The subject of these poems, Walter Anderson, a Mississippi Gulf Coast artist who died in 1965, spent most of his time on the Barrier Islands off the coast of Mississippi. The first 6 poems are reflections of that. The final four are set in China during the Cultural revolution. Anderson attempted to walk across China in order to reach Tibet.
I know weather by the osprey.
When a change is coming they take to the air
riding the upward currents before a storm,
lighter than wind. They roll and loop,
dive then soar again, disappearing
into the black edge of the nor’easter
as the water turns to green fire around them.
The horizon is lost then found again
between earth and sky. One image
succeeds another. Like the Moor hens
giving chase in the surf. Or the young
pelicans standing in the palmettos
who flap their wings with the promise
of any wind that might lift them.
Confessions of a Beachcomber
If I wake early on the island
I walk toward the sun; if late, away.
I accept what the island provides.
Obvious things I leave:
shells, numinous and ordinary;
driftwood–it burns faster
than I can carry it to camp.
But always there are surprises:
a pair of shoes came in one day, my size!
A bottle of port wine.
A pair of unattached wings.
Lemons, onions, an alligator pear, toys.
One day a book washed in –
The Pageant of Literature –
and a pair of trousers. My size.
And once, for seven or eight miles
the beach was green with banana stalks.
All the animals on the island
joined me in the feast.
I took my share, leaving the rest
for the grackles and crabs,
the few raccoons who won’t
wait for them to ripen.
“Man begins by saying “of course, “before any of his senses have a chance to come to his aid with wonder and surprise. The result is that he dies and his neighbors and his friends murmur with the wind, “of course.” – Walter Anderson
Little wind to speak of.
Gnats encircle the moon.
Blue stars. Christmas Eve.
I fell asleep by the fire
and saw a man with arms crossed
coming toward me out of the dark
water. His eyes were thicker than night
though they glowed. I knew
I could not wake if he stood over me.
A faint chant began as the animals
drew together around me.
The island became a wave.
I began to bail, bailing
with my hands, my heart
rinsing with each handful.
Finally, I turned in my shell,
I had become a turtle,
and a giant turtle sleeping beside me
turned in hers. Together
we sank to the seafloor,
beyond the rumors of wind, senseless.
When I woke the moon
had summoned the morning stars.
The first redwings were waiting
for their morning rice, wondering, no doubt,
whether I remembered what day it was.
Whether I even knew.
Even as the gulf unearths them
in shadow, in silence,
I step ashore and begin searching.
What my eyes have learned
from the sun’s cloudless vision
fills this open graveyard.
The skull of a sea turtle
picked clean and polished,
the bleached vertebra of a whale
as big as my fist. Who can live
in such a necropolis of the mind?
I draw still-lives because I know
the dead settle around us in memory.
They fill the sky when clouds cannot.
All we need to know of death.
“I heard the waves washing the shore
and thought it was my wife turning over in bed.”
That first day we paddled steadily enough,
stopping twice to make coffee. You held
your own from the bow. I watched your muscles
as they worked the current, and felt
happiness dancing inside. When the afternoon
sun pulled us toward the bank and shade,
we joined the shorebirds and basked in luxury.
By dusk we were tired enough to sleep
on the nearest dune and ate by candlelight
some raisins, bread, and an apple each.
A passable Adam and Eve with matching straw hats!
That first night the river was quiet,
the mosquitoes patient, as if granting us a stay
for our honeymoon. Through the trees we watched
Cassiopeia and her court, and the pilgrim star.
Father Mississippi murmured approval and blessed us
with a breeze and honeysuckle scent.
I lay in your arms and remembered
when you’d said yes and we’d rowed to the island.
We dove and swam in green fire, our naked bodies
gleaming like lanterns in the surf, a dolphin’s life
in the heart of the sea at the world’s edge.
Next night we slept by a driftwood fire,
under a ring of stars, and woke to walk
where the sun led, We woke
where our hearts washed ashore
before turning back to the ways of man.
Nightcap with demon
After a bath in a tidal pool
I walked along the outer beach
and found a Sargasso fish,
brilliant in the fading light.
Vermillion, brown, and silver, it still
shone with a light all its own, and I might
have stayed had I not also stumbled
upon a bottle of wine, its pedigree unknown.
The label had washed away but the cork held
fast and finally gave way to my knife.
A sweet dark wine. Seaworthy.
I drank it with the thirst of the dying
and sat by the fire to wait for the Other.
Too real for dream, he came as I knew he would:
his serpentine image in the fire
dancing freely in iridescent waves.
Around me the wind and sea began
to dance. The sand crawled
with a thousand nameless animals.
I looked to the moon for refuge,
but the stars had turned their gaze elsewhere.
Simy the scaup was dead. The others buried
beneath my boat, called out to me,
called me to their sleep. Even had I answered
what could l have said, what empty words
could I have turned to face myself?
Like a Buddhist priest
my life has simplified.
I’ve been initiated and left with a gown
(the clothes on my back), a staff
(the walking stick I carry), a water-pot
and a begging bowl (my hands).
I talk with my hands or draw on the earth
and usually make myself understood.
Sometimes, if I’m treated
like an unwelcomed cat,
I know it is not out of disrespect.
When a cat dies here it is not buried
but hung in a tree; its spirit
doesn’t enter the ground
like a tiger to become mineral
or amber, but rises.
I have made a vow not to hang
from trees or turn to amber.
But like the dragonfly
I am sometimes weak
from hunger and lose my way.
More and more I listen to the song
of a treefrog. Because it is called
the heavenly chicken and is thought to fall
from heaven with the dew, I listen
to its promise of forgetfulness.
Each day paints itself longer.
Each day I follow the ox path
as the river bends toward the sea
I hurry less and less. Home,
I’ve decided, is a convenience,
a feasting of the heart. I turn
toward it, slowly, another step closer.
Unlike the man who thought he could
outrun his shadow, I’m content
to rest in this shade.
After the train to Canton no one believed
I wanted to walk. There is the train they said.
Or bus. But for twenty days I’ve walked
across China. And by this month’s end
I’ll face the sea-blue mountains of Tibet.
I sleep in graveyards, not because it is quiet,
or the only high ground not given over
to growing rice, but because there are soldiers
whose eyes follow me through the villages.
I am safer with their honorable ancestors.
Walking fast is impossible since everything I see
is strange and new and fills me with green fire.
I feel drawn to every shadow and light.
When I stop to draw a boy herding geese with a stick,
those who see me wonder how I can
work with a brush held so poorly and not
made of bamboo. The people are kind though,
offering rice and even wine. I’m learning
language as I go, although my accent
will never be other than Mississippi.
Mary, they ride water buffaloes here
the way you ride a horse, meaning no insult to either.
You could show them a trick or two I’m sure.
I saw a group of women in a village
all fanning themselves like pelicans.
I wasn’t sure if it was my presence, their habit,
or the weather. But I’m glad my fate isn’t that
of a water carrier, balancing two pots
on a six foot stick. I’d last no more
than day at best, and no doubt
I’d drink up the profits!
My love to you and ours
from the mountain’s shadow.
Passage though China
I walked all day as if the day had no end
and night would cease moments after
I might fall asleep. Last night I ate my usual
bowl of hot rice water, this time in a graveyard
where I camped. In town I’d felt the soldiers
watching me for the first time and came here
to the only high ground not given over to growing rice,
knowing I’d be safe. As I slept I dreamed
a water buffalo came and silently hooked its horn
under the pack I used as a pillow. I woke
and could see nothing across the rice paddies,
only the blue beckoning mountains of Tibet.
All I owned except a blanket, a few odd coins
and a small knife, was gone. The image I seek
stands before me. But like the water buffalo
and the bird cries before dawn, it too fades,
disappearing in mist.
A Visit to the Dentist
Moneyless, with no words to describe
the pain except the pain itself,
I walked the miles back to Chun Do,
before falling lifeless in an alley.
And woke on a reed floor
with a Chinaman sitting on my chest.
He smiled and motioned me to open my mouth.
Before I could utter a sound
he reached in and began pulling
as if the world were a plaything
in his hands. Out came the pain
to my amazement. Out
came the bloodied tooth.
When he smiled and bowed again,
and thanked me for what he’d done,
I saw the green mountains lift
and catch fire. Outside
light showered the streets.
No one stared as I staggered
toward home half a world away.
Richard Weaver lives in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor where he volunteers with the Maryland Book Bank, and acts as the Archivist-at-large for a Jesuit college. He is the author of The Stars Undone (Duende Press). Other publications include conjunctions, Poetry, North American Review, crazyhorse, Black Warrior Review, Pembroke, New England Review, and the ubiquitous Elsewhere.