“Silences” by Richard Jackson

Richard Jackson


The world is made of water.

I can barely remember, now, that unwritten poem in which
you suddenly appeared, and which disappeared
the way your Mohawk fathers disappeared from the valley
I lived in once. I have only these words that seem as if
they climbed up from the bottom of a dry well. There are
so many things we don’t hear: the hawk’s talon piercing
the skull of the meadow vole, the moon scratched by a branch
of the hackberry, the cicada emerging from its cocoon in
this false Spring. I am told that when I was young I watched
a butcher push his hand down the throat of a lamb’s carcass
and pull out its heart. Can you imagine a silence so desperate
to be heard? You said once we should be able to hear
the language of fish, that everything comes to us on rivers
of wind. John, the news has come that your own bones are
turning into water, and I look out to the birds that have come
to the railing and can’t even remember their names. Just there,
an early lily is trying to hold the morning’s rain in the mirror
of its petal. Where I live now, someone has cut away acres
of trees, and the words for what they meant no longer exist.
I am wearing the choker of bone you left for me.
I don’t know what that unwritten poem should have said,
though I remember the image of coffins they have found
in the desert, shaped to take the place of those bodies that have
dissolved into air, and of the Antarctic ice sheet that is
floating towards the sea across invisible, submerged lakes.
Last week, the cranes arrived, as they do each year,
at the Cherokee campsite on the Hiawassee. When they rose
in groups to settle for the night by the river, their necks
leaned into the sunset as if they were in a rush to leave their bodies
behind. It is this way with everything we try to say. We want
to grasp the heart, to hear what is beyond our hearing, but have
only these words that disappear like mist from the tip
of a wave, or the phosphorous trail a swimmer leaves in the sea.

for John Anderson

–from Rattle #29, Summer 2008
2009 Neil Postman Award Winner


Richard Jackson: “I usually collect a bunch of images, observations, sayings, clippings that attract me and so have something to do with my unconscious, and then something sets off the poem, the first line, and I go to those notes which then generate others. What set off this poem was the news of my friend’s disease—the poem came pretty quickly then.”

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