William Jolliff grew up on a farm just north of Magnetic Springs, Ohio. He is currently chair of the Department of Writing and Literature at George Fox University. His poems have appeared in many journals, including Southern Humanities Review, Northwest Review, West Branch, Passages North, and Appalachian Journal. He recently edited The Poetry of John Greenleaf Whittier: A Readers' Edition (Friends United Press, 2000).
Writing the Stones of the Dead
for those who died in the last Kentucky flood
The county stones, what will they say?
Just welfare markers, just poverty cases—
how many characters, how many spaces?
What language will the grief-stunned choose:
"Fondly missed, forever cherished"—
a favorite of undertakers in a hurry.
Or a little Bible maybe: "Behold, a mystery,
we shall not all sleep, but arise…."?
Or a hymn: "In the arms of my dear savior
O, there are ten thousand charms"?
Or "Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, Ohio, disturb not her dream."
Where do words come from in river towns,
the towns where porches face the water,
and people work so close together,
they've little need to talk. Here, the sun
on the water, out the washroom window, says
"let things rest," and "sweet forgiveness."
What good are words? The silence of self-abuse
moans through the Portland papers, and tells
more than one needs to know. It's safe to say
no football stars, no favorite sons were drowned.
No politician's plane went down
while he planned a pre-election rescue.
No grand old homes were swept away
while grand old people slept within.
Most of what's gone was plywood and tin.
The story died before the river crested.
And why not? There's so much other news.
Rhesus monkeys were cloned right here,
right here in Oregon—and we should care.
Now the Scottish sheep have boon companions:
And "blither hearts, that lee-lang night,
Ye wad na found in Christendie…."
What poor do best may soon be obsolete.
If the papers tell us anything, they affirm
Death may not be so bad. Why go on?
When scientists handle the procreation,
and souls are saved by television,
and fat old men in Nashville make the music,
the whole damn world's like New York City—
a good place to be from. So the waters rise.
I'll tell you about those stones: Here lie those
who lived by, and died by, the river.
Holy Places, Patchouli and Wool
The streets in Athens were grey at least once each day
and lined with shops integral to local economy and lifestyle
but which in most cities, and especially sheep-dip towns
in southern Ohio, could be happily done without.
If you could wind through the loads of used clothes and LPs
and Carol Lee's Sublime Donuts and two tobacconists
and three head-shops, you could find Appalachian Supply,
a store that sold shearling vests and hiking boots in back
and aromatic oils in front, where the healing gold mingled
with the fresh leather and the cracked walnut floors,
and which would always remind Robert, until now a lawyer
in Montana, of a Vermont girl named Kathryn with freckles
and fingers that trembled around his waist and bed
on the day he traded his Allman Brothers collection
for a string of beads, some of them African silver,
the rest the sweet-stained wood that smelled a little like
mesquite, a scent she loved that was nothing like Vermont.
Or so he remembers as he rests on a wind-whipped butte
in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, numb
because the blood loss from the wound in his groin
has weakened him and is turning him sandstone cold.
He has chosen her warming image, even as he laughs,
Here's another fine mesa I've gotten myself onto,
because the sharp edge of the wit is what remains,
and his shaking shoves the edge through his chest,
into a warmth that is her, as warm as they were in woolen vests.
It's been two hours or twenty since his California wife left
in the Land Rover, with a mystified look that seemed to say
I can't believe I finally shot the goddamn sonofabitch,
or Oh Christ, I've killed my husband. And he will die
before he, or maybe she, knows which, recalling only
one grey day when he was whole, a day more complete
even than his love for two Montana children who kept him
from following Hemingway's last goodbye after too many
long days of arguing his cases from Belgrade to Bozeman.
He thinks of the green in her eyes that must have been
the Green Mountain green of her Green Mountain home,
of the way they walked together in Athens. For a moment
the blood pooling in his gut and the sand brings back
that sweetness, that nothing-like-Vermont scent of patchouli
and wool, the sentiment that may or may not come to all
who walk in final holy places, but comes to most once,
the taste we savor when we need it, if we are wise or dying.