The immortals would never need lie down
on their backs, crossing their arms to practice
a pose of death, or to sleep away the weariness
of our ordinary lives. They would need
no anesthetic to calm them for coming pain
or to cleanse away the fear of death.
In the old South Barracks when I was fifteen
my roommate used ether swabs
in the canals of his ears, so he could hear
the flow of commands and his favorite
songs booming like drums in season.
A boy in the next room conceived the idea.
Maybe it was his foolishness born
from a teenager's half-developed brain
or heat from the blazing sun to put
my roommate under a spell.
Snickering boys held him while someone
forced a soaked cloth under his nose, and bam
the joke fell heavy as he collapsed
and we couldn't with laughter or slaps
across his face or a towel wet
and icy bring him back.
A little death for a military man
was understandable, but we were
only boys in blue uniforms
waiting for his sleep to evaporate
like an anesthetic, to send him back
from a mirthful trick closing in like night,
his breathing becoming limp and faint.
Hauling him by arms and legs we
hurried under his weight.
Picture him spread eagle and cold,
a nurse recording with a shaking hand
his time of death,
had he not burst back to life in our arms,
reviving the color in our faces, that had turned
pale as the bone under our skin,
as we for a moment had forgotten
to feel immortal.
In this Maybe Best of All Possible Worlds
The bomb has bloomed its gray cloud to change
an unchangeable world. And the War of Ice
has begun with harsh stares and
the wearing of crew cuts and ushankas, but we
are civil and alive and hale as wild roses
blooming along the road, displaying
their pink cheeks to us, the semi-innocent,
riding down a tarred line of
time. We sit,
shadowed in the painted cavern of this Ford.
If I say we're six, almost holy, crammed
into this blunt sedan, would you believe? Or
can you accept, if I swear to the fading blue heavens,
we're one more than Creation's days?
On the sprung and knobby front seat, Nathan sits
hovering happily in our cramped summer's singing.
We're all suspended by the moon's yellow light
seeping in laughing, half-lowered windows,
reflecting our greed for being.
It's an early Friday evening, wrecking itself
into the calendar's oblivion; so we must drink
to honor time, speak in racing tongues,
trying hard to hold together, to keep moving
toward the gift we don't know we have.
Traveling at the speed of hope, we pass ourselves;
and hanging on the faint horizon, before us in a beam
of our low lights, we seem to see, what cannot be,
but should be missed by swerving.
Then a bursting dust rolls upon us
like the shovel-battered grave's, and we
blinking at the star-filling heavens
are cast out into a churned meadow, our
battered bodies bleeding our bliss, and Nathan,
before he can know the odds of loss,
is wholly missing from the floor of pain,
the roof of suffering. Perhaps his being
an uneven number has undone him or he's lost
because the road rolled like a die over the hill.
But forget chance or the laws of nature
that let a rose hold its tongue all winter, hardening
its thorns, sweetening its breath. After all these years,
though I cannot blow the dust from the mouths of the dead
to understand their lyrics, in this maybe best of all
possible worlds, I can hear the stones singing to the wind.
I can restore Nathan's breathing, let him ride
again, keep him sixteen and singing.
I love storms. Wading through flooded fields
is my favorite pastime. Sometimes I carry a loaf
of bread and sharp cheese in my pocket
in case clouds shaped like ravens fly down
to parched fields where I kneel to smell the earth
if only to know which direction I'm going.
When the sky first filters from sunset to gray
it's time for me to wring the wind from my fingers
until I hear thunder shouting my name
I can make out with the help of the wavering
leaves of elms so susceptible to blight. Disease
is the essence of our lives when we least expect it.
It begins as a suspicion racing through tunnels,
then flooding nerves speckled with flashes.
The story of our health is a revelation
of our standing in doorways or on hilltops
or deep in valleys with grass bristling
like the fur of an angry bear or tuft
on an eagle's head. Whatever we may say
of storms we may say of ourselves.
Thus Spoke the River
I am moving water this man shattered like glass
flaying with a barbed catfish, its blunt face
the gray of mud. I can tell you how
the sun flickered through a birch canopy,
roots hugging the bank and waves leaping
as he plunged, both fists feeling for a fish
waist deep in my watery torrent.
I can say he shook the forest with his rifle
to pierce the head of a squirrel with white nose
and furred mouth that could not protest its death
prepared for a skillet with reverence of lard.
Rivers have their own notion of what makes a hero.
The pious may say it is to tell the truth and never
curse or complain. This man eating his breakfast
taken from fields would fit that claim,
though modesty would forbid his remarking
upon his own merits of which there are fathoms.
Honor can smell of animal pelts draped over a wire.
It is uncertain if the huntsman loves his kill,
but the virtuous hunter is like a wild animal, without hate.
He may leave his doors unlocked and his battered truck
at the disposal of a neighbor or even a stranger.
He will champion men, and women, over machines
and animals domestic or feral. He may be faithful
to a religion shooting roots deep into earth. He may
bind wounds with scriptures from a black tome
fierce as teeth. If such a man is beset by a cancer,
he will accept it as he does a taste of pork or fowl,
for a good man is afraid of neither life nor death.
I tell you this as a river, feeling his body
boldly in a sloshing against banks, we are one in nature
where a man stands shouting and another sits silently
in early hours of morning before the sun
has mastered the world, when one can learn
much from condensation on a stone.
The Voice of a Friend as from the Sky
The sound of his death was of dust collapsing
and the treble of rain falling on streets.
We had ridden often past the blackness of night,
past the silver streak the moon left on the road's shoulder.
The gears of morning turned, and the sharp pawls of evening
slid into their remembered slots.
I've heard that students of medicine strip cadavers' torsos
and fold them like freshly laundered shirts.
But the fabric of eternal questions is harder than bone
and can never be folded or torn.
Beyond the flowering pear tree wind billows into a bundle
of words, and after its delivery is gone.
Rain falls equally on fallow fields and on the roof
of a small dog's house, where it stops barking to listen.
As the dynasty of days and sovereignty of years
clatter on, I hear
a voice come back as from the sky, skittering across a lake
into a field humming with bees.
William Page's poetry has appeared widely in such journals as The Southern Review, The North American Review, Southwest Review, Nimrod, Wisconsin Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas Quarterly, The Literary Review, Mississippi Review, Cimarron Review, The Chariton Review, Southern Poetry Review, South Carolina Review, Tar River Poetry, Ploughshares, The Pedestal, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and The Innisfree Poetry Journal, and in a number of anthologies. His third collection of poems, Bodies Not Our Own, received a Walter R. Smith Distinguished Book Award. His collection William Page Greatest Hits 1970-2000 was published by Pudding House Publications. He is Founding Editor of The Pinch and a retired professor of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis.