D. James Smith, a student of Philip Levine's, is the recipient of a NEA fellowship for 1999. His work has appeared in: The Carolina Quarterly, Hayden's Ferry, Laurel Review, New Virginia Review, Nimrod, Poetry Canada Review, The Quarterly, Quarterly West, Southern Poetry Review, Stand, Tar River Review, Willow Springs and many other journals. His first collection of poems: Prayers for the Dead Ventriloquist, with an introduction by Dorianne Laux, was published by Ahsahta Press in 1995. A novel: Fast Company is forthcoming from DK INK. He holds M.A. degrees in education and English.
As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race...
The Bells of Silence
Late spring in the valley & the wing-whistle of dove
is constant where they rise
& fall from the trees, foraging
for seed the wind brings.
On the ground they blur with rotted bark
until they move, &
the earth seems to crawl. Kimberly loves them & points
to starlings far above, black drops
in a blue pool—mixing, swirling,
some bleeding off, some left, tightening their circle,
wound higher & higher,
closing to a clot that disappears. How far
light has to travel, she says. And, of course, then I see it
stuffing the apricot chests of warblers
flickering in the bushes, dousing the crape myrtles in silver—
just now, stealing dark
sacks hung under the arms of the maple.
I remember across a river, once,
quieted, we watched
an ancient eucalyptus, white as a god, in the heat
tails of smoke streaming skyward,
before it exploded, a true black rolling from its top
like huge barrels of oil, the limbs crackling down,
opening, red as the interior of bones.
She wouldn't leave until it was over, almost a dead
thing, the coals,
black-backed with underbellies flaring, still moving a little,
wind-traced in lines.
That summer she brought a boy home
from the ward,
his skin stung, stripped by flame. Blotched
with the face of a calf, he wobbled around the yard
all of an afternoon—stunned
with what was once familiar, fresh textures, soil,
the sticky leaves of oleanders—afraid of the sun.
And she who is good
said, Still, I can't believe in evil. I wonder
at how we must trust
these days that will languish & close, sudden
as a candle thumbed out
in the distance,
a woolen darkness sweeping over, offsetting stars,
spilled like corn overhead, wind picking up
its shiver, the moon
cranking on, always inscrutable,
calling us to silence, again.
The ditches glint.
All day tassels of wheat
burn brassy beyond the windows
that flutter as crows rise,
flagging their hunger and contempt,
waving off in pure sunlight.
Near you I lie, muscles
throbbing, cool and bathed,
watching. You sleep.
I know my word
has turned your heart
the way water does a wheel
for you sag against me,
love-drugged, light, your ribs,
hollow flutes. Somewhere a god
must have played his song,
and I listened
and fell to earth—soil, work,
this bed, a leaf swirling,
and the water running home.
I pitch my ear to the course
of the water, its voice as rich
as the wind. I go down
on a rope of air
past the fishes, slow zeppelins that slip
by and whir, like the heart
that is a creature that kicks
and feeds in a nest of mud,
dark, phosphorescent, fecund.
Once, held in a basin,
little man that I was,
the priests oiled my forehead and palms
and filled the screaming pocket
of my mouth with a thumb,
perhaps so that my ears might
grow large, as they have,
the small bones set, tuned, sounding
deep toward the thrum and rhythm
of the sentence
tapping beneath your breast, pale,
offered and new, and I am,
I am what it spells.