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Cumberland Gap

I first realized I was evaporating
when I was twelve, having heard

for the first time the word embarcadero,
from some boy leafing through a battered copy

of a triple A road atlas tucked onto a shelf,
one volume in the series of books of maps

that had for a long time comprised
the section of the library devoted to geography.

It was a place, but not in any real sense
except the one I’d guessed at, the exotic newness

of a word that finished with a vowel, and if I,
in the library of a worn-out-already rural school,

created in my mind a picture that could be called
a fair approximation of the place as it existed,

the long line of the esplanade falling off
into the distances, perhaps the fine grey of

the Pacific reaching through the uncertainty of fog,
and then at night, the book of maps now left

open on a table, I could create the bustle
of a group of stars that never were. I’d be called

lucky, or just dead wrong, and for a moment,
motionless, I’d be clearly drawn to scale upon the page

with just the clarity that I had hoped for, not knowing
the fruitlessness of having clarity among one’s hopes.

When the librarian called my name my name
was made into a kind of spell, dispersing everything

I could identify or claim as being part
of one certain, undisputed me, the long walk

down the hall as she held my hand, deferring
every question I might ask until a later time,

and I remember the bright red dust of dried-up clay
that swung in liquid looking rivulets as I sat

in the parking lot and waited for my father’s Chevy to appear,
knowing only that someone was dying, thinking only

of the word embarcadero, any place other than the place
I was forced to occupy in time and space, any name

of any town that’s weight could be abandoned
with enough repeating, and giving up at last, the last

of the other children gone, hearing in my father’s voice
his philosophy of living, always buy a Chevy, son,

those goddamn Fords are designed for obsolescence,
the plan, see, is in five years it’ll break down

and you’ll have to buy another, and I asked if it was like
the broken bicycle he’d bought for me that we’d repaired

one piece at a time until it worked, how when
we screwed the last bolt onto the new sprocket

the old bike was no longer there, everything replaced,
the broken pieces set aside and what did it mean,

and his face, which I remember over everything, lined
with a map-like certainty of shame because he had no answer,

offered none, and then the tracks of the Chevy’s tires
turned up the dust again, the pine trees bright and luminous

with their late spring blanketing of pollen underneath
the unreal quality of light in which we lived, until I climbed

into the seat beside him, that rag he had
by then begun to cough into
already resting on his knee.


Songs in Planck Time

I rank first among all things
the new pine board

my father and I nailed
into the half collapsing dock

that lurched out back then
when I was young

into the brackish end of the Mattaponi.
I seem to recall something obvious

about the way that one board
was devoid of natural qualities, was

out of place and undeveloped in time, was
as yet unweathered as was I, the reverse

of which is mere endurance, an impotent
going on; so add it to the list

of things that I am not, if something must
be done with it:

not the prince of any
even minor island. Not

and won’t be the hero of anybody’s story
but my own, if that. Not

the ripple moving outward, not
the flat of the oar that slapped the water,

not the sound it made that drove
every bird from every branch at once, not

the sky they darkened with
their flight. Not

my memory of you still on that long
walk to the end of the dock,

jumping over every missing timber
as if it might make a bit of difference when

you spread out your arms and paused, then
finally fell into the water. Not

even briefly any father’s son, not any
song we haven’t heard before.


The Torch and Pitchfork Blues

Whoever picks up the last of the thrown jacks
while the ball still bounces off the pavement
and hangs suspended in the kicked up playground dust
must also retrieve the history of the ground
where it will land. There are rules. Tell us,
boy, called out on eenie, if you
have guessed them yet. Before there was
brushed nickel there was iron, before
Tommy Dunlap was pushed idly from the bus
into that busy intersection, there was
a plenitude of grief already. Measured
against all that, a single incident recedes
into no biggie, just a memory that will help
to make his fourth grade classmates cautious,
for a time at least, until they can no longer take
the weight of that third and fourth look down the street
when crossing into any kind of danger.
It doesn’t matter, can’t, and even if the impact
of that moment could be measured, we cannot say
with any certainty that Sara Albertson,
ten years after, could have resisted
making dainty track-marks in the crook
of her elbow, between her toes, and I have heard,
when it was at its worst, into her eyes.

Who could have known, of the children
gathered in a circle, picking for a game of jacks,
that the ground on which they walked
had once been furrowed by a group of,
well, you know whos. Who among them
could have known? Well, really, any,
had they been even half aware in class,
had they opened up their textbooks once,
had they heard their fathers say, if them
niggers keep comin’ we’re leavin’

Without the plans for the school, now buried
in the county zoning office basement,
or some historical artifact that would give
the layout of the old plantation, it would be difficult
to say for sure if the fence they crawled under to escape
had been over by the baseball field
or by the lower meadow where the kindergarteners
played that game in gym with a parachute and tennis ball,
the children’s arms just barely strong enough
to send it lofting into the blue sky, and them too young
to know not to look directly at it, yellow and hanging
as if by magic, blinding as it reached the apex
of its flight. By Christmas break they would perfect
their method, the whole game now brought indoors,
the children trained to never look again.
You might say they failed to learn the only lesson
any one of them would have ever needed since: that if
anything on earth has earned the right to be observed
it is a thing of beauty while in flight.
You might say. You might say. You might.


The Abhorrence of Coincidence

Look, out there
that goddamned lame horse
kicks up just the most recent of
the newly dusted snow,

which forms into a pattern,
a small ellipsis underneath
the lightening-split dogwood tree
you tried to mend
with wood glue, bandages,
and a spool of rusty bailing wire,

the end result of which
was nothing more than a dead tree
adorned with the trappings
of some god-awful human injury.

You are out back by the barn now,
hammering nails into
eighty dollars worth of shoes
for that damn horse
you said we shouldn’t kill,

and I tap my finger on the window,
and see myself mirrored in
the nails you drove already,
and in the manner of the impertinent roan
who ran in circles in the snow
this afternoon and made
the dirt turn up, who turned
the snow a little brown, the one
you always lectured me about
never trying to ride.

I remember when we had
no horse, no pasture
in which it could trample earth
into a name, or if not a name
something which would instigate
my thinking on the time
I said your name

over and over again
as if it might be made
into a kind of destiny,
a destiny of saying, and being
said, and by me, as if
a pale ellipsis could of its own accord
resist its being covered
by a lame horse turning up
the dirt a little more,

and so I write your name now
in the breath I’ve left against
the glass, the need for tapping
gone, the surprise long passed
from your saying in the night
not names but something else,
not destiny but, Hell, if I was anywhere
but here I’d be just as much in love
with someone else

and so I breathe again
and cover up
your name,
for I am not anywhere,
and I am not else.  


Kevin Powers is a 2008 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and a US Army veteran. He is currently in his second year at the Michener Center for Writers, University of Texas at Austin. His poems have appeared in The Sun, The New York Quarterly, Poetry, and elsewhere.