William Thompson, in The Time Falling Bodies Take To Light, said that "Myth, as the history of the soul, is still a history, and each stage of the evolution of consciousness generates its appropriate story. As the spiral of history turns, one archetypal story becomes the recapitulation of the old, the performance of the new, and the overture of what is to come." Poems and stories record a "history of the soul"; they tell and foretell, they persuade and dissuade. The stages of consciousness are not only broad and cultural, but personal. What appealed to us in our youth sometimes seems like shiny raven-litter later; what appeals in early adulthood can seem like Plato's Universals in pantaloons; what appeals to me in middle age is spontaneous selflessness, grace with full knowledge of effects and consequences, the eloquence of revised ambitions. We write and read to know ourselves, others, and the human experience. And it is this realization and process that subsumes all other needs to get recognition or some kind of public verification. However, this grant and the whole NEA organization are emblems of the value our culture takes in understanding our own beautiful and terrible complexities. I'm honored and humbly grateful to be a part of it.
A lusty loose-fleshed jog into the field,
head high, wary, like a Mexican bull entering the ring,
gauging his parameters--us, saddled horses--
snorting a haughty challenge, as he runs toward places
he'd jumped before, looking through us as easily
as the ruddy circles around his cross-bred eyes.
Assured of his power, the way he could
squander distance, only his whim dared gather him in.
Then he idled like a teenage athlete, his body tuned
and taut, prancing inside, eager to return any threat.
He had escaped four times: over the five-foot arena,
over steel panels, a Powder River gate,
crushing them like wrinkled staves of music,
over barbed-wire, then the neighbor's fences,
tasting each new field like a dessert.
I heard the bright pop milliseconds
before his legs crumpled. The shot
between his freckled eyes. He lay kicking,
mouthing air, his horned head thrashing,
mouth frothing a fuchsia foam. Even with
his throat cut, he kicked and stretched,
the cherry stream, pooling before his legs
still leaping fences of air.
Then the faint tremor of the death-sigh--
the shoulder relents into its earth-shape,
the blue lid of the sky closes,
and the hind hoof sags, trembles slightly
like the board after a diver's plunge.
Finally, he lies still steaming with his late power,
his body mere liaison between then and now,
cause and effect. His exuberant extravagance,
wildering chaos, casually cooling in the grass amid the chattering
of gathering magpies. We cut, pushed our hands
inside him, into the hot glistening ropes,
the frosted mauve folds, the thin ear-shaped pancreas,
the old globe of his paunch, his fat-capped heart
just released from its labor, the bean-shaped spleen,
the silky bladder rippling. We had to hone our knives
and slice a hundred arcs through the pearly membrane
between hide and meat, hoist again,
wash, quarter, and pack him to the cooler.
Our clothes were spattered, damp with blood and steam,
bodies sapped from assuming
the massive dead weight of him, of us.
I remember the shohet who'd come to Superior Pack
to bless the sheep's necks for the kosher shehita,
that easy razor stroke, the hot splashing, the tender way
he touched the white chin before the next stroke,
four on the rail already. The prayer on his lips,
in the edge of his knife, the lamplit past reddening his sleeves.
No pious horror, no pity, he severed the neck veins,
his breath mingling with the last of the sheep's,
an image of the take-and-give at the center of each
breath, the shiver of the crab in the otter's jaws,
a bird's fluttering as the cat cracks the bones,
the tail-wag of the mouse disappearing into the snake.
It was the shudder in the loins, the spasms of prayer spilling
from his lips to the red floor, the way this day
feasts on the last, and any shoulder leans into the earth.
Joseph Powell teaches at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. He has published three collections of poems: Counting the Change, Winter Insomnia, and Getting Here. He has also published three poetry chapbooks, and a book of short stories called Fish Grooming & Other Stories, which was a finalist for the Washington Book Awards. He has also co-written a book on meter called Accent On Meter (NCTE, 2004). He lives on a small farm with his wife and son.
Photo by Rick Villacres