Public Sale, 1943
The story’s out of reach—a crowd
of neighbors come to bid on debt
or death are darkened outlines faint
beyond the hill. We cannot see
the crockery or cufflinks held,
disrobed and high for scrutiny.
Zoomed out, we hover here
beside the mud-rut driveway,
beside the tawny grass that wends
in patches down the valley where
dead trees like crucifixions gash
against the sky. He built this ground
for us, his country silences,
the children who have come to spy
their fathers blurred, and what they buy.
Let’s call this room America,
the terror of a father still
in muddy boots and overcoat
trapped in a chair, his house threadbare,
a nightmare’s logic for the fear
of destitution. What can he make
that won’t be bled away or lashed
into his hands? Too hard to tell
from this feeble light pouring through
one window cropped the time of day.
It falls wanly on his brow, his collar
where a sweater zipper leads
us to the only evidence
that counts: holes torn in jacket sleeves
like sprinters’ mouths that gasp to breathe.
In the Orchard, 1982
Green Helga freezes flecked with snow,
the only brightness left her blizzard coat
draped taut across her shoulder blades.
The massive forking oak that sprawls
before her like an open claw clenches
the middle ground, beyond which all
is blurry flakes opaque inside the swirl
we could call storm or tempera hazed
before it dried—the indistinct
ravaging of winter. She stares
into those woods, a satchel slung
across her arm, her face denied
its profile. No hat or hood. Her braids
grow damp, darkening to rust.
She keeps her pose because she must.
In the Doorway, 1984
Who cares if they made love and lost
themselves inside some barn away
for hidden hours pirated before
they found their separate rooms,
their separate meals, their children’s soft
hellos? Forever nude and kissed
by freckled light she stands against
the doorframe gazing out across
the pastures furred and blue with dew.
Not naked, nude—one hand behind
her braids, a contrapposto muse
voluptuous, a shadowed yawn.
The farmhouse whitewash flakes from age.
Her elbow leans against the frame
that soon enough the rot will claim.
Blue Door, 1952
Have we awoke or come to hide?
These dingy slats, this dusty haze
could be a pantry or the sparse
austerity of a bedroom
where farmhouse creaking punctuates
exhaustion’s monkish silences,
that ache inside the overalls.
A bushel, a hooked pail—such clues
are indistinct. The naked window casts
its amber sheen across the door
that once was cobalt, bright, before
a decade’s boots and garden hands
wore it down to this—a casualty
of survival, the aftermath of blue,
a pharaoh’s chamber robbed of jewels.
Hay Ledge, 1957
The dusk glints off a pond of straw
inside this musky loft where gauzy
spiderwebs festoon the beams
quilled with splinters. Resplendent,
a sideways eggshell cleanly cracked,
the rowboat holds a lobster cage,
two poles, their airless shadows past
the sundown glow. It took four hands
at least to hoist above their heads,
to wait until the thaw beyond
the shivering that sways this rope,
a rat snake lemniscating down
itself and dangling low the loop
most frayed. We find the pharaoh’s tomb
ghostless, waiting, an empty room.
Study for Grey Ghost, 1972
She drinks the shadow of her face,
our freckled mare who’s come
to pause inside the porcelain
stream that isn’t stream but blank
confounding space displaced—a weight
her body makes inside the lines
of this, a sketch, a faint receipt
unfolded. Whose saddle wore
its groove down in her back? Her legs
tapering like piano legs submerge
inside their own reflection pooled.
How many horses do you see,
the teacher asks. None, we say.
She floats, a ghost. She’s pencil dust.
Her thirst is how we know she’s us.
The Woodshed, 1945
Not crucified but fluttering
like funeral lace a mistress shreds
and weeping drapes on motel nails,
two crows hang by their feet and splay
the secret silver of their wings.
Perhaps a widow’s hand tacked
them high across these tattered boards
of her barn baked hard by sun. The rest
is cropped. Perhaps their throats
are slit and far below their blood
has dripped to pool, congealing there
in bright October. Their bodies say,
beware your hunger. They say beware
these farms where famished women wield
slung rifles through their only fields.
The Witching Hour, 1977
The candelabra’s tapers burn
against the vacancies we find
in every stroke that frames the blank
dominion of this dining room—
six weathered walnut chairs, a table
worn as butcher’s block, floorboards bare
and irregular in width as scraps
midnight hands transubstantiate
into a quilt. Shrouded indigo,
the night beyond two windows here
is shadow pines, one faint star,
December’s bully glower. What moves
is flame on untrimmed wicks blackening,
the smoke that swirls out of the frame,
brumous, to other rooms, untamed.
Three nets like sails ride on the breeze
and billow from the poles that stake
them to this inlet shore. Some scales
stuck in their wefts occlude a sun
that glares but cannot bleach the grime
the oldest two have drank, all silt
and salt. They jaundice on the air
beside a smaller rig still pale
as sanderlings in molt. It’s yet
to feel its skin stitched back, the mouths
of fish that gasped pressed to its holes,
the limits of its wear. He’s left
no story here, just aftermath—
if they be tongues, they sing, a band
of jailers, belting at the sand.
Night Hauling, 1944
The lobster trap is pouring light
like pixie dust or pocket stars
some god spilled as he woke alone—
it tumbles down in streaming jets
this poacher pours back to the sea
so he can haul the catch himself.
He’s staring at the coast consumed
with the pale haste of the paranoid.
No one has come, of course—no son
of lobster men to whistle back
and let the village know. He stares
beyond the bobbing amber sprawl
of dinoflagellates that pulse
their glow. They glint his boyish hair,
his neck, the face that isn’t there.
Pine Baron, 1976
Whose hands were here to fill the bowl
an upturned helmet makes beneath
a row of pines? Its cones are heaped
to spilling on the auburn bed
of needles that pad the roadside.
Sickly gray, the ridges of their scales
resemble tarnished dimes poured from
a pillow case, or beef that’s spoiled,
or brains blown from a president
that mist his wife who climbs to scoop
a country in her gloves. Some snow,
an afterthought perhaps, powders
each trunk’s bark. Eight tire tracks
abandon us on land we dreamed
would keep our names in frozen streams.
The Carry, 2003
Perhaps the story is the rock
that pours this river further down
the gash it’s cut into itself.
Hazel algae whiskers slick
each crag, each rivulet that falls
as shimmered foam, then bubbled swirl,
before it calms to glass that leads
our eye to what appears to be
a distant walking bridge, although
it’s so far off it just as well
could be a log some local boys
have fixed so they can cross the pulse
their mothers warned them of. Their homes
are too far off to yell. The sound
might pierce the oaks, then fade, unfound.
The Revenant, 1949
A young man learns he isn’t young
by staring at the mirror dust
of forty years. It cakes like ash
across the glass inside a room
disused—an airless mausoleum
that last knew open windows when
wars were skirmishes. He stares
into his ruggedness, the deep
V his open collar makes, his hands
raised anxiously, a gunslinger’s.
He’s here to clear his stolen claim,
a makeshift studio above
the dying farmers who by grace
let him paint each new disguise
for grief, a debt, his father’s eyes.
If only bodies could dissolve
like this, our torsos turned to sand
or moonlight sugaring a hill,
how easy it would be to die
into the ragged matted grass
where only tire tracks betray
a nearby farm. The rest is night,
a trimmed fingernail of moon,
the beige that clings before a bloom
erupts from snowmelt. No mourners here
wag kerchiefs in their pews, no droll
and distant homily distracts
us from the rot. Here melts the face
one wore against his will, his chest,
each hair the wrens can claim for nests.
Adam Tavel is the author of five books of poetry, including two forthcoming collections: Green Regalia (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2022) and Sum Ledger (Measure Press, 2022). His most recent book, Catafalque, won the Richard Wilbur Award (University of Evansville Press, 2018). His recent poems appear, or will soon appear, in North American Review, Ploughshares, The Georgia Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Ninth Letter, The Massachusetts Review, Copper Nickel, and Western Humanities Review, among others. You can find him online at: adamtavel.com