Don Mager (Ph.D., Wayne State U) is an associate professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University. He has published some 200 original poems and translations from Czech and German over the last 30 years. His awards include The Lyricist Prize (1991) and the Blumenthal Award (1994).
And so at the end of remembering,
pungency falls like grief. We walk
the streets again: brittle walls of chalk,
a child's gray-white dream, the clamor
of persistent desire. See, sun lies
brittle on the tiles and iron gates.
Black wings hover. Voiceless, as we wait,
the stairways knot themselves, the alleys
smell of dry water steaming from blind
sockets in the stone, where insects whine,
their maggots busy with decay, flies,
wasps, mosquitoes, midges, gnats. The poise
of silence hangs like an udder, small,
parched. What are these gates? What are these walls?
Sun has torched these streets pulsing them flat.
Shadowless, they do not lie outside
the windows of our dreams. Instead, they slide
and snarl on our nerves. We fear what?
the voicelessness of wind? dry ashes
that scrape hot tongues dryly over dried
pores to crack lips in slivers of hard
blood? to freeze salt across our lashes
bringing no tears? Or is it that we
fear the dust which crackles an eddy
at our feet to snare and pull us down?
Or is it gray shadows, the bare-bone
dogs slinking behind each gate, eyes with
ice white cores? They never bare their teeth.
Dogs are gray with the sunlight's grease stiffly
slimed across their sharp and pulsing ribs.
They are raw bones and their tails are whips
which twitch in the moment's rest as if
a command might slash their acrid bite
across our eyes. Meanwhile their eyes, like
uncertain stars pitted in the black
basins of night, are thirsty and white.
Like candles playing shadows across
dim courtyards, the dogs glide. Sleepless
they crack no voice to tear air in rags.
They slink in narrow circles and edge
the walls. Their muscles twist and wait.
Why do they watch us from each locked gate?
Perched like weather vanes, gulls raucously
stare down, or sweep and glance off the cliffs:
giant bats on the harbor's wall—stiff
weapons plunging the ocean's wide face.
Silence is cut by their knife-slice cries
like elastic pulled to its stinging break.
What is the menace their screams awake?
curse perhaps? chaos? gouged out eyes?
Cowed beneath their squall in the sky, we
wander through streets leading down. Gates
melt past our eyes. And walls shift like drapes.
At last before us waits the slate sea
flat in its bay like a trembling stone.
Our feet touch the foaming of its tongue.
These streets, steep stones, tiers laid on a cliff,
shelves stacked up the chalk walls, are blunt white.
They twist downward towards dizzier light,
the liquid lap of radiant stiff
sun-glare, water where gulls on poised wings
dive, then climb sky to cut it apart
until a violence of blue smarts
our trailing eyes and the white sun stings.
In what old dream have these streets been?
Why, like memories, do they beckon?
We long to silence the screaming gulls
so nerves might plunge their zero of chill
deep through dark ocean's blank flat face,
dumb beneath its grinding grinding voice.
But the ocean grinds up bones for us
to finger, mute and calcined statues
in our hands, like memories that chew
time up, later to glare in the press of the sun, glints of elsewhere, snapshots
of someone else's life gazing back
from frenzied smiles, from glazed eyes. Like facts
we fondle them in our hands' small heat,
hard things tumbled from the breakers' lash,
ground and polished by the tide's slow wash,
flat and gleaming, like light on a plate.
So within our nets of loss, we wait,
our own faces washed to an ashen sheen,
wear the bleach of salt, the scorch of sun.
And still, ocean spills sad aftermaths
upon our feet where eyes are searching.
Kelp and foam hold the harsh shapeless gong
of grief. We wish to mask our aches with
lovely artifacts. But chaos floats
up as if burned in sudden tombs
limbs were gnarled by intense bombs
the sea was blistered beneath a fierce heat
and the air's abruptly shattered time
has clung its mutant to each pulse and
bone filling our footprints in the sand
where we stand with rancid bilge, green foam.
What begins begins already dead
to flower in pristine tender dread.
At last we cast ocean's throb to our
backs; the village streets stand up before
our eyes on the cliffs, twisted, slender,
wind-chiselled, white. And alongside their
spines, houses hang like sharp hawk-skulls
staring down from their black hollow eyes.
This is no child's dream splashed on the sky
and drifting out to sea with the gulls.
Have we waited so long that no one
remains, or have we come here too soon?
We wake into worlds our dreams unfold.
We sleep within dreams our wakings build.
Still the lean dogs crouch along their walls
while the abrasions of restless gulls call.