J. S. Belote (5 Poems)


Snowmelt mangles
gray potato fields,

oxcarts rot & sink
by dung heaps,

& month after month
the heaps rise—
I don’t care.

Again the sky is
opaque. &, still,

wizened, Andrei
goes on

painting icons. In one

he gives Christ a cloak
the color of earth.

He hangs it nonchalantly over
His left shoulder, & leaves from His face
any discernible look.

There’s not shame, or pity,
or anger there.

What is there, he would tell you,
is another world
this world is

redeemed by. Which means
suffering is
a disease of perspective.

Which is true, of course,
to an extent.

But I choose to keep my rage.

I choose to hate my father.

I can still see him there
on his deathbed.

The dark blood & puss.

The boils in his armpits
forcing him

to lie spreadeagled.

The hut reeked
of urine.

& what I begged him for…
the secret of bell founding…

he wouldn’t give me.

Do you understand?

He left me with one
pitiful field & a sick mule.

To live, I needed that secret.

I’ll keep my rage.

I don’t want another world.

It’s enough wind troubles
the shrubs here,
shade keeps its snow,
& vultures mull. Consciousness

flies out of the body
like vision,
or light,

& smashes the earth.


One day, men hired

to cast a bell
came looking for my father.

I told them he was dead.
I lied & told them he’d told me

the secret formula of copper & tin
to make strong bells.

What else could I do?

I was starving,
slouched there

in the shade of the hut,
throwing stones into the light.

I knew failure
meant execution,

but I was starving.

They knew I was lying,
but had no choice—the plague

had taken everyone.

We set off through
the muddy fields at dawn.

At the edge of sight the dark pines
looked like wicks,

the sun, a bright absence
in the clouds.

How did I make it

through those months
with my bitter secret?

I knew nothing.

I knew a pit had to be dug,
& that great heat, & that
which can withstand great heat,

rage & more rage,

must be used—


Winter broke & the whole
village gathered in the field
near the pit. The children

roughhousing, the adults
uneasy & quiet. Close by,

the Grand Prince’s men
discussed their axe blades.  

Delirious & weak, I
could hear them laugh.

I saw Andrei at
the edge of the pit  
dressed in all black,

& yelled at him.

how dare he dull
my suffering with his

ideas, or try to, at least,
find some solace in it.

One of the men went up
to the tongue of the bell
& pushed it as far forward

as he could, before letting it fall
back & pulling. In this way

he built momentum.

All of his weight
in each upswing. The silence

with expectation. Back & forth

& back & forth, under
the sealed clouds, & then—

& then—

a deep tolling
over all the fields.

The people dancing & shouting.

I had no energy left.

I walked off & collapsed
by a post, crying hard.

& was alone for a long time.

Then I felt a shadow.
It was Andrei. He knelt down
& held my head in his lap.

He said, “Why are you crying?
You’ve brought the people such joy.”

I looked at him.
& confessed everything.
I didn’t deserve relief.

I didn’t.

A few birds circled
in the sky to the south of us.

He touched my face.
“I know,” he said

“but you have brought them such joy.”

The Bronze Horse

For NP

These stubborn blooms are destined to bear fruit too heavy.
I trellis the young, wet tomato plants with wet, fraying twine,
the twine weaved between the stems, pulled taut, & fashioned
with makeshift knots to six warped posts made of wood. & going
back & forth up the wet footpath, I think of Gorchakov, who
carried that lit candle back & forth across the shallow water
left in the emptied hot spring. Who had to return twice to the west
wall & relight the candle, & start again—this time maneuvering
his coat & hand to block the wind. Who learned the subtle trickery
of the pestilent wind,  & elements.  & who did all this, really,
because he was exhausted, because art had failed him, & also
because Domenico begged him to. What a strange June—
so pulsed by rain. Just this dawn, another thunderstorm, & brief
arrhythmic hail against the vinyl siding. The sprouts of beans & okra
sowed last week emerging through it.  The little spaces
between them measured out, resembling the stills of an object
moving or falling through space. In college, I knew a girl named
— —, who, years after we lost touch, fell through the air—
fell through the air, because she wanted to, because she jumped.
    December 25, 2012, St. Louis, Missouri. & I can’t help
But think of the Christmas lights festooning hornbeams & zelkovas
groomed back to an antiseptic, commercial plasticity
as they diminished up the avenue, that year’s popular colors lobbed
onto the snow.  & her falling.  & the news of it, somehow, evading me
until two & a half years later, in the backseat of my friend’s Hyundai,
as we drove to Ogunquit, to lay out in the sun & drink, & catch up.
& going over those names, the names of those we used to know,
or didn’t, Buchannon, Myles, & Gibbs, stumbling over the syllables,
Slusher, Leigh, & Boudreaux, the names amounting now to nothing
more than the most notable fact about them, the way a name does…
Cynodon Dactylon, for example—wire grass—a weed that’s famous
for how impossible it is to eradicate, one root crown left being
enough to repopulate a bed in just a month or two, & choke out
the squash or beets or carrots—a name, the way we isolate a thing…
    & falling through the names until we came to hers, & how
she fell.  & a silence, then, I hadn’t known was there. Back & forth
up the wet footpath, my boots getting clumsy with mud,
Heirloom, Sun Gold, & Brandywine, the twine would sag under
all that weight, but hold. It was the true weight of time
Tarkovsky wanted to capture—his films so long & slow—
time as burden. Gorchakov staggering the last few meters
to place the candle on the pool’s stone ledge before collapsing.
It had something to do with purposeless endurance. & beauty. & now,
in the lost syllables of her name I hear a girl by herself tapping
on the glass of a terrarium in her bedroom, first with a fingernail
& then knuckle, & then fingernail again. & I remember the way
she glowed in light from the snake & lizard terrariums lining
the far wall of an unlit biology classroom sometime past midnight.
The rest of the science building was dark & empty, & we were
both drunk, & probably high. Because this was when we used to go
almost nightly to the Quiktrip near campus to buy MD 20/20,
or whatever alcoholic energy drink was still legal at the time,
before sneaking back off to the unfinished art gallery
to pack bowls & drink & talk. & I remember her in that light,
on top of me, taking off her black shirt & bra, & moving
like there was music even though there was no music
while she tossed the shirt behind her & it fell through the air.
& what at first seemed uniquely ours, when we talked about it,
later seemed generational, & later still, cultural, & later still,
a fundamental structure of consciousness itself, maybe,
an innate, thoroughly isolating, unsatisfiable longing.  
    From the trellis to the shed for the good tools
to an empty bed devoured by weeds, to weed & then sow,
knowing soon, immediately, the weeds would be back,
& more tenacious than ever. & I’ll give the rest away—
after the initial shock, it started to make sense to me,
& soon it wasn’t even surprising anymore. & then I forgot
all about it, as I guess is necessary. & Gorchakov never did
get up again. & Domenico orated about love to small crowd,
& then drenched himself in gasoline, lit a match, & burned alive
on a bronze horse to Beethoven’s ninth. The music & flames
rising & rising—as if it was their one desire to leave this earth.


After Cesare Pavese

This evening, supper alone.
The window beside me bright,
the room almost dark.  
A square of light lands on my bowl
& makes the cherries redder.

As I look at the sky, it calms me
to know the open land is just
a short walk beyond my door.  
Hard work has made my body calm.

So many people are eating right now.  
Already in town, among
the reddish roofs, lights shine,
& beneath them people gossip.
Soon though, there’ll be silence.

Each thing is isolated.
I know the way I know blood
courses through my veins.
I can accept it calmly.
Water courses through the grasses.

The open land is
a supper of all things.
Every plant, every stone
lives & rests, & I can listen & hear
everything that lives on
the open land nourishing my veins.

There’s nothing that’s worth
these cherries I eat alone.

The Singing Leaves

There was one year the whole island turned yellow before

the leaves fell. & when they fell
through the trees they ticked like moths
against a light

& the footpaths lit up & dimmed.
From the color of fire
to the color of embers,

& then to ash. A simple pleasure of mine
was to walk there alone as sundown
approached. I’d let my eyes drift like a keel over the footpath

until the leaves lost all detail,
or, at least, all superficiality, their veins & freckles
melting into one flat plane of color

that led in a long circle
past sunbathers & children laughing on the rocks.

From fire to embers to ash.  It was color that had
no edge, or end. Visible, unadorned.

The sky twisting into various pinks
as the people dispersed.

The unblinking polished rocks revealed
just prior to complete
dark. Then solitude

& clarity. That cold greenish water

flickering between the rotted beams
in the wooden footbridge
as I crossed to the south bank.

Once, a woman & I strayed from that footpath
to a grove of ruined cedar.

Strayed, specifically, I remember, through the accidental
gates of light & shade
to spread our flannels out on the dead leaves.

& I drew the severed stem of a weed
along her hip

to summon her, from wherever it was she wandered
in her body—by some thicket or pond—toward me,

until she was rising & falling like leaves

in a brief wind. Until there was no question—

a point of stillness does exist
where two bodies meet,

from which the rest of the world spirals out,

or seems to spiral out.
From fire to embers to ash.

The commotion of dead leaves
resisting & singing under us as they gave in,

joining with the small, private noises we made together,

until I couldn’t distinguish one from the other.  Or didn’t
care to.  Or knew I should get used to it—the continuous loss

of detail as the mind is pierced by greater & greater music.

& when we did finally rise, near dark, dazed,
& brushed off each other’s bodies,

I watched the dead leaves spiral
back to the dead leaves.

& then what else could happen?

October arrived in the simple
figure of a wren convulsing
on a coffee shop patio by the glass door.

Everyone, of course, ignored it
as they ate lunch. & I watched

the brief shock pass from their faces
as they returned to whatever
cheap amusement their conversations afforded them.

Then I went back to reading Ahkmatova.

& soon enough the wren was still. & suddenly

it didn’t seem like a wren anymore, but a scratch or hole
in the physical world.

An unmovable core revealed.

& I wasn’t surprised.
& later, in fact, ducking beneath the wet, exposed

branches in Church Hill, I was disturbed only by the scrape
of my boots against the leaves,

while in the distance
amber street lamps flickered like filthy stars.

Akhmatova understood.  

There was the one season in her
life that hardened into a nail.

It was all she wrote about.

Memory.  A fixed point that clarified
her existence at the cost of her existence.

A scratch or hole in the physical world.  

The black scar of seaweed
we crossed over one night on the cold beach,

to stand for a long time at the edge
of water, before, finally,

taking our clothes off.

I could hardly bring myself to look at her.
& what else can be said about it? I slipped

into the water, & closed my eyes.

The dark rippled out from
my pale body the moon lit.

& I felt how we were
pulled toward something inevitable by
something inevitable, beneath those stars that were—

I keep thinking now—penetratingly clear
on the other side of all confinement.  

From fire to embers to ash.

Nine days of straight rain, & then
October. & then

waking to see how she slept
beneath the squares of light on the wall,

beneath their slow, certain pilgrimage to the window.

Her back resembling a sail stretched out
deliberately on a beach. & taking my mouth toward

her shoulder, to bite the skin there
just hard enough. & then

drifting further up, to her neck, to whisper,

& let my breath fall on her like a ship, & stir her
hair a little, until she stirred toward me
like an island resurfacing after a flood.  Yes, often,

I was reminded of just how far two bodies must truly go

to touch each other. & how, if it was to be worth it,
it had to cost me everything.

Black Sun as the Seams Become the Whole

For Larry Levis

Back past all this now—the years spiraling into

themselves like graffiti on the sides of boxcars
bound for Norfolk, the rain

eating away the gang signs & figure eights

until they appear unfinished as they lurch by,
gaining speed. All those summers

I spent polishing my solitude, the tracks converging to
a single, unreachable point in the distance,

as I hiked along them between the river & cemetery.

Nights I delivered pizzas in my beat up Saturn,

the local station playing its strange assortment
of psych rock & Americana

as the streets turned blue & the branches caught

the amber light of street lamps
& glowed. The house numbers rising

& falling, some lit & some not,
as I drove in rectangles through Church Hill.

& I admit it, whenever I passed by
the last house you lived in

I turned the radio down, to see
if there was anything to hear,

a faint scratching perhaps—a man slumped

above the tiny expression of his thoughts
blackening the page, the words already

beginning to resemble a cluster
of birds, scared by a voice, flapping

from a bare oak at dawn.

Flapping away & then returning,
at random, a little rearranged.
Twice I was called there, both times
the streets slick with rain.

I carried the pizza & salad up the steps,
knocked on the door, & watched

a moth click against the light.


Back past all this now to a junkyard
just north of Seattle,

where my father & I went to pick through
the wreckage for spare parts—spark plugs

& ball joints mostly—& just up

the second row to the Volkswagen bus
I’m standing next to, suddenly motionless as pitcher

after he nods & spits & narrows his vision

to the catcher’s mitt, set up high & in—narrows it
until nothing else seems to exist—

not the slow ache that’s been setting up in his shoulder
since the sixth,

or the boy in his new Garciaparra jersey
behind home plate,

not the stadium, or even America—none of it—
as he nods & spits

again, & then is motionless
before falling into the perfect memory of his windup.

The truth is, there’s nothing special about it.

The Volkswagen, gutted & vacant blue, propped up

on wood blocks. The blonde moss

growing over the windows, chipped paint, & decades
of rust, the pattern of rain from weeks ago still

stitched into the dried clumps of mud above the headlights,

the stains & cigarette burns on the seat cushions
like tunnels into the past, a specific night even, 1977…

I don’t know.

I’m certain that evening I went home & read
those final lines again:

he is invisible the way air & music are not

& so was convinced by then the body was

nothing more than just flesh spun
around a voice

that had looked though cracks
between elms at the edge of a lawn

& seen air as light

& debris of autumn mixed in it,
until it was hardly even a voice anymore,

until it was much simpler,

an elm, widening dark ring
by dark ring, because

what else was there for it to do.


The front doors flung wide, a cobweb strung
between the steering column & gear shift. A center

from which the rows of old cars sprawled out.

Mechanics with dark hands & sweat stains
pushing wheel barrows around, whistling.

& 1977—a hand reaching through

thick smoke to fiddle with the radio
or ash a cigarette. First, static & jazz,

then more static & jazz, then just static.
The flat land giving way

to mountain overpasses.  The Rockies & Nevada,

the long stretch & blur of highway at night,
how it seems to disappear after awhile.

& the man there, who could be anyone,
who could be my father even, or just

someone who chose solitude for good
because they wanted to,

or didn’t want to, but had it happen anyway,
as it sometimes does, & for no reason.

The abandoned dilapidated farmhouses.
The fields of cornstalks cut down

to stubble & snow. A few silos propped there
against the horizon. All of it  

recalling a photograph by Minor White
titled Black Sun, after the small black sun in it

that adorns the nondescript sky
above the whole scene.  Because—

what else can it do?
Gaps exist that won’t be filled.

Consider the slider, for example,
at the point of release, designed

to look identical to a fastball, the seams

spinning until the whole thing glows red
as it approaches, red

except for a single white point
in the direct center, a blank eye,

which gives it away.  


It reminds me of how my father
talked about that photo once,

on a weekend I saw him,

while we drove home from a ballgame
that Boston lost in extra innings.

He pointed out
the way tension was necessary.

The black sun like a signature
that completes the image

or, at least, a little void
to draw the eye in

& lend it structure.  

Structure, not sense.

& how he went home after, accelerating
up the long turn of the on ramp

to Manchester, Nashua, or Cambridge.

The stars beginning to prick through
to map his way.

The Rockies, Nevada, & Oregon—

solitude. The road joining in the distance opening
finally, always, so you can

pass right through it, & vanish
back into the present.

DSC_8143J. S. Belote lives in Richmond, Virginia. He is online at justinbelote.com.