Joe Williams Singing
Joe Williams’s voice
is candle wax
into loose smoke:
is three in the morning
August stepping alone
out of a club
when you don’t know
it summer steady steady rained
an hour earlier:
no thunder, no thrashing:
when the night’s naugahyde
and passing taxis
sound like satisfaction:
and people stomp shake their heads
when they walk through doors:
just the street air
like a polished stone.
His voice: that only slightly cool front
that mineral washes your neck:
and somehow the woman you love
next to you:
her hand on your arm:
and you are traveling lighter
than you have ever traveled before.
Alone again: his voice
is the sidewalks, the parkways
the curbs, the dead streetlights
slow lighting the grated stores:
and you want a joint smoked
in the gateway to that hot hunched night
the condensation of air conditioner notes.
And he sings:
No one needs to worry.
And you say to a barking dog shadow:
It is funny that way.
And you think: These things remind me of her:
even though she has no body right now.
Joe Williams’s voice
is your worrying
you won’t remember
how to get home:
which stop is yours:
until the bells
of the elevated train:
the Blessed Church of Here to There:
If you can get through the turnstile
and up the stairs
you are sanctified:
even if you have to wooden platform wait
five or ten minutes
for the next train to come.
This is the moment:
the opening of the doors:
this is the hardplastic sea
the soft plastic light you enter:
and you wish you had carried a flask
and you know that you don’t want to sleep.
And you don’t sleep when you get home:
you wish for a fire escape:
you wish you smoked cigarettes
so you could sit and watch
what is puffed out disappear
vapors like Joe Williams singing.
Before the Solstice
The first sweat day
of way too early this year
praise hallelujah thrash:
of vibration waves of swelter
that make the house
expand and float
Already the irises
already the tulips
rain and wind
and early blooming
have turned the sticks
to empty green fuses
to goblets broken off
to shafts without
arrows or fletching
June first marks:
scrub brown drought
and need and
hanging strawberry plant
the flowering vines
will climb creep wrap
like leather work
around the rust trellis.
These are the important things:
what has passed:
what’s to come:
what’s to pass again.
A broken branch:
dangle bark strapped
to the trunk
of the apron maple.
If I talk enough about
sky wind shadows June:
if I shimmer push undulate
like the flowerbed
across the way:
if I count airplanes
that leave pale contrails
against the haze sky
almost washed of any color:
if I wonder the utility flags
that mark places not to dig.
Soon: I think:
the collapse of barely blue sky:
what is crushed
and then tossed away.
A blather of birch leaves
thick tick click shifting:
another tatter surge of storms:
too says: Soon
the rain rushes:
even though this doesn’t feel
like a summer storm yet.
Somehow despite the radar
that moved a blob
of heavy green over the city
that spurred and blossomed
to red and yellow over the lakefront:
not a drop:
when all I want
is a downpour drench
that turns gutters to creeks
avenues to swelling
intersections to the drowning
bulges of rivers
the wind to vandalism:
when all I want
is the rain to really mean it.
The lightning that flashes
now to the north
is beyond the lake
beyond its other shore
beyond the expressway cutting
across space to get to
it flare outline lights
the cloud banks.
That storm won’t pass
anywhere near us either.
Call and response
in layers of slap and overlap
crows again stark as tar
bark across the different channel distances
of the neighborhood.
The sky again greys:
and I’m listening, listening, listening.
But it’s hard to tell
if that’s a thin thin rain
or just a shimmy
of the window screen.
So I’m still waiting
for the big storm to hit:
the one that silences the birds
and floods the mud spots:
the one that rush scours
a straightline disturbance:
leaves like paper ash
windcaught and lawnscattered
I’m waiting for that moment when
despite the translucent sway canopy
I have to race room to room
upstairs to shut out
the torrent wind, the blow in soak
and rumble roll that doesn’t stop
for thirty-seconds, forty five
a minute of grind and smudge.
I’m waiting for that deluge moment
of cloudburst grace and wonder.
See today’s sky: the saturated grey
like lethargy, like giving up:
how it hangs high and motionless:
and the Irish cross of the well before January dusk
streetlamp like weak berry tea:
and the garage lights already starring white.
Last night we bolted ourselves in again
and tried not to go into the basement
or upstairs until bed or by the windows
that cold leaked through the glass.
Can we fairytale turn on the oven
and climb inside without burning? we asked.
We trade color drain for cold: or
the other way around:
those the only transactions:
the ones that hold us barely melt miserable
or bright freeze miserable:
December, January, February:
not much other than that.
But then something lets loose just a little
some shell, some husk, some bark
some pod, some rind, some hull
some skin, some chaff, some crust
some peel, some case, some carapace
some nut, some shuck, some chassis
some frame, some edge, some film
some coat, some gauze, some web
some veil, some foil.
So be my witness that the snowpile push
hardened by thaw and rain, by night freeze
doesn’t give even under my whole weight step
yet I am still body: yet I am still here.
Saturday Night, Summer Solstice
At Stonehenge this morning
people chorus sway gather watched
sun, rocks, pathway to the river line up:
the cycles of crops and breathing.
We have afternoon nap slept into the evening:
the water orange before sunset light
angle filter filling the hallway
hinting into our bedroom.
We call it Necessity: we call it Rejuvenation:
as primal as bleach: our skin on skin:
the sweat of sleep, the need for sloughing.
I love the word slough:
its dryness: the way in my throat:
a chrysalis: it gets left behind
like a jacket on a bench
or sunglasses in a bus
or whatever it was I left
on the top shelf of the garage
the apartment complex
I moved out of in the middle of last winter
boxes of books to donate
because we have found
this better place together.
And I know I’m being coy here:
because in every way this
is another love poem
although I still stick by my statement
that I wrote breakup poems
before I met you:
and I never want to write one of those about us:
although we both know
everything ends in the clay smooth flesh:
the cells that divide:
the splintering beat
the core wood snap:
and then the bark will slough
after the leaves have sloughed
and branches and limbs
under winter weight in springtime wind
will fall to become kindling.
I can hear your hairdryer upstairs
and it also sounds like the word slough:
heated and coiled.
This morning almost drunk in the friction
of night birds final notes singing the almost sunrise
we sloughed our clothes and rolled into each other
until we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore:
and I kicked the covers down on my side of the bed
and we slept not enough
but rewound ourselves a little
my breath sloughing on your neck
your breath sloughing on mine.
In my office here, now: Donald Byrd plays
I’m a fool to want you
slow and low as this latest dusk:
and I’m not a fool to know that when
I come out, when I see you
when we sofa sit for an evening
when we kiss, when the windows
let in the soft eagerness of rain
on the full canopy of the backyard
when that next sweat of sleep again binds us
I will want you even more.
I always didn’t want to grow old and die:
but now it’s you I don’t want to die
so together we can grow wrinkled
and old as afternoon sheets.
We will still have all our teeth
and taste buds to still love
the roasted tomatoes right out of the oven
the herbed goat cheese crackers
the good white wine
we will share tonight:
and we will roll into each other
brittle and soft at the same time.
Forty more years, we say:
that nearly impossible promise:
before either of us sloughs
off this mortal coil.
Night starts early:
the simple wash of rain
that started while we slept
the sky still bright:
but with the sun hidden:
no shadows or only shadows.
Isn’t that language for you?
I don’t buy that every statement
tetherless also says the opposite
also negates itself:
because I will walk into the living room:
find you in the slough of almost dark
watching television and I will ask
after I kiss you: Dinner?
Movie? How do you feel?
And I will say: Love.
Each of those unsloughably stable
as we can make them.
John Walser’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Spillway, Water-Stone Review, Plume and december magazine. His manuscript Edgewood Orchard Galleries has been a finalist for the Autumn House Press Prize and the Ballard Spahr Prize as well as a semifinalist for the Philip Levine Prize and the Crab Orchard Series First Book Award. A four-time semifinalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize, John is a professor of English at Marian University and lives in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, with his fiancée, Julie.