If a heron stood sentinel on the banks of that pond
where bluegill bit whatever we hooked to the end of a line
and a curly-q of smoke resembled a last illiterate scribble,
sloppy signature that tried to say this is my name, this is who I am
in a wide sky over hills and fields we wandered as children,
then cruelty was the word we learned early, long slow syllable
at the center like dark clouds in the west, quick T at the end
like the sudden swing of an aluminum door slapping the siding of a dented trailer,
sly Y turned E like the missing catch that’s supposed to keep
the door in check, storm glass soon to shatter. And if later, we laughed
and threw booze bottles that we found in a homeless man’s camp
among a grove of trees and if we dumped his water, burnt soiled clothes,
and scattered his bedding, then we were just acting as we’d been taught.
Or so I would like to say. The willows swayed and made no case against us.
The thorns of locust trees stayed sharp. Maybe the heron launched
into a sky that held birds and smoke in the same blue palm. The planks
he’d used for a bed cracked in the fire pit. Greasy blankets in the blaze
put forth a dark smell. We were boys trying to find the easiest way
to masculine violence,deep class issues, and let’s brutalize someone worse off than us.
It’s forty years later, and now it seems like the word we learned was America,
four syllables owned by only a few. Of course, I never saw the man’s face
when he came back to ruin, his things scattered, because we did not watch:
we ran and swam and cannonballed off a rope swing for a few hours
and then half-carried, half-dragged the dozens of fish back to the trailer park
where we gutted them on porches, hosing everything off before our fathers
saw the mess, believing that the sweet meat of those spiny-backs would be fried
with butter for dinner, the brilliant blue and bright orange behind the gills
like the beginnings of a rainbow, oblivious to how our mothers would throw it all
away, the flesh rancid, a lesson in language that takes more than forty years
to unlearn: if you keep them too long on a stringer, metal clips through soft skin
under the jaw, they go dry and stiff, eyes grey and black as if they’d never been alive,
and then they are useless, but you can do anything to them.
Tod Marshall’s most recent poetry collection is Bugle(Canarium Books), winner of the 2015 Washington State Book Award. From 2016 to 2018 he served as the Washington State Poet Laureate. He teaches at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
Header photo by Michael Schober, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Tod Marshall by Amy Sinisterra.