Christian Wiman: Two Poems

February 24, 2012

Christian Wiman reads “Five Houses Down” and “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone.” You can find print versions of both poems below.

Five Houses Down

I loved his ten demented chickens
and the hell-eyed dog, the mailbox
shaped like a huge green gun.
I loved the eyesore opulence
of his five partial cars, the wonder-cluttered porch
with its oilspill plumage, tools
cauled in oil, the dark
clockwork of assembled engines
christened Sweet Baby and benedicted Old Bitch;
and down the steps into the yard the explosion
of mismatched parts and black scraps
amid which, like a bad sapper cloaked
in luck, he would look up stunned,
patting the gut that slopped out of his undershirt
and saying, Son,
you lookin’ to make some scratch?
All afternoon we’d pile the flatbed high
with stacks of Exxon floormats
mysteriously stenciled with his name,
rain-rotted sheetrock or miles
of misfitted pipes, coil after coil
of rusted fencewire that stained for days
every crease of me, rollicking it all
to the dump where, while he called
every ragman and ravened junkdog by name,
he catpicked the avalanche of trash
and fished some always fixable thing
up from the depths. His endless aimless work
was not work, my father said.
His barklike earthquake curses
were not curses, for he could g-ddamn
a slipped wrench and sh-tf-ck a stuck latch,
but one bad word from me
made his whole being
twang like a nail mis-struck. Ain’t no call for that,
Son, no call at all. Slipknot, whatknot,
knot from which no man escapes–
prestoed back to plain old rope;
whipsnake, blacksnake, deep in the wormdirt
worms like the clutch of mud:
I wanted to live forever
five houses down
in the womanless rooms a woman
sometimes seemed to move through, leaving him
twisting a hand-stitched dishtowel
or idly wiping the volcanic dust.
It was heaven to me:
beans and weenies from paper plates,
black-fingered tinkerings on the back stoop
as the sun set, on an upturned fruitcrate
a little jamjar of rye like ancient light,
from which, once, I took a single, secret sip,
my eyes tearing and my throat on fire.

Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone

Brachest, she called it, gentling grease
over blanching yolks with an expertise
hone from three decades of dawns
at the Longhorn Diner in Loraine,
where even the oldest in the men’s booth
swore as if it were scripture truth
they’d never had a breakfast better,
rapping a glass sharply to get her
attention when it went sorrowing
so far into some simple thing–
the jangly door or a crusted pan,
the wall clock’s black, hitchy hands–
that she would startle, blink, then grin
as if discovering them all again.
Who remembers now when one died
the space that he had occupied
went unfilled for a day, then two, three,
until she unceremoniously
plunked plates down in the wrong places
and stared their wronged faces
back to banter she could hardly follow.
Unmarried, childless, homely, “slow,”
she knew coffee cut with chamomile
kept the grocer Paul’s ulcer cool,
yarrow in gravy eased the islands
of lesions in Larry Borwick’s hands,
and when some nightlong nameless urgency
sent him seeking human company
Brother Tom needed hash browns with cheese.
She knew to nod at the litany of cities
the big-rig long-haulers bragged her past,
to laugh when the hunters asked
if she’d pray for them or for the quail
they went laughing off to kill,
and then–envisioning one
rising so fast it seemed the sun
tugged at it–to do exactly that.
Who remembers where they all sat:
crook-backed builders, drought-faced framers,
VF’ers muttering through their wars,
night-shift roughnecks so caked in black
it seemed they made their way back
every morning from the dead.
Who remembers one word they said?
The Longhorn Diner’s long torn down,
the gin and feedlots gone, the town
itself now nothing but a name
at which some bored boy has taken aim,
every letter light-pierced and partial.
Sister, Aunt Sissy, Bera Thrailkill,
I picture you one dime-bright dawn
grown even brighter now for being gone
bustling amid the formica and chrome
of that small house we both called home
during the spring that was your last.
All stories stop: once more you’re lost
in something I can merely see:
stream spiriting out of black coffee,
the scorched pores of toast, a bowl
of apple butter like edible soil,
bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass,
my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.

Watch the full conversation between Bill Moyers and Christian Wiman.

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