies, the shake of

Sanctus bells, the creak of kneelers.
Beyond, the sun and moon are both
Floating, someone's life ricochets back
To them as an ambulance screams down

The hill. Beyond, sheets cracking
On a clothesline. The heave of the tide.
Out windows and doors goes 
My father's deep baritone voice singing

That hymn about green pastures
Forever and ever. A windchime 
Is dragged through the air beyond
The propped open stained-glass windows.



Since the carnival moved on, my friend has spent
Her time tossing bugs into the spider web she has let
Grow across the entrance to her front porch --

     Not only let grow but cleared the way for -- snapping
     Heavy lilac branches, ripping out a bottlebrush bush
     By the roots, dusting the railings so the silk spindles
     Can stick better -- purging anything that gets in the way

Of the spider she loves to watch get fat, to spread out.
When I come over now, I have to go in the back door.
Recently, she tore apart the tea roses that had begun

     To twine around the porch posts; before discarding
     Their blooms, she plucked the Japanese beetles from
     Their pink folds to save as food for the spider.
     The petals are everywhere, turning brown and brittle

Beneath my bare feet as we stand outside with our drinks
In the evening to watch the spider. On the other side
Of my friend's house is a beautiful Georgia marsh,

     Cranes dipping in and out of the mist. I know she has
     Forgotten about the other side of her house and I don't
     Say anything. She's set up a spotlight behind the web,
     She's taken the framed paintings off the walls in her house

And arranged them in a semi-circle around the web,
Propping them up against tree trunks, pricker bushes,
The bumper of her car. And so I stand beside her and

     Watch the spider yoking its silk to the further reaches
     Of the bower, gliding down to wrap the beetles
     My friend throws by the fistful from a glass jar she holds
     In the crook of her arm. I drink and listen to the boats

Threshing by in the marsh, the little waves lapping
Against her floating dock once they've passed.
Sometimes it's so quiet I can hear the alligators dragging

     Themselves around on their bellies. My friend has lost
     Her beautiful tan here in the shady yard. She's given up
     Cooking and so I've set up a card table and chair in front
     Of the web and bring her microwaved TV dinners.

And in this way the web continues to unfold. One night,
Right around sunset, a blue butterfly flew into the web.
We drew nearer and the spider swung down to check

     Its flurry. It stepped across its wings, wrapping it 
     In its white thread. As the spider tightened the silk,
     The butterfly's brittle wings began to break into pieces,
     Sift down and stick to other threads. Out on the marsh

The motor of a small boat strained to pull a water-skier
Upright and then buzzed away. We drew nearer.
My friend almost caught her eyelashes on a thread

     Of the web. We stepped even closer. Even the
     Pinecones held their breath and the sky paused
     Its bronze. The tiny hairs on the spider's legs 
     Were dusted with flecks of a bright blue ash.

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