Poem of the Week | November 24, 2014

This week we feature a new poem by Matthew Wimberley. Wimberley is a native of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. A finalist for the 2012 Narrative 30 Below Contest and the 2013 Organic Weapon Arts David Blair Memorial Chapbook Prize, his writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, Narrative, Orion, The Paris-American, Poet Lore, Puerto Del Sol, Rattle, and Verse Daily. Wimberley received his MFA from NYU where he was a Starworks Fellow.
Author’s note:

For me, this poem is a pseudo-revision of two other poems of mine “In the Room of Past Light” and “Ending in Light Over Two Horses” which appeared in PANK. This poem would not have happened without having first written the others. Of course, it is mostly a few images borrowed from those two poems, and certainly the setting, the rural Appalachian town I grew up in and call home. Those images were apparent after the first draft, which I scribbled down on my last day in Brooklyn before moving back to Western North Carolina, but it took some space to allow myself to break apart the old poems and find this one. Image is the driving force, the poem begins and ends on a ridgeline, first coming to it and then leaving it behind. I like to say I don’t write poems, I listen for them, and every now and then I get lucky enough to find one on paper. This couldn’t be truer of “Cold Light”. Beginning in the field, I let the image of lightning bugs lead me back to something I read about Caravaggio washing his canvasses with crushed lightning bugs. One image opened another, certainly the tension I felt growing up in a highly religious town made the inclusion of Caravaggio not only relevant but necessary (in a dialogue with the self) and I am thinking of the particular painting “The Entombment of Christ”. Here I should also give credit to my friend and forester, Graham Ford for a wonderful essay of his he shared with me, giving me the musical line about the tractor. I can’t avoid the influence of Larry Levis on this poem, his long sequence from The Widening Spell of the Leaves gave me a kind of trail map I’m still following. Also, Sharon Olds’ book The Father allowed me to confront the loss of my own father in a new way. This poem is an elegy to him, the landscape helping to navigate a complicated relationship caused by both geographic and emotional separation.


Cold Light


Father this ridge with steep shelves
of milkweed and thistle
I carry you to
to watch the buckskins
stand against the hills—swishing
their tails as if to conduct silence
long enough
to hear the notes they compose,
how different
the upward spirals are
from the decrescendo of dark
horse hairs. It’s taken my whole life
to bring you here
and I can feel each whip of grass
on my legs, smell the damp soil
and bitter leaf rot. The lightning bugs
are out for the first time—
they appear all at once, like cinders
brushed back into the air
whenever one lands on my shoulders.
I imagine crushing them into powder
as Caravaggio did to excite the canvass,
the pulp of their abdomens
lucefrin and lucefrace rubbed
across the blank surface. I think
he understood the source of brightness,
even if he had to pulverize elytra
and compound eye to find it,
to swell shadow and oil
into the face of Christ—the body of God
half-lowered onto a stone table,
a hand touching his wounded ribs
touching the seam the spirit slipped through.
Some days like this
I could give you up with no one watching,
with dignity. I have always wanted
to believe in an afterlife. Though
there is an after life I’ve seen
without you. The snows melted, trillium bloomed,
horses were unstabled and left to roam.
It took part of a morning to clean
your apartment, take out the furniture,
bag the clothes, box the silverware
and plates. When it was empty
with no evidence you’d lived
inside, I stood by the window and looked out
over a parking lot and admired
the cut chain link fence
and overgrown weeds pushing
up through the concrete. Because no one
told me where they found you, I picked
a spot behind where the couch had been,
dropped to my knees and stretched out
on the cold linoleum
and imagined the end. Did you hear
the argument of strangers outside, or the whir
of passing cars? Was there something worth saying
you whispered to yourself? I pressed my ear
into the floor and listened hard
for the lightest scratch of your voice
but there was nothing.
When the stars go into their hiding,
buried somewhere as if pressed
into a bucket of thistle-seed
I clutch the bag of your ashes
like a bird of prey
lifting the shape of an animal—
the last of its kind—
into her nest. The velvet
slides against what had been you.
The untouched slag—
half of me—half of every cell
bone and bellowed bloodstream,
half of my heart.
Overhead I stare into the past light
sure to outlast
everything I love. Think, what stars
had to die for all of this.
I turn and walk
past the overgrown hull
of a Massey-Ferguson tractor
still hooked to a bush hog,
back into the hemlock, scorched spruce
and mountain laurel.