No carbon-14. No search for provenance or title,
no crawl through pages dimmed by the scrubwork
of time’s greased elbows and the entitlements of light
will say exactly when these walls were hoisted into being.
The idea of “wall” was there from the beginning,
a beast slumbering, a word waiting for air.
Time begins when one stone is placed atop another.
When the first shadow lies down. And with time,
all the weight, all the slow music of accumulation.
So we scrape acres of dirt to uncover shells, bent nails,
teeth laced with gold, bone scraps, things built
to outlast the fire. Tomorrow, I will ask my students
what myths they know about their country. The swamps
and smoky fields of history stretch their infinities
beyond the windowless borders of my classroom.
There’s a story about a writer famous for loving whiskey
and guns. When a student offered a story with the line,
“He held a gun to my head, but I wasn’t scared,”
the teacher, half-cocked, pulled a pistol from underneath
his corduroy jacket, aimed and asked “Are you scared
now?” At the hearing he said he didn’t remember
if the gun was loaded or not. Fired, he left town and wrote
his best book. Years later, sober and stricken by illness,
he learned the name of a god that mattered and died
writing letters filled with his visions of the afterlife.
The story never doubles back to find the student
and tell us where he went with his new understanding
of the power available in language. He vanished
as supporting characters are meant to do, but he may
pass among us still, the man drinking CC ditches
in an airport bar, speaking to no one. Or the voice
in the next booth unreeling every play of a game
no one cares about or saw. Or he may not exist at all,
the whole story a shadow woven by time, sculpted
from tissue and wishful thinking, a notion that gained
flesh with each telling until our speaking made it real,
a lesson in giving the nameless one an immortality
built from lies, which have their own truth to tell.
The Old Language
There was a time I believed all they said. And a time when
I believed nothing that came from their mouths. Either way,
they kept talking. Chewing the brown air into words.
Trombones sliding familiar riffs. Headlines that shift
but always sign or sing the same words. You only learn so much,
no matter how old you get. Especially once you lose the habit
of hearing. Tonight’s rain was foretold by scripture.
So was the score of yesterday’s game. The juice and salt
of a tomato’s ripening. The lungs grow scarred
with so much breathing. Nothing sure but the soft-shoe
of words, phrases repeated so often no one can be sure
if they were said aloud or simply imagined. Somewhere
beyond seeing, the alliances of planets shift. No scripture for that,
no pat saying. A girl drops a pinch of cat hair
into a bowl of fire, squeezes a pin-drop of blood from her finger
into the flame. In five years she will have forgotten why
it seemed necessary to do this. But that is five years,
and they must pass one breath at a time. The chord
that flutters forth and the inholding. Point and counterpoint.
The betrayals of gravity. Galaxies swirled into being, each waiting
its turn to be named. This is work for old mouths, for thin tongues,
teeth browned by time. Not the words they say. The ones they do not.
Old language kept in the swamp of gray shadows under
every human tongue. To say without saying, the noun
just finding shape, the small life learning to breathe.
The girl who watches the fire and can’t recall if she struck the match
to say love or to say hate. Or if she only meant to say fire.
Al Maginnes is the author of five full-length collections, most recently Inventing Constellations (Cherry Grove Collections, 2012) and Ghost Alphabet(White Pine Press, 2008), winner of the White Pine Poetry Prize. He lives in Raleigh, N.C. and teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Wake Technical Community College.