In the country of individuation, I struck out
for the gravid coast. After the copper fields,
the squibs in hillsides spouting the netherworld’s flames,
the chrome architraves over gasoline pumps,
and then a lap of colors in the air vault on the horizon where the black
spikes spike up
hearing You beside me as a phantom
You almost in sight when I turn to the empty seat,
the fuel pump as it begins to miss,
lines at burger trains in the chill, sad outposts
Leer & Leak wobble head for the window rear
after the accordion billboards
Motel 6 a.c. blink soap ingot and its waxy paper shell
the scent of my striped shirt wagging up from its pit
slubbering of a mechanic in twilight, one night,
the body—ghastly thing!—unprepared for reckoning,
after Eat a Cup of Coffee
a knuckle’s scrape against a deli wall
wild turkey road crossing
swimming air over radiator
leg on a train—polyvinylled seat
after the money ran out
after the wire came in
the homily, end of the nation—
reared in the sun along a crinoline shore
struck like a match for the sea.
And I want to tell You about the houses,
each house of its kind—clapboard or
stucco or timber, Germanic gingerbread, brick or stone,
their blocks cut smooth and
well-fitting, longhouse of mud with its
each had a milky sheen in the afternoon light, whitewash a scrim not of it
but before it, between it and my self, air dunked in milk and the sun—
Or the customs:
small figurines in the front windows winking
straw stuffed in a man’s clothes and set on the porches
fiberglass igloos on the lanate lawns
The inhabitants, burly and wild in their cars.
I saw a woman reach into a parcel of leather with metallic clasps and retrieve
the jangling discourse of our nation
small caterpillars in chrysalides, arrayed
on their ends, and she offered these
to passing motorists, passersby.
A column of eager faces along the roadside at dusk—
A man crying in a park, despite his fierce demeanor—
and I? Done in, missing, hocked at Hocktide. But ’twere
all strange to me. And the hotel too dear.
Hell or high water. Well, it’s the latter. No room for
the rest of us, let’s take the stairs. It’s a wallop, learning the delis
won’t deliver up here.
Where I had come from, hell and high water fire
Sarcophagi picnics—where the lost discussed—
Cheating the tax collector—
Yeah you and the ever-loving country said the cowboy, for example,
the spray on his six gallon faint in the sun.
Freesia poured on the tables, dang if it
—shut up, we’ve counted it all and I’m
sick of it now.
Then wheeling out to dominions on the outskirts—
red lights, high hopes—
topless skirts’ menu: tops, bottoms, Japanese or Russian.
Said Freddie Mac,
the storm rolled in.
And along that other coast, a longboat carried the crippled souls
bent and twisted into cutouts of the damned, and a wailing trailed
the longboat as it banked beside the man, collector of interest
that he would not confess.
The silo of another moneylender opened,
its wheat now snakes.
A third, awakened by his
servant, found Lucifer
and two steeds black before his mill—
merchants of the future, sellers of time—
For every buy high, a seller’s low. You were beside me in the
ol—al—and then You weren’t. Vamoosed like a loan shark
after collect. Denominational oligopsony. Brother Luke
and the double entry. Hermes’s fluidity. And so I left.
Now the bright expanse yields up to You.
Radiant sea. I said they were chrysalides, what the woman gave—
The house and its drive faced the sea. The table she’d strutted was meagre but hewn to endure, with a shiny cloth cover, a
checkerboard in red.
Behind her the house glowed miken sheen, a blue like bachelor’s buttons under a tangle of green.
The road along the sea was well tended, loose strife lush on the banks of its gullies.
I was weary with sleeping-out, sore on my feet. Each town had opened on the last like commercials. Cars blinking past, a
whshh and away.
Purgatory, a man by the road said, was charged for its upbringing, as was Baudelaire by his stepfather.
Others had tables, others were tending. Pungent solvents, ochre jellies.
Casts of hands on doilies of silk. Wing covers. Tree frogs singing for tubas.
White curds. One man spread a trunk with bitters and salt.
And I wasn’t the only one walking—the cars, the cars in and out, their riders
at hand and in hand of the tables, but the millers like me were sampling on
I could not put this between us, too. Your gifts which I fretted, neck
and neck with the costs. To pay Paul, rob
I could not not fault You. Turn from your jars. Ochre substan—
sin of the fallen deepest. Shield to the radiant sea.
Crows harangue the crowds here, too. Cars break down.
settles on the beaches
as though they were boxes of sweets;
Flip side, same coin. But knit, a place for each—
Your gifts, within a breach—
From here, on the north cliff, lean-to’d and wanting in the oncoming dusk,
it is difficult to shirk
Your tackle. Right end, left
out. And so I fight—
stars, ready henchmen, pointing—
the sound of water,
down below, lapping—
dive of carrion to the radiant sea.
Your banks there would be plenty
turn from them.
Walls of the implacable cliff: dry of the nummary sea.
—Susan Wheeler is the author of the poetry collections Bag ‘o’ Diamonds (University of Georgia Press, 1994); Smokes (Four Way, 1998); and Source Codes (Salt Publishing, 2001). This poem is an excerpt from Ledger, a new collection of Wheeler’s poems awarded the Iowa Poetry Prize and published by the University of Iowa Press.