‘Don’t make him go.’ ‘I’m not.’ ‘He’s only just now Come in to play.’ ‘He’d rather be outside, ’ Said the boy’s father. ‘Let him go outside. He’s old enough to want to help.’ ‘Then next year,’ Said the boy’s mother. ‘Let him set the table That’s more a help than outside splitting wood.’ ‘Let Mary,’ said the father. ‘Mary? Set The table? Let her help with splitting wood!' The mother countered. ‘After all, she’s older. Why can’t your daughter?’ ‘She hasn’t asked me, has she?’ ‘And does she need to?’ ‘Jack did.’ ‘Why not ask her?’ ‘For God’s sake, let them both go,’ said their father. ‘They’re old enough.’ Just then the boy walked in Still in boots and a hooded jacket—somehow Nonetheless guessing at the argument. His glance raced from father to mother. ‘Can I?’ He asked. His mother paused. She’d carried in The plates and silverware and had begun To set them. ‘If you’re asking me, then no,’ She said. ‘You’re father thinks you’re old enough; I don’t.’ ‘I’m old enough,’ argued the boy. ‘Then go straight to Grandpa if you want to help And do exactly what he tells you. No hospitals Today. No little boys who’ve chopped their hands off.’ ‘Then I’ll tell Mary,’ said the father. The boy Ran out the door but never having seen His father run to do a chore, stopped, walked, Assumed an air of purpose. Snow was falling And had already fallen, not in gales But in that way November snowfalls shroud The yellowed grass and drape the Queen Anne’s lace Anew with shawls. The maple in the dooryard, Its leaves let down, let down no shadows, evening Descending overall but for the dooryard And lighted house behind the boy. The path To where the wood was split went first before The shed-roofed bays then out behind the barn where The log length wood was piled. The closest bay Stored their discarded toys. Among them were A tricycle, its rims half buried in The dirt floor’s ruin and the runner sleds That just a year ago already would have Skated November’s early snow—the lettering Faded and flaking from their slatted backs. The boy might yet have pulled them out but for A baby gate that sometime during the summer Was forced into the only narrow entry (As if to bar a child’s going in Or toys from coming out again). The snow Curled over the metal lip of roof Above the shed-bay’s open mouth and faded Into a ghostly exhalation. Drawing His hood tight as he walked, the boy half stumbled— A knee to snow. The middle bay was where His brother stored his car on blocks. The right Front block had sunk into the dirt so that The grill’s off-kilter grin would chase the boy In nightmares. The car still needed work— And every day less likely to be done. The doors, fenders and hood were primed With spray paint (underneath the priming gray The paint’s original red) but here and there The rust was rusting through. But mostly when His brother visited the car he’d take A girl along. The boy would want to follow But every time he’d asked them what they planned His brother laughed. ‘We’re going out to play A little hide & seek,’ he’d say. ‘You’re not Invited.’ Then the boy, being troubled by What kind of hide & seek there was to play Inside a car, made plans some night to follow And spy; and meant to soon. Sometimes they’d stay For just a little while and sometimes late Into the night. Returning then they’d kiss And laugh as though in seeking they had found A thousand hiding places. Another gust Of snow. The shrunken spines of black-eyed Susans— Their desiccated eyes were motionless And blind to what remained of autumn’s twilight Or the boy passing by. The furthest bay Was where his father kept the tractor—lights Lifted like attentive ears, hood tarped And cutter bar drawn up. Some days in summer The boy’s father might leave the tractor out Midfield, dusted with chaff. The boy might climb Into the seat as though he could ignite The tractor’s heart and bring the gulping lungs To life again. The metal’s heavy odor Of grease and oil clung to his clothes like The scissored grasses. He hardly knew the work Of tractors other than they worked the fields; And where he would have traveled had it rumbled To life meant less to him than understanding What force of architecture moved the steel, What housed explosions turned the giant wheels Imprinting the earth. ‘The cruel machine,’ His mother’d say, ‘That cuts the summer’s bloom— Too much to call it hate—but let the field For once run riot. We’ve no use for hay, And have no livestock. Let it go uncut Or cut it late and let the wildflowers route The grasses.’ ‘It’s for love of place I mow it,’ His father’d answer. ‘When has autumn ever spared A meadow? And there are other reasons Besides.’ If afterward he’d never give them He’d nonetheless bring back a mason jar So clumsily full of flowers they’d sometimes topple Over the kitchen table just as if A scythe had lain them down again. The boy hewed Close by the barn where jimsonweed had grown. He stepped over burst thorn-apples—their rictus Of seed and snow; and passing by he snagged The others in his mittens—thorny bulbs Still topping branches; tendrils spiraling upwards As if they were a final parting breath— The smoke of humid summer days turned brittle And motionless. Any other day He’d have taken the shortcut through the barn, A storehouse of forgotten generations Who owned the property a hundred years And more before the boy’s own family. Sometimes he’d spend the hours picking through The slow haphazard regolith of mice And straw to find a broken tool half buried: Old bottles, cut nails, rusted pliers, saw-blades And hammers missing handles; these he’d stockpile In crates he made himself—half a dozen He’d cobbled out of scavenged lumber ridden With nail holes. The boy had found foundations Grown through with ironwood—remains of buildings A farmer might take lumber from. He’d wonder What ghosts still searched the leaf-strewn cellar holes Looking for the long forgotten button That once had rolled between the rough-sawn floorboards— Themselves long since dissolved; and then he’d flee The ironwood thicket. If there’d ever been More than the lumber worth saving then either That too was lost or in the barn—the lumber, The tools, the parts (their use gone out of memory), And the machinery still following The beasts that drew them, wooden ligaments Consumed, their frames corroded and collapsing Into the sediment. And yet the boy Will mend their failing joints, imagines them— Painted and metal polished—renewed Behind a tractor’s thumping pulse. If not A tractor then he’d clear the cobwebbed arteries From the barn and there stable either ox Or horse; he’d load the hayloft with fresh hay And breathe the fumes of life into the farmyard Or so, at least, the boy imagined doing And more. He followed round the barn’s far corner, The muddy yard where log-length firewood Was piled—the time of year the yard Rolled seamlessly into the neighboring fields, Their hollow ribs no taller than the yard’s Own trampled grasses. Distantly, the ridge Of field that overlooked the barn and farmhouse Grew light with snow and darkened with the shadow Of early winter. The boy had often Come out this far and been distracted by The sloping fields, wondering at the world Beyond the world he saw. He dreamt an ocean Lay just beyond the distant ridge, and beds Of incandescent sands and whirlpools Of liquid vertebrae. He dreamt of whales Who glimmered with the giant eyes of angels; And waters trembling over them like outspread wings. Their contemplation wakened him; he feared The dark that sank his bed into their mystery; The turmoil of their wake. And though some nights, In a half-forgotten sleep, he rode The ocean’s slippery back from shore to shore, He’d waken to horizons nothing more Than his own room, the bed, the sheets wound round him, A cluttered floor. The path veered left between The logs and barn. The boy tugged at his hood As wind once more drew down a shroud of snow, Thrown from the metal roof. He dug his hands Into his jacket, hunched, and kept his eyes Half shut until the gust rose over top The roof again as though the barn itself Breathed forth the ghostly apparition, vanishing As fleetingly as it appeared. The boy Stopped. The steel of the splitting maul Gleamed in the icy mud; just by the maul A split wedge wedged in the wood. The boy’s grandfather Lay on his side, eyes open, the splitting maul’s handle Loosely in his hand. The old man’s scarf Rose up, half lifted by a sudden gust, Then fell again. The boy stepped backwards, stumbled, Stepped back again. A little further on The cattails in the farmyard’s pond had blown— And silence where the redwing blackbirds shrilled Before they’d flown. He gave a startled cry. His sister lightly cupped his shoulder, Then she stepped past him kneeling by their grandfather. She turned him gently to his back. She leaned As if unsure; then being sure, she closed His eyes. She gazed at him and neither she Nor the boy moved. 'Okay,' she finally said. She stood, went to the boy, and took his hand. 'Come on,' she said. And then said nothing more. Blackbirds By me, Patrick Gillespie | March 27, 2021
For the first time in decades I considered submitting a poem to a poetry journal. They all wanted anywhere from three months to half a year (or more) to respond. I’m noticing that the New England Review is now charging a $3 submission fee. One can also buy a two magazine subscription for $15 instead (only to submitters). I suppose that’s fair. They must get thousands of submissions and reading them is a full time job. In truth though, the asking price doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the wait time—especially if they’re going to charge for the privilege. Anyway, I made my decision. I’m my own online journal by this point. Do comment if you like the poem—or if you don’t. I’m already at work on my next one. I’ll also be reading the poem later today, along with Bicycles; and posting those separately.