Poetry » R.T. Castleberry »

The River Sequence

Nickel tips, bruised hands that won’t heal,
the burled finish of battered wood burnish the day.
In seven rooms that face the river,
chalk cliffs eroding in the rainfall,
I pace my panic.
Uncapped paints pile table and desk.
Mystery lines furtive
with rhythm and conjecture,
ink pages of contrition,
seek conciliation by remembrance.

Take your time in Babylon,
take your turn in Kabul or Jerusalem.
Arrival ceremonies, the hangman’s departure,
husband and child missing from the terminal gate
are panels settled in a painter’s gallery.
Each day a different smile: courtesan lilt,
business bright, modest mistress of the sewing room.
There is a conceit—
hailed, harbored by each city’s lover,
that your restless grace leaches a world pale,
your gravity in sleep commissions a meteor’s demise.

Rumor clash, insinuations of afterthought
trade lighter as I age.
I stand away from insult
as I stand away from drink.
The blues hat fits the older man better.
I attempt no offense. I leave easy.
The evening turns late, light-hollowed,
alley brush cut back from bar back doors,
trash barrels lined like rifles in a barracks.
Asking my question twice,
I’ve heard no answer.

Water’s fall blooms to the moon,
splashes white as it falls, as it flows
framed by river banks, cliff walls,
night whorl of water.
Car lights and lightning slice the window’s pane.
I hold your husband’s wary note,
a check, a pair of airline tickets.
Town car idling, we argue destination and direction.
Opinions hold, bitter and bearing gifts.

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For L.

Hiding in a haze, I crawled one summer
in a room rented by my labor.
Fucking a woman revenging adultery and divorce,
I took her by turn
with Maoist cell members, sale brand liquor,
every writer she knew to climb under naked.
There was a schedule, a progression to the day:
each afternoon a demonstration, a march;
each night the scratch and scramble for beer coins,
a buyer’s stumble down Portage Street.
There were nights we shared three ways:
squatting with drug punks or Marxist poets
who trafficked in punchlines or latest polemic,
esoterica of Communist street wars,
movie memories from the mid-seventies.
Lesbians, cranks, co-conspirators
moved in, moved on.
Filling her mouth with cock and Cold Duck,
I fell back on a pallet, pants off.
Drifting, senseless, drunk,
not John and Yoko, not quite Scott and Zelda,
I tipped my glass back, wondering if I still had a wife.

Lying to the Past

Each day is rendered
in vocabularies of tension and tease:
A hawk climbs past the waning moon.
Monday’s sun rises like a butcher blade.
I waken in my illness,
make my prayers to the dawn.
A dream of scorpions, a dream of warning seasons
seeps from arid memory.
I check my watch, the dust-raked avenue,
pack a bag in the TV’s plasma light.
Viewing this sackcloth country,
I turn to the scripture of survival,
repeat the joke of the world
like it was my own construction.
Mouth filled with water chasing bourbon,
I hit replay on the remote
and watch Mitchum call again to Greer.
Stretched in years of errors, I know enough
to shade cruel lines of indiscretion,
to shake a gallows path.
Ice rattles in my glass,
melts and mixes when I pour another drink.
When sunlight yields bright cover,
I’ll take my suitcase to a sidewalk seat
and wait for one of three cabs I called.

The Scorpion’s Admission

(After the fable of the scorpion and the frog)

I enjoy shiny, city women who laugh and surrender,
who fix themselves with preening, perfumed care.
The standard end sends sour, pretty students
to warm my children in railroad hotels.
My heritage is the penny challenge,
cycles of comic relief, savagery, self-interest.
I choose the context, the conceit that pleases,
the obvious operation not worth a word.

I planned for marriage once. I argued for a single wife.
Sessions with St. Augustine, 3 lovers from St. Louis
stripped that streak of intimacy.
I’m waiting to leave, posting checks in advance.
My affection is an epigram,
the carefully drafted exit wish.
“There’s a lesson incurred,” I write each time.
“Take a year, take a month,
make a decision for loss or larceny.
I tell you now: I steal.”

Across a Room, a Dare

Let’s stay awake late,
fuck in our clothes,
wake shivering in the morning,
eyes aligned, fucking again.

There’s reasoning behind
every woman I’ve known,
I’ve left, or left alone.
Copper-haired,
voice husky from little sleep, a little whiskey
you conjure stories, ruling my attendance—
lightning strikes against Aztec mountainsides,
a hundred night-nesting places
and the blues black cat that hunts there.
Because you’re married and young,
I probably love you.

There’s a sardonic stir as you dress.
I recall the first times I touched you—
forefinger and thumb looping freckled wrist,
fingertips spread in the ivory gloss
between stocking top and pleated hem.
There’s a menace
polishing the smile in the mirror,
no intention of mercy
as I reach inside the unzipped skirt.
You have a duty to return home.
But your diamond hand strokes my neck,
the right guides my hand upwards.
And your hair, your hair shimmers,
now red, now gold
in a crumbling lane of sunlight.