Poem of the Week | July 05, 2021

This week’s Poem of the Week is “Uncertain Air” by James Harms!

James Harms is the author of ten books, including, most recently, Rowing with Wings (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2017), a collection of poems.


Uncertain Air

At Manassas Battlefield in March, killing
time while waiting for my daughter’s flight from Dublin,
certain she’d miss her connection in Newark and almost sure
I’d be finding a hotel room for the night, as I had the night
before, hiking the woods around the battlefield, doing my
best to forget, still early days, the virus just finding its legs,
trying not to be troubled by the empty streets around
the battlefield and airport, Manassas being a stone’s throw
(a Minie ball’s flight) from Dulles, forgetting the wrong things,
like where I parked (a big lot near a creek, a wooden walkway
into the woods, the Minie ball’s gray journey through leaves
and skin and muscle and out the other side, settling
in the grass, the meadows in the woods, balls of lead
flecked with blood, some still buried no doubt beneath
weeds and dark loam), just walking and walking and, for
a while, talking to Jeff, who called as I crossed the road
that bisects the battlefield, who wondered after Phoebe,
explained about his own daughter just released from her
dorm room and driving south on the 101, ready to reclaim
her bedroom and a place at the dinner table, how the experts
couldn’t agree on which end of a pencil to shove up their
asses, how he worried he’d be laying off the whole plant soon,
worried and worried and I said, Yup, me, too, then silence,
which is worry wrapped in wool, and then Goodbye as the trail
petered out at a lake, as I turned and turned and wondered
which was the right way, headed north it seemed and soon
exited the woods like a Minie ball leaving a body, found myself
at the edge of a field, at the bottom of a hill, looking up
at a farmhouse surrounded by parking lots, a farmhouse-now-
a-museum, cannons here and there like silhouettes of plastic toys
arrayed across a summer lawn, though in fact they were a quarter
mile away, the real things salvaged from a war that ended a century
and a half ago, rolling fields rising and falling for miles, cannons
and statues studding the horizon, statues that looked, from a distance,
more like real men in repose, men on horseback, men in mourning,
thousands of men dead in the space of a few miles, over the course
of a few days, no phones or even telegraphs near at hand
to let anyone know, which accounts for all the bad decisions,
the Generals’ mistakes: did they use semaphore? scouts? hunches?
and was my daughter on the plane? would I just walk and walk
the rest of the day? up and down hills, stopping at small signs
to learn what mistake had been made on this knoll or that,
who had died, where they were buried? until my phone buzzed,
a text from my ex-wife, “She made the flight!” certain at last
that our daughter might almost be home, the air over the Atlantic
filled to frenzy with planes and panicked daughters, all those
who passed the fever test in London, exhausted and sick to death
of standing in lines, and then another buzz, another message,
“Her plane lands in an hour,” and me in the middle of Manassas,
turning this way and that like a little boy lost in a crowd, trying to
find a trail back to a parking lot near a road I didn’t remember
the name of, though I remembered the name of the creek, Bull Run,
the two Battles of Bull Run, so when I saw it in the distance,
from the top of the highest hill, I knew which way to walk
as my phone buzzed again, as my daughter arrived, as I jogged
the last mile, certain I’d never make it, the woods on all sides alive
with silence and the now-and-then whisper of something passing
through the air, until I found the bridge over Bull Run, until I found
the parking lot and my car, found my daughter a few miles away
standing at the curb outside the Aer Lingus baggage claim,
her dirty surgical mask askew, crying I could tell though trying not to,
wanting to hug me though she knew she shouldn’t, standing there
with her suitcases, lowering them to the sidewalk as I jumped
from the car, circling her arms in front of her as if she were
hugging the air I might enter, the uncertain air all around her,
around all of us.


Author’s Note

Though “Uncertain Air” is the final poem of a collection written between March and May of 2020, it was one of the first written for that book. It’s an unusually biographical and factual poem (for me), since it describes what happens over the course of a morning spent waiting and hoping for my daughter’s return from Europe during the first days of the pandemic. I think the rest is, as they say, self-explanatory. Sort of.