In hated towns, even, churches ring
their morning bells—at eight or nine, maybe.
In summer, when a breeze floats the last of night-cool north, bells ring on that same breeze,
reminding the most hateful banker,
walking to work, of the farm
he grew up on, three fields away from the Methodist chapel, and even a budding thug,
en route to slashing Harold Nystrom’s
favorite hybrid rose, will notice a twinge
the first knelling makes
in his rib. His job is not to remember it.
Then musical air turns normal.
Any town continues to pay its bills and have its accidents, while the nearly clean river
eats a slow way through the concrete floodwall. Day will heat up. Something memorable
may or may not happen during the lunchtime hustle: people have their seizures then,
or get engaged. Either way,
afternoon will begin to crawl
beneath its humidity, the black locust more tropical-looking, passing trucks
more and more like the tireless engines
of wilt and misery. Just before six,
businesses all closed, most people home
or playing softball, leaves will start
a new trembling. The coals
will almost be gray enough for the meat.
Reading the paper outdoors, one person will feel cool. For a moment, tricycle sound will stop.
Bells will have started ringing again,
a kind of slow-moving front
gone after their minute, raining on both
the beautiful and the damned,
drenching everyone with sure, unexpected music.
A COMPASS FOR MY DAUGHTER
North is where the shadow
of the sky
retreats. North is a way back
to Grandfather, to night
animals we miss but are afraid
to befriend again.
You’ll see long
clouds moving down someday. Remember
then, it will be time.
always, welcome the gift
of rain. Rain comes from where the streams
have gone. It is never
not at home. When you’re sick, remember
of water, red message
at dusk. Look west: everything
of feathers, the light in your skin.
The living turn there
and come to rest. Fire is its
color. Color is its real
direction, warmest wind, the child
you once were.
Face east in your heart
and you’ll begin
all journeys new. I bring you this far
so I can leave you. So I can tell you our bodies are clocks and compasses—we have it in us
to know the time to
turn and point away.
in your heart and my leaving
signals return. Leaving is
all around us. Dying, too. Lives
move from room to room,
and they turn,
and they change
courses, drown, and are revived
at sea, on land,
in whatever air they breathe.
Your mother and I love you. You are
the beach. We are the next lonely wave.
Welcome for coming.
Please be advised along the rails of the guided ship.
The first of every month and you were the smartest one.
Out of the heavens spun above us just like that.
The liver throbbed a basket of lilies a garbage-filled cathedral. Please sit yourself home.
We have only begun the cave wall blooming finally with animals.
After the last ones leave, Walt Whitman
still walks beside me, invisible,
blowing kisses into the ears of punks
and bankers alike, checking a lapel
for sheen and lint, tousling the hairdo
of a girl. How has it come to this,
that only one committed humanist
has not deserted? Surely I am blessed
with good air and water, and reckless trucks
do not seek me out. I was not beaten
by mother or stranger, raped by an uncle.
I was not set upon by sores. I am not
found lingering near the rails of our high bridge.
Yet I have stood at Minneopa Falls,
water falling twice, and not known how
to go on. In the deepest part of spring,
spray rose up from rocks with the roar
of falling, and I could not see beyond
my family, losing and finding their ways
over and over, losing and finding me.
Back in the city, cars go down one street
and back the next, and call it change.
Drivers look at me like ditch grass
or deer, part of the view. How has it
come to this, Americans alone
in sedans and trucks, waiting for me
to flip them off, to say something stupid
before they turn off their engines
and assault me? How has it come to this,
violence the first drug for a deadening
routine, Third Street to Broad Street to Third?
When I was eight, the first angel tapped me
on the shoulder just before sleep. Maybe
it was the way to say I didn’t
need him, there in a split-level house,
Los Angeles, ocean air a balm
for anything. Even then, children stepped on mines. I saw pictures of the swollen bellies,
flies drinking a boy’s tears. We had all the right subscriptions in those days. Maybe I didn’t
need an angel to keep me lucky,
safe from TB in the dust. I had
the pink sugar cube that fought polio,
the loaves that fought hunger. I lived far away from the reckless truck jumping sidewalks
in other parts of the world. Falling asleep,
two taps on the shoulder, maybe
it was the way to say he’d see me later.
Walt Whitman likes the bars with patios
in front, where smokers huddle since the ban, where people drink and sometimes know a sparrow from a finch. Even when I’m talking,
he whispers lines I won’t remember. The people roar like water. A friend wears the face
of a smoothed-down stone. Another’s arm
curves into itself, a bronze leaf. Mid-summer,
we drink beer, people who know how salt
from a living ocean tastes. Walt Whitman
puts his hand over my wife’s breast. He tells me her heart speaks my name to his fingers.
I am telling her about my day. His other hand waves at me from behind her head.
What would it take to ask the angels back,
to interrogate their motive, to double-check
those days I knew them near—a back alley
off Western in Seattle, that tumble under
a storm-driven wave? Maybe I had
left them. Were they the home ground
I could stray from? Would it take real
desperation to get them to return?
Would that seem contrived? Whitman takes no stand on this score, tugging at strands of his beard.
He has had all he will take of me
this afternoon, even as he mimics
the posture of another self: Walt Whitman
the mortal, days after his final stroke.
He tries to lift an arm, settling instead
on what he can see. The stitching
of his quilt. The coat on a chair-back. Sunlight waking up the airborne dust of his room.
Wherein the man removes his shoes, his clothes, lifetimes of desire
hung now on the chair back, bodiless, the door to the next world opening
as if to dark space without pole or gravity, as if to dark
inside a mouth that will not speak.
AFTER BEING QUIET FOR A LONG TIME
You’d let the tongue wait longer. The slick road heart-to-lip grow dangerous with weeds.
You’d stand at the open door watching earth
close a snowy mouth over each word.
A bell choir changed you. Squirrels in the attic. The crying girl. A pencil breaking.
Where does all the noise go, going inside?
Waves slap and flatten on a cold lake.
After being quiet for a long time, you’d slip
over yourself toward talk, not at all
like you thought. You’d fall through anger and lust as bad as always, the road without toll,
no bridges locked from here to either coast. Someday again you’d think yourself through a meal, biting through to silence. Quiet through dishes, through sex or shower. Quiet through asking
or asking forgiveness. The larch, a dock,
your small boat would wait for you like the lake for the first oar-pull into the middle,
for a word to say without breaking.
Richard Robbins was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Southern California and Montana. He has lived continuously in Minnesota since 1984. He has published five full-length books as well as the recent Body Turn to Rain: New & Selected Poems, which Lynx House Press released in May 2017. Over the years, he's received awards and fellowships from The Loft, the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. From 1986-2014, Robbins directed the Good Thunder Reading Series at Minnesota State University Mankato, where he continues to direct the creative writing program. In 2006, he was awarded the Kay Sexton Award for long-standing dedication and outstanding work in fostering books, reading and literary activity in Minnesota.
"Guardian Angels", "Aphasiac", and "Impossible Modesty" from Body Turn to Rain: New and Selected Poems, Lynx House Press, 2017.
"A Compass for My Daughter" from The Invisible Wedding, The University of Missouri Press, 1984.
"After Being Quiet For A Long Time" from Famous Persons We Have Known, Eastern Washington University Press, 2000.
"July" from The Untested Hand, The Backwaters Press, 2008