the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2008



George Dickerson

The Coming on of Night

Light scatters from the trees
Like pigeons exploded into flight,
Flutters momentarily,
And seems to die on air.
Night picks up his walking stick.

Jackhammers machine-gunning the streets
Have stopped their persistent yammer.
Only a fragment of an echo
Brought by the restless wind
Chatters the Venetian blind.

In my room a girl trembles
To an emotion as far away
And indecipherable
As the shudder of subways
Through the belly of a building.

It is too late for summer,
But she makes fireflies
In the darkness
With her cigarette,
Insisting on her presence.

In the first night, in the Garden,
Did terror strike our hearts
With the quickness of the tiger?
Or was there a sign
To ease the uncertainty—
A surprise of stars
Assuring the upturned eyes?
Over the city now,
The stars open bloodshot eyes
In a heavy, sullen neon glow.

The girl snuffs out her light,
Makes a stirring like leaves,
Like grass disturbed by frightened birds,
Then empties out my room
With the closing of the door.

The heart crumples black
As a burned letter
From the half-forgotten past.

(Previously published in The New Yorker and Selected Poems 1959-1999, Rattapallax Press, 2000;
©1964, 1992, 2000, 2008 by George Dickerson)


The Empire of the Stumps

After my father had the trees cut down,
After the grunting brawny men had gone,
With their snarling saws and chattering chains,
And carted off the branches and the logs,

A stench of bleeding resin choked the air
And stifled our house of rough cinderblock—
A grey and crumbling monolith among
The funereal figures of the stumps—

Sullen survivors of the carnage there—
Accusing old men, obdurate in bark,
They hunkered to the ground like fabled gnomes
Mourning a treasure thoughtlessly lost.

And then I heard my father say, "Dig up
The stumps! Root them out and you'll be a man."
So that long summer of my fourteenth year
I sweated in the unforgiving sun.

While all my friends snuck down to the river
To suckle their toes in the languid mud,
I pretended to be young Hercules,
Slaughtering my way through a hundred stumps.

I dug and dug deep with a dented spade,
Then hefted my axe and chopped at the roots;
Furious at the destiny of things,
I hurled my victims on a witches' pyre.

My blistered heart grew calloused as my hands;
I cursed at my father for all my pains—
Drunk or grappling with a chortling demon,
He seemed indifferent to the work I'd done.

During that summer of my fourteenth year,
I battled manhood in the stumps' domain,
But never saw a grassy field I'd won,
For, soon uprooted, we moved well away.

A lopped-off man in a hospital bed
Clutched close and said, "Good job, the stumps," then died.
And now today in my sixty-third year,
I know the empire of the stumps still stands:

Somewhere I'll find a butchered grove of trees,
And pray to a father I've hardly known;
I'll sharpen my spade and begin to dig:
There's a field to be cleared, and loss endured.

(Previously published in Selected Poems 1959-1999, Rattapallax Press, 2000;
©1998, 2000, 2008 by George Dickerson)



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