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Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 14.2



Janet Sylvester

Janet Sylvester teaches creative writing at Radford University in Virginia. The author of three books,
That Mulburry Wine, Regardless, and A Visitor at the Gate, her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 1994, Boulevard, Southwest Review Shenandoah, and others.


Spectral Grammar


If only you do not try to utter
what is unutterable, then nothing gets
lost, one tortuous moment, a bridge
above a course where water used to run,
below you only a thread, a trickle
iced grey, stuttering February.
If only in its sleeted fall through air
across your face, the future were mistaken,
that flood the engineers still promise
can never happen, the sleeping maple
downstream severely torn away
before you even see it, your self
solitary on the flood plain, saying:
Saying's a mantle handed down, smaller
than a body's radiant garment
beyond what form knows, forming a shell,
a flexible pain you'll take
into migration. Above the order
of things you see, the power of streams
acid in the snow's wet meandering,
you vanish once again, sailing toward
any language, any slippery shores.


Suffering what's called foreboding, to tell
before you travel back what happens when
you get here, far away, leaning into space
above the bridge-rail, a divagation
from the hills' tight embrace you entitle
(foolish and empirical wisdom) home,
the fluid concentration of its mud,
its sudden words ranging like a V-line
of ducks, swimming circles to keep open
a place to be in, a day
the clouds fit tight to, the water's mirror
boiling as if the world could not exist,
you recede into constant play, as if syntactically
Ohio might be here, Sergeant
Serafico demobilized,
traveling home, sub specie aeternitatis,
though air across the page.
As it will, the flood achieves flood stage
soon enough. What's dormant disappears
for you to uncover far away,
another bridge above a double river, one
of which swallows everything
to give this back, love's ekphrastic act.


Broken Frame

In this photo, poised at the lip of all loss,
a soft kiss stings the distance between us,
one and one, as if some fragrance, contained
but unconfined, burned the air into drifts
of haze, aftermath of rain's pizzicato
in a yard soon to be cindered with fireflies.
A crow called harshly just as the shutter's eye,
thick with night, closed, entirely inhuman.
Now we are fixed in that old surprise:
a man and woman falling into the sky.
Something always escapes outside the frame.
We rely on that aging word, desire,
to explain the graveled backroads we took,
and the creaking steps to an unlit room.
Someone's hands were surely on my body.
Some spirit bent, related to the old equation,
bright in life's flat saturation,
describing a curve.
Perhaps nothing happened, perhaps the plum,
the honeysuckle, inked in an outline.
I saw a doe and fawn that night high-step
into quiet beyond our window,
enacting that moment when appetite
most often is subtracted from demand,
that moment when the animal rut gives
way to a peace primitive enough, futures
can stream backward to the past's rich,
confusing figures. I want to see how they saw,
and what, before I turned them to use.
They were music. They constantly escape.
I want them to desire us to return:
a man drunk at the cleft of a woman's body,
her breasts mottled by moonlight, her smile
gleaming as she calls him inside. If we
could stay in their gaze, at their feet, snails
slick in pendulous casings, dew like silk
on grasses slightly disturbed, everyone would smile.
I would have anchored lines in memory's
dislocation. Even those nine ducks whuffing
upward from the field, those six cardinals,
three dun, three scarlet at its periphery,
that flew from a boxwood, like needles
quickly drawn through cloth, would mean division
makes our manageable home and we stay there.
Oh love, as they say in classic poems,
we fought and fought, past coffee abandoned
in its morning cup, toward an afternoon,
its dazzled stagger of bourbon, sunstruck
in a glass. The chinaberry mirrored there
changed to rust as the season deepened.
I am going to tell you everything
I know about love, later, when I'm old.
Today, no longer possessed of the body
of an adolescent, what I can extend
is the rhetoric of pleasure, how we know,
standing at the pasture fence, that it goes
out like a bad knee, pain like a green dust
arriving to choke us on harvested ground.
Which is not to suggest that the sunset
isn't stunning, or to ignore the French
who say, L'amour est un question de peau.
Every seven years the skin dutifully
shudders awake in little bursts of night-
lightning, all its negatives of touch,
everything of life immured in its figure
two, that beautiful zero, integer
carrying over for you here, through which
a dizzy flock of crows exited.


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