Summer 2008, #15
       "Convenient Acts of Human Behavior"

Poems By Robert Hill Long

The Wire Garden

My father died between hurricanes. It was not
a hurricane that finished him, but his body's
garden, rich with neglect. When he woke he asked, What
is killing me? I said, Remember the clematis

climbing the lamp-post on my front walk in Eugene?
Okay, he said. A span of pain made him lucid
in his hospital night. Cancer's wreathing your spine
like that. It's a vine, another child of God

that has one impulse: to climb as far up the light
as the lamp-post will take it, so it can smother
the glass and send tendrils outward an inch per night
to reach the pencil cedar, the house, some other

standing thing to structure its spread. Okay, he said,
and pushed the morphine plunger: Okay. Time for bed.

Room 829, Coastal Cancer Center, New Hanover
County Memorial Hospital, 1996. August. If he would live
through summer, he could revisit the polished front hall

of the South Carolina justice of the peace
where he had eloped with a nineteen year old girl
half a century past. In memory. In place
of driving there in person, pulling into the marl

drive, walking through their runaway wedding, step by
step, once more. Walking and driving are over,
a closed circuit. The next step for him is to die.
On the couch, Mom napped beneath his bed-cover

(he'd insisted: he was plenty warm with one sheet)
and dreamed of Lazarus, rising with his pallet.

The Pier and the Bridge

If he could cease seeing the pier
where he spends most nights bottom-fishing
as a failed bridge, he might get somewhere

during the day. But after each day
is finished with sleep, it's night,
and the causeway's string of light points

to the pier, strung with incandescent bulbs
all the way to the end, where he ends up
dropping a lead-weighted question

baited with an array of live fish, fish-heads, pigs' feet.
When idlers—teen gropers on dates, farm families
getting a first good gawk at the Atlantic—get past

the oddness of his beat-up electric golf cart parked
with a driver-side view of Africa,
they always ask: What are you fishing for?

Hicks and hormone-lust amuse him. He says,
A Russian sub with one warhead intact.
Or, the bones of Robert E. Lee guarding the last stash

of Confederate bullion. If he feels mean, just:
Moby Fucking Dick. He plays their questions better
than he plays the line, which most nights remains limp,

or drifts a little with the current, depending
how long his live bait tugs at its leader.
As far as he knows, he's simply feeding

something bigger than himself, some great thing
made up of infinitely smaller parts
that flash and dart in narcosis depths:

a sunken body politic; a drowned childhood.
a bridge back to Ghana or Senegal
whence cameth whatever strength brought him here

around the time the Liberty Bell cracked;
an answer for no one, least of all him. What about
the bones of his fathers and mothers? Not there

to be trawled up, since they survived
both first and middle passage to produce the line
that ends in him. But plenty more bones lobsterwalk

the Atlantic bottom. One night shy of Apocalypse
maybe a chalky hand will clasp his treble hook
and give three strong yanks to say, Come hither—

come down where we were thrown off the slaver
to feed the fish that Jesus didn't divide.
His last mission was in Eritrea, supervising division of millet

into child-sized meals, dividing dried milk, dried fruit,
seeing that aid trucks unloaded this much
and no more, that church volunteers ladled no more

than each client had earned according to calculations
of drought, age, optimal weight, time served in the camp.
He could thank God, then, he was no doctor

to triage terminally malnourished cases,
or the death-tent nurses required to search themselves
in those obsidian eyes until the eyes clouded

like mackerels laid out on planks of salt wood.
His exit visa was stamped one night in a rocket attack
on a convoy loading at the airfield.

A hundred-pound sack of dried milk, his shield:
the leg that poked out got seeded with shrapnel
from buttock to bootlace: Armegeddon's fish-hook

and fish-scale, infinitely small, embedded signs
of the end of the world. On the same night,
an opposing warlord targeted the camp, a mortar barrage,

punishment for taking American handouts.
The mission got the message, folded tents, flew away.
He left the leg buried among two hundred refugees.

With the end of walking, the end of faith. And the end
of faith is a golf cart parked at the end of the pier.
Are you happy now, have you heard enough?

Then turn on back and search for that nipple
budding beneath her bra, go home and till tobacco
and shout hallelujah. You're not ready to see

what's drowned in this ocean—the Bill of Rights,
Fugitive Slave Act, Sermon on the Mount,
twenty-five million obsidian eyes.

His list of grievances, long as Job's beard,
twice as black, ten times more intemperate.
But the gawkers never get to hear this,

they're shamed away by Moby Fucking Dick.
Any rant concerning warlords, warheads,
the bullion stowed in West African bones

for safekeeping under Ahab's night watch—
that's a dialogue composed of silence:
conducted with the night in place of God,

with the Atlantic in place of Jesus,
and days when he can't sleep, with the TV
surrogating for good old Holy Ghost.

TV shows a red cloud big as Sahara pluming west
toward Topsail Beach. Click. Suits more expensive
than ten thousand portions of millet announce

sharp upturns in armor production, troop shipments.
Click. The Houston Astrodome's conversion
to a superchurch with fountains, ferns, not a cross in sight,
a preacher with perfect teeth plus twelve baskets
of cash at his feet. He keeps audio muted,
captions on, orthography like glossolalia.

Each dead channel's static gray hiss of snow
translates as [Nothing], the porn channel's
mimes of the act of love are captioned [*].

And sleep, when it comes, is no refuge: there,
a recurring dream-child mounts a sunken scaffold
of bones wide as Sahara, tangled as sargassum;

his lips swell like a trombone's embouchure to utter
a note that's half lighthouse beam, half ambulance siren.
Then he morphs into a sheepshead—zebra-striped fish

of pilings and piers—and swims away. Sleep
is the wrong end of death's telescope.
That fish-headed child, was he thrown off the slaver's deck,

mortared in his cot, or triaged by kwashiorkor?
That's the answer he'll never catch. Once his bait
array goes over the rail, seeing stops:

nothing but the second-by-second nudge, live wave,
dead wood. No horizon but night. A high place,
a pulpit. Jesus could feed five billion here

if he started walking the wavery path
of the rising moon. Starting out now from Galilee,
across the Mediterranean. He'd better walk fast,

the night's a Gethsemane wink, all those bones
reaching up from the bottom in his wake
like lepers wanting one touch of the hem

of his Atlantic garment. Come on, the man says.
He leans his rod against the rail, shifts
the good leg in his golf cart: Come all the way here

this time, come prove me wrong.
The beer's cold if you hurry, but I'm not
anchoring this end of the bridge forever.