Three Poems by R. T. Smith

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Two weary copperheads twined and writhing
behind the woodpile where I came for kindling
twist and slither, crackling the dead leaves
in unseasonable mating, their eyed arrowheads

oblivious to my trespass, and unlike Tiresias,
I am untempted to strike them or otherwise
interrupt their puzzle of rust and rubbed umber,
for in this chill at evening I think nothing

bent on survival could be close to obscene,
even if they were twins of the same hatch
back in wet summer, even if their venom sacs
are swollen and they can see any human

intruder only with spite. Struck still as a wren
in a trance by the crucial beauty of it, I pause
till a last spasm shakes them loose. The dying
grass under trees the pine beetles have ruined

conceals their separate exits, and only now,
feeling autumn’s bite on my bare cheeks,
do I begin to envy their bliss and gather sticks
and stacked sapwood for the year’s first fire.

Inside then, dropping my hickory and poplar
into the hearthside box, I surprise my wife
from behind and wrap my arms like two snakes
around her waist, till I feel her spine stiffen

with pleasure at the kiss on her nape, my lick
and nuzzle, the sheer animal comfort we crave,
for are we not also fallen creatures cursed
with labor and eager in this season to be saved?




I’m so tired of telling you about the birds,
and you’ve heard it all to no profit
and little amusement—the hawks calling
as they fall on moles, the puling doves,
cardinals wary of their shadows on snow
and so on—but indulge me these last words,
a testimony as white tufts from the sky
send them to a frenzy, and even wrens
grow possessive and feisty, every seed
a treasure. On the dead and needleless
snag cedar a crow presides, all glossy frock
coat and vowels, scolding juncos, chickadees,
anybody small enough to take a feeder
perch. He knows winter’s a time to be quick
and minimal, an ember in the great flame
which is cold for the minute but will consume
us all in the End Times (which my neighbor
says is around the corner). Now I’ve gone
and ambled off again when all I meant to say
was tighten down like the sparrow and let
the ice slide by, whinny out like a screech
owl, carve the air as swifts do to the shape
of thoughts you can sleep with. And listen
to the old man at the window who’s
sworn the thrush, nuthatch and warbler
will no longer occupy his voice or your
leisure, though he’s taking his sweet time
about it, dependent on his yammering
as the blaze-headed pileated who’s now
hammering his hungry percussion
into the dead hickory whose hollows
are half filled with owls and snow and who
might know as much about the End Time
as any sour local promising a scourging
and the purifying power of Divine Light
which has always been part of the story
and coming for all of us incapable of irony
and the dazzling happenstance of flight.



Flying Squirrels 

Fairydiddles my neighbor names them,
the way he calls the checkerback pecking
the cedar shakes son-of-a-bitch bird
and the fledgling turkey goony jake,

but the trespassers crawling wallspace
along joists, licking sheetrock and fascia,
are squirrels with the faces of elves.
John swears they can destroy a house.

Nocturnal, airborne and restless,
they grin in my dreams and scrabble
before dawn, their routine gibberish
shrill the instant I cross the threshold

of sleep. They lark about and nest,
breed like poor relations and show no fear.
If I catch one lingering on the sill
or hickory limb brushing the eave,

it will eye me till I slap the pane
and he spreads his fleshy web like sails
to sweep into night where owls
and other hungers wait. If such tenants

are essential to country life—sinister
and indigenous but cunning enough
to admire—I’d be wiser to cease 
picturing what needle teeth will do

to a live wire and submit to my fate,
to coexist in peace and accept
the ways we’re kin but always ready
to rise in flame and ruin when elf

mischief finds the current. After all,
a moment with angel-radiant squirrels
might supply the bliss I’m missing,
turn me nearly graceful as the glory

of their brief soaring. If this invasion
ends in a wildlife incident and John,
looking back with his wistful diction,
conjures a moniker to befit his late

neighbor and sometime host, who can
guess what he’ll devise? Maybe frisky
risker, nitwit of smolder or owl-cohort.
Drowsy as I am now, bone-weary

and riled by the evening’s serenade,
I won’t ask the idiom for mercy.
What about ashtongue, old smoky
or just the rodent-whisperer’s ghost?



R. T. Smith is Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University, where he has edited Shenandoah since 1995. Smith is a two-time winner of the Library of Virginia Poetry Book of the Year Award and recipient of the Virginia Governor’s Award for Achievement in the Arts. His newest book is Sherburne: Stories from Stephen F. Austin University Press.

Copperhead snake photo by Dennis W. Donohue, courtesy Shutterstock. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.