Mudlark Flash No. 153 (2018)

Harvest: Five Poems
by Jess Williard

Later Work

When asked about the dispensation of depth in his later work 
the artist drops his champagne glass to the gallery floor, 
turns on a heel and hails a cab to the river.
Summer has not yet ended and so children
wade the shoreline, toss rocks, shout
at flatbed cargo ships docked below cranes—
this weight, their weight in the waning season,
the inkling of some future sitting between shipping 
containers while a well dressed stranger flicks cigarette ash
to the dusk, cursing nothing.
And if, pulled by the slow-borne decision
of the river, miles away, a suggestion could keep a couple 
wanting to be where they are, no matter where—
a simple suggestion, like a paperweight—it will have made it. 
Like the fat canvas strokes and blind
but not unthinking dabs at the pallet balanced on fingertips
in a stale warehouse studio hours after anything
like astonishment has passed.
To make things better seen: the finch’s plumage
a shade brighter to stand out against the nested
leaves, to startle the eye from a gaping knot in the oak.
Or to re-inscribe the angle of the dorsal bone, more arced, 
wider, to slow its flight across the panorama
of a bedroom window.
                                   I stood, once, along a river at dusk 
and asked for something of time to be revealed,
of the pull collecting skipped stones and laughs
from somewhere before or above, though
were you to look, nothing would sound or release,
not even a line of thin smoke. And in that studio
the artist is trying to make up for something. The swells, 
the twilight. Water tickling ankles. I stood by a river
and learned nothing. Whoever was there has gone home,
the couple wedged further together or apart,
the tragedy of not knowing which future to care for.
Children with heads still full of a soft glowing light are tucked 
into bed. Seeing better is at issue. This is not a concession. 
Someone cut themselves on the broken champagne glass. 
Someone slipped and is singing across time.


That the man’s nose was reattached using skin 
grafted from his neck is of more importance

to my mother than the fate of the dog.
And of course. It was a game misunderstood:

a ball chased beneath the couch. A swiftly 
turned head, a snap. It knew immediately

something was wrong, she explains. It was ashamed. 
If you’ve ever been ashamed you know the tone,

the pit in her voice as she explains that he loved 
the dog. That he asked about it in the hospital,

emerged from surgery and couldn’t let go.
He still cared, she tells me. Even though it took

his face. Even when the wound grows sour 
and weeps, when the infection spreads

to the blood and it is all he can do to hobble 
blearily to the kitchen and fill the dog’s bowl,

pat her head, scratch her neck. It is all he can do. 
If you’ve ever been ashamed you’ve done

what you can do. And I’m asking for help 
over the phone again, begging for perspective,

some way to see beyond this, my only nose. Let it go, 
she tells me. And though I believe I’m letting,

it’s foolish to think this skin is where it’s meant 
to be, or that the dog will obey when it is driven

into the country on a cold and starless night, 
set down in a field and told to go.


Do you know how to get a mother
to stop working? All I can do is watch: 
how she stoops to pluck
each clotted fiber from the pilled arms 
of sweaters, fingers coarse
from flirting with the detergents
of so many households
over abiding afternoons.
Her wardrobe, tooled
and retooled, a compendium
of days pilfered from certain end: 
body cast for six months
at puberty, C-section after forty, 
thatched tibia wrapped in the filament 
of old medicine.


Do you know the weary money 
from collecting the clothes
of others, prettying brand name 
castoffs to flip and sneer
from secondhand shop windows? 
The washing and folding of it. 
The sanctity of putting some
in piles for your children,
some in piles for consignment.
For more than a decade
my mother kept our family
afloat by selling things that belonged
to someone else. She had no other choice 
that I know of. We have long since 
stripped ourselves to wander
restless and bare into our lives. 


I have no other choice now
than to reach back, pluck
a piece of clothing and hang it
from the vertebrae she fractured
in that crash before I was born, 
sledding on a refrigerator
door. Or to mark it across
the Cesarean cleft,
the scar that came after I left. 
Something. The dividends of that 
exchange are still working out
their solvency in the world.
And if in reaching back I accidentally
strum a chord, let that thing ring.


But it doesn’t take a song
to say thank you.
It doesn’t take me walking 
through the world in gifted outfits, 
things that found their shape
on someone else’s frame.
It takes me telling her
how good she looks, regardless
of who may be dancing
in the foreground. It takes me
spinning her, dipping her, pulling away 
whatever’s in her hands.


She thins the dead sprigs of some sorry plant 
and turns to me, her hands full of light shoots.

Then continues to turn. First as if she’s 
searching for something over her shoulder,

then a full pirouette. When I come back 
to this she is always dancing. The sky

could be about to crack with snow, or worse, 
but neither of us can tell. It is spring.

It is later in the year than it seems,
or than anyone would have hoped to be

still feeling this way. We are still feeling 
this way. But you cannot speak for it all:

the harvest, the sky turned purple and full. 
Offering just enough for us to take.

At It Alone

There are myths that hold her here between the trellised beds of rocks— 
flight from weekend bible study, muggy years in the city,

that summer spent biking Alp foothills ahead a line of teenagers
with special needs. Today she is at it alone, tamping a landing for each

transposed stone and brushing them clean. Placing bulbs that will erupt 
in stalks to flesh, to the tender flaps of petals. The compact

of a perennial is nothing to compete with. But still I am trying to stay, 
to understand. This is the last load. Tomorrow will bring no trips

to the quarry, no tarp, no skin raw and pink. No more borrowing. 
We can all figure out how to live, on some level, but I think it takes

more than just that. Solitude is marked on the cosmic plane, 
becomes a planet prospected for its breathable air and absence

of dangerous creatures. I lived there once, got used to it and so 
was banished inside of a life I could only call my own. From it

you can see the proscenium of the garden, the ornaments repossessed 
and singing in an octave heavy enough to hang above the flowers

before falling away. A scolding? No. No admonishment. Maybe 
nothing in the sway of the plants, but the voice of God is not without

tone. In the orchestra pit a cellist glances to his left, the empty seat. 
To memory and the earth. Our mothers as we never saw them.

Jess Williard’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, North American Review, Colorado Review, Southern Humanities Review, Barrow Street, Lake Effect, The New Orleans Review, Sycamore Review, Bayou Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, Oxford Poetry, and other journals. Originally from Wisconsin, he now lives in Atlanta where he is a doctoral candidate at Georgia State University.

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