Poems

Disquiet, poems by John Witte

Available February 2015.

from LOVING THE DAYS poems
THE CROTCH ISLAND QUARRY, MAINE

from THE HURTLING
THE SOLOIST
STITCHES
FLIES
AS IF

from SECOND NATURE
JANIS JOPLIN
TRUCK
APPARITION
HOME

from DISQUIET
KINGLET
JUST THIS TRAIN
SNAILS
THE SURGEON AND THE POET
FIREFLIES



from
LOVING THE DAYS

THE CROTCH ISLAND QUARRY, MAINE

Deer Isle Pink, for seventy years, like roses,
floated across Jericho Bay,
gaining Stonington – granite
block stacked and numbered
on an oily barge.

Quick shrills on the Company whistle meant
accident and the children watched for
the boat with the broken.
A stone cut loose spun
Mary Prescott’s father into the quarry pit.
You could feel the crack: it went
almost around his head.
All he could taste was peas.

New York City starved for granite –
in 1902, one hundred twenty-one thousand tons
for Manhattan’s Ninth Regiment Armory alone –
and the orders lined up:
Williamsburg and East River Bridges, Fine Arts
Museum in Boston, the Security Building
in Los Angeles. Ida Mae Eaton’s boarding-house
angels wrestled quarrymen,
and dandies at the wedding-cake
Stonington Hotel Virginia-reeled the ladies.
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
waited for word.

Herman Walker’s wife snipped off his socks
to pillow the thin of his wrists.
Apprenticed, he lit the charge
and ran. They sent him back
crabwise when the powder didn’t catch.
Nothing held together.

The stonecutters ground
to forty tons the fountain bowl
for the Rockefellers’ Tarrytown estate
They sank
into the gardens of their lungs,
silicosis blossom and bud.

Fifteen hundred stones
rose into the light
for Kennedy’s memorial at Arlington,
1966, and the quarry froze shut.
Come spring, there were snakes on the island.

The old quarrymen remember best
their round dinner pails, how their women
treated them on the job.
At the bottom was a well for tea,
over that a section for soup,
then a place for sandwiches,
and on top room for a large pie.
Set the pail over a fire
and the tea warmed your whole meal.

Boston is pinned by silver
slivers of glass and steel. No one calls
for granite. Over the island,
deep in timothy and bay bush, the quarry
rails meander to the wharf.
The stones appear fleshy.
Feldspars, the sorrel flecks
they call “horses in the granite”
catch your eye. Kennedy’s memorial
has them. A summer rainstorm and the stone
is skittish with horses. 

back to top


from THE HURTLING

THE SOLOIST

This close
his lips pursed we could tell
how the slow opening phrase rose and broke through him his face

clogged his bow
arm rising and rowing how the music
eddied how he labored bearing the weight of memory and longing

over the water
how the body bends the mouth
works open gawping slaunchways in pain the stinging discharge

of song
how his cheek gleams the melody
surging like oil blood and honey the pouting and soft grunting

the way we look
making love in the dark his face
rapt the tongue ransacking its room the beautiful human face

the seed pearl
of spittle flecking the lip the smile
or leer or wince this pushing and hurting this bringing forth.

back to top


from
THE HURTLING

STITCHES

Threading the needle
is it you at work in the nimbus
of pain stitching my thumb folding the ragged flap of flesh

sewing a glove
a difficult seam grandfather nothing
but a name a needleman in the rag trade dragged into an eddy

of time I turn
away the wound swabbed and numbed
the long thread drawn through tugged tied and snipped sewing

like any other
tailor pushing in the needle
your shirts and coats going out into the world maker of this

good man’s suit
blood soaking the surgical napkin
how you pass through me through me pulling the stitches tight.

back to top


from
THE HURTLING

FLIES

They’ll come
she says just smear some
jelly from your sandwich on the back of your hand and wait

how she passes
the drowsy hour of math before
lunch the initials carved like Braille into the desk a fly

alights on her
sleeve her wrist they are
drawn to us drawn to what is sweet in us our life is sweet

like summoning
a friend out of the sky
quick cute this germ of being the jewel of its eye seeing

her 8,000
times tough brown as a nut
with horses on her shirt she calls come down little fly man

little wolf
circling the room better you
than the teacher dragging his chalky hand across the board

a blur
in the air you are God’s
least angel after the seraphim and thrones after the powers

your hunched thorax
and fuzzy throbbing abdomen
your mobile mouthparts sponging and sucking. If you don’t

have any jelly
it’s enough to lick your hand
she says they come for us they come for the taste of us.

back to top


from
THE HURTLING

AS IF

A swift two
or three flitting over
the abandoned school then more plunging into the chimney

a blurry funnel
their chee and chirring overhead
a multitude scattered across the sky it’s their coming back

that gets us
the air trembling troubled as memory
whistling satiny feathers arranging and rearranging in the dark

cramped shaft
over the dead furnace birds
hurrying down now like smoke billowing back into the chimney

as if smoke
could return to its fire
the wood to its tree in the sun on the hill as if flesh returned

wheeled back
through the locks and chambers
back into its clothes onto the crowded train backing away.

back to top


from
SECOND NATURE

JANIS JOPLIN
THE TYPEWRITER TAPE

Hit play
and your injured voice goes on
without you sweeping along the debris of memory nowhere

more than here
on this bootleg tape laid down
in the crowded apartment you are present raw inevitable

not yet drunk
but on your way a wavery blue
wall of noise crashing from the amps it doesn’t matter

the phone ringing
the dog barking while you sing
through the daily sounds of who we were a distant siren

a typewriter
in the next room someone
pecking out the letters writing a paper we were students

after all
we hardly noticed the brittle
mechanical chatter like locusts like an argument

we were going
to lose the heart singing along
with the music but the machine keeping up with the mind.

back to top


from
SECOND NATURE

TRUCK

I shall now
praise my neighbor’s truck
crouched on its slab black and metallic candy-apple red

emblazoned
with chevrons and swashes of gold
his only chariot why shouldn’t he treasure it glistening

like unto
the color of beryl the mirrored
grillwork and foglights on the roof the little trumpets

of annunciation
the leaping trout and bull elk
the eagle airbrushed wheeling over a mountain lake

who can tell
the shape a dream might take
the appearance of animals round about within it moving

in a cloud
of exhaust the waterfall spilling
over a fender a great plain spanning the hood the desert

silhouette and deep
ocean all the world the likeness
of the firmament and its weather why shouldn’t he cherish

this his ark
his rescue carrying him forth turning
neither right nor left but whither the spirit might go.

back to top


from
SECOND NATURE

APPARITION

Music of voices
on the street music in the form
of oranges or kisses it could happen to anyone a middle-aged

man stumbles
on the walk ahead of me spilling
his paper bag of clamps glue and screws he must be going home

to fix something
whatever it was he touched
and broke he looks up and I see it’s my dead friend but how

can that be
I help him stand and straighten
his rumpled clothes his cheeks ashen creased raspy traffic

music or is it
the greasy throb of work turbines
braying in the sky spirits in flight he’s been gone so long

he’s changed
which is only to be expected his coat
silky glimmering who used to find his clothes in the free box

and he’s calmer
almost peaceful now who used to hurl
curses stoning the police awash in hate and love and terror

wan polite we waits
for the light to change his hand
beginning to twist who used to gnash who used to burn and burn.

back to top


from
SECOND NATURE

HOME

Returning to earth after his life
of weightlessness the astronaut cannot
lift the small bouquet of flowers the child gives him.
He cannot raise his head off the pillow pulled down
by the gravity of a dream.

He remembers nothing no sound
in the absolute zero of deep space
the pounding of his baffled heart. He lifted
a building on one hand and a pencil in the other.
This was what he wanted: the world

like a worn stone cast into the water.
He wanted to break the promise of the body
to the earth. To stop the long descent of everyone
he loved under the ground. He wanted to rise an angel
in a paradise of exact data.

He spills his milk on his shirt. The earth
has darkness and then light. The earth has birds
bickering over the last seeds. His fork slips
clattering on the plate. The road is shining.
The magnolia is shameless in the rain.

back to top


from
DISQUIET

KINGLET

A smoke-gray     snippet     flicking
mist     from the madrone     we had forgotten
it zipping     through the limbs     huddled inside
all winter     its brisk
swagger     ramping and sizzling     loopy     freaked
flashing its tiny     gold crown     as if to say
see how     in love we are     how brief
how fitfully     burning

back to top


from
DISQUIET

JUST THIS TRAIN

ruckling past     flatcars
stacked with lumber     cattle cars
and rumbling gondolas of coal     the strobing
light between boxcars     between phrases     a drifter
in the doorway     not my father     traveling
town to town     looking for work
not a poem     we’re not talking about
the engine crowding forward     its burden of memory
or the last car     trailing a streamer     of silence
just this     moving wall     this smell
of hot metal     the flickering
tons     the ground shaking

back to top


from
DISQUIET

SNAILS

So that’s why      we close our eyes
when we kiss      so the tongue
can work in the dark      the way it likes
so slick and nimble      no wonder the mouth
feels so empty      to the tongue      how it fills
with words slithering      and pushing      we cannot
get more naked      than this
our tongues touching      and sliding together
like snails     shooting their tiny
love-darts     our empty skulls
spiraling     behind us

back to top


from
DISQUIET

THE SURGEON AND THE POET

Entranced     the surgeon reads
his patient’s poem     its unruly blooming
and lurid     coloration     the poet suffering
the usual symptoms     vomiting     ataxia
aphonia     he saws
and lifts the skullcap     the tumor
a gleaming     spongy network     bizarre
anaplastic     he cannot     tease out     and sever
the mortal     entanglement     he cannot
save the poet     and the poem
though blossoming     like an unutterably
beautiful flower     in his mind
cannot save him 

back to top


from
DISQUIET

FIREFLIES

flying home     I see you
in my dream     stricken     dimmed
flustered     by fireflies     you smile
grimace     and smile     sending a message
too ephemeral     to grasp     what was
familiar then     their on off
seems distant now     exotic     like angels
beckoning us     from the heaven     of childhood
they cannot cross     over the mountains     but hover
in memory     where our bodies     gleam with longing
and love     the light blinking     at the end
of our wing     our lives     so briefly
plunging     through the dark
the light     the dark

back to top