Ornithologies by Joshua Poteat


Robert Dana-Anhinga Prize for Poetry (2004)

This poet knows that ruin is no excuse for despair, and even as he combs the rubble for tokens of consolation, the presence among us of of these clear-eyed, large-hearted poems may serve a similarly hopeful purpose for readers of contemporary American poetry. -- contest judge Campbell McGrath

"With natural elegance and untiring invention, Joshua Poteat writes some of the most remarkable poetry you are ever likely to encounter. In storylines that move beyond the virtues of narrative into a region of wonder, combining violence and tenderness in an intimate voice capable of revelations as swift and sudden as the sear of lightning, his poems work themselves into the cloudy fabric of your imagination and reside there as unforgettable experiences." -- From Blackbird, Spring 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1

It is a lyricism that reminds me of James Wright, and this I mean certainly as praise, when he employed, as I called it, an intensified vernacular -- throwing me off my stride, gathering me to him by the detail of some earnest and often terrible beauty, in the easy language of our country with its sweet, oiled syntax.In this way Meditations is a dramatic book, a kind of word- or mood-theater. Poteat tells me things as if I were an audience but invisible. Or as if I were the moon. Yet something real passes between us, which is to say that the book is very good, that it leaves its mark... For here we are the audience of what is clearly an inner voice, flowing forward, throwing out its lovely perceptions, its lyrical lines of praise, its wonderment, its pursuit of moments and places, past and present, where mystery's veil for a moment sparks upward. -- Mary Oliver, judge for the 2004 Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Award (regarding Poteat's award-winning Meditations)

Cover design: C. L. Knight

Nocturne: For the Aviaries

Then the rain came,
            full of a sadness I've never seen before,
through the cottonwoods
            and along the river,
which is no longer a river
                                but an apparition under the sand.

Had I five hummingbirds,
            I would make a love charm
and string them from the tongue
            of a small copper bell in those branches,
                                necks hovered together, broken.

Had I a swan, it would sleep
            under the hives
with a bucket of fresh milk,
                                with the splintered white faces of goats.

To reclaim or take apart the night,
            like the city does, carving through
the blind river?
                                The brilliant debris of stars, the air?

Nothing in this world is ours.


From Meditations in the Margins of the Book of Irish Curses

i. In the middle of the field, may your horse kill you

Let it be a roan, without foal, without a crown
           of honeybees circling her mane of clover.
The tongue of a bee is golden and can never
                      mourn the evening as it weaves through

the river birches, Nyssa Aquatica, named for
           the water that sweetens its touch, and Pinus Palustrus,
long-leaf pine, named for the palace of cinder
                      above the river. Let it be the roan, please, without

holiness, or shame. May she throw my ribs to the graveyard clay
           and make a cake from my legs of broken air.
May her tail, coarse as an orphan's wrist, sweep the bees
                      into my mouth that will never taste the river again.

How can the silence remain whole beneath the grass?
           May she never know how much I loved her.


The Angels Continue Turning the Wheels of the Universe
Despite Their Ugly Souls        

                             (Malvern Hill Battleground)

                             after Alice Aycock

There is truth in the phrase, the dead are at ease under the fields.

Autumn is what seizes it. A field of dried cotton stalks
           have a grace in the wind only the dead can love,
and so, belief comes simple, rendering not a season
           but stalk against stalk,

poor cousin-song of crickets,
           poor furrow-in-the-gut, little nothing-at-all.

At least it will snow soon goes the cotton's rattled melody,
           and this field beyond the city, flooded by night,
turns blue in the first frost as the ghosts of past crops
           bridle upon it.

I give the field ghosts, and the wind eggs them on --
           corn and sweet potato, tobacco and bean --
hovering the mule-plough of two hundred years.

So much for truth.

It's the least I can do since I cannot for the life of me
           think of anything but the thin curtains of a hospital room
and an X-ray of my crooked spine pinned to a wall of light,

the sweet milk of vertebrae, my own skull
           frowning back at me, such a cold cup of jaw,
so white I could have easily drank myself.

What a desire, to take one's self in, to unravel
           the body's red yarn shapes and deceive the plague
of boundless hunger, to imagine this cotton field as bone
           ready for the gin, rib and wrist and collar,

all tenderhearted stars,
           inexact, held up to the light of no moon, no cloud.

This is me scattered in the furrows, I thought.
This is me, marrowless and fluff, grub-eaten.

I don't believe in much. Not the descent and re-ascent
           of the soul ... the palace of the kingdom of the dead ...

So much for desire.

I have seen those X-rays of Velasquez, the hidden layers
           illuminated to reveal six ghost-versions of hands along the rim
of an egg bowl, six different plates of fish and garlic,
           a dwarf's blind face formed into the severed head of a pig,
then back to a dwarf, leaving the pig's wondrous eyes.

A bird later becomes a peach in the mouth of a jug,
           and this is how I feel about the world at the moment.

Troppo vero, said Pope Innocent in a letter
           to Velasquez of his portraits. Too faithful.

Representation is all we are in the end, I guess, and then some.

Charred ivory: muller stone: horse-hair:
           white lead: madder: massicot.
This is me.

It is almost winter, here in the leftover cotton
           that once held the thousand luminous angels of desire
as they curled inward towards a truth

unlike any flame they had seen.

This must be how the soldiers slept,
           with the night all around them
and their bodies knowing where it was.

And this must be how the deer moved
           over the fields long after the battle, drinking frost
from the eyes of the dead with their small pink tongues.

Oh dwarf, oh king, oh skeleton of mine,
           will I ever feel your wings between my hands again?


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