Three Poems by James Harms

Rail Trail

South of town the asphalt trail
turns to limestone, the woods
thicken on each side, the river
slows. A few miles further
the path passes beneath
the interstate far overhead,
which is itself a river
in the sky rushing two-
ways at once, to Pittsburgh
or Charleston, Marianna or
Jane Lew. The woods are
quiet, the river quiet, the day
thrumming like a low engine
or a rumor you can outwalk
if you walk and walk, then walk
a little more. Until the bend
below the marina breaks
the water enough for it
to sing along the bank,
the loose limestone raking
through wet weeds and reeds,
singing. Apology accepted,
you think turning around,
walking now with the river
on your left, the lies miles
ahead, back in town. Waiting.
Taking off their shoes.

*

As If (The Fading Northern Currents)

“A light-year is a distance, not
an interval of time,” he said.
“And a lie is who you are.”
There was a sweetness, anyway,
to his voice as we walked the shore.
“It’s not as though the kelp gives up,”
he said, “though it looks that way,
the beach for miles heaped with dead
strands, the slick bladders like knots
in a green rope, knots of air that float,
that keep the kelp rising in the rising seas,
a swaying forest with blades of leaves
like narrow palms turned toward the sun
until the sun raises the water’s temperature
just a knot or two above 70 degrees.
And that’s all it takes. The kelp’s roots
give way at the holdfast and gently release
from the deep rocks they’ve woven around
like the hands of a very old couple
simply slipping loose of one another
as the two of them sit together watching
the evening air fill with fireflies, their
hands suddenly grazing the grass instead of
holding.” He said all this through a smile,
as if the fading northern currents that once
kept the waters cool were like a history
worn through at the knees, the fabric
giving way to the force of a man dropping
into prayer, the beach a wreckage of wrack
and weeds and mounds of macrocystis pyrifera.
“You know,” he said, pointing at the pile
of dead kelp, “it can grow two feet a day.”
He smiled again, he was crying. “A lie,”
he said. “Your life. Mine.”

*

Steve

The wizened derelict
(the filthy old wrinkly guy)
sang shirtless on the trestle,

his voice like a feather falling in a canyon,

until he fell in the canyon.

He didn’t fall in the canyon.

He sat down in the dirt
beside the tracks
and began to cry.

The thin morning light
stayed six feet away,
scraped a hole through yellow leaves.

Far below, the sound
of water rubbing softly over pebbles

seemed sordid, insincere.

It sounded like rushing water.

The derelict called himself Steve,
“though my birth name
is a travesty, a shame I won’t repeat.”

He’d stopped crying.
He held a dead squirrel by the tail.

He said he preferred
homeless to derelict,
when I asked.

But I didn’t ask.
I watched and listened from a distance.

I heard everything he said
to that squirrel.
Or to himself.

Or I guess to me.
I mean I wasn’t hiding or anything.

*

James Harms is the author of ten books including, most recently, ROWING WITH WINGS (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2017).

My Mother’s Coat on a Stranger (Phone Call with My Sister) by James Harms

My Mother’s Coat on a Stranger (Phone Call with My Sister)

No way, really?
Was it the blue one? The puffy one
she wore those last few years
that matched her eyes
sort of too much, as if
everything about her, her entire
presence was staring at you?
You think the woman bought it
at Goodwill? Do you remember
calling me from the drive-thru drop-off
sobbing about the teenage girl
who’d taken the bags of clothes
from the trunk, how you stood there
crying as she quietly lifted each
one and walked them through
the automatic sliding glass doors?
You told me, she had a nose ring
and lilac hair, remember?
Was she taller or shorter
than Mom, the lady wearing her coat?
Do you think Goodwill waits
a while before selling the clothes
of the dead; I mean it’s been almost
a year? Talk about a grace period.
Can you imagine seeing
her coat on some person crossing
the street in front of your car
a day or two after you donated it,
a week or two after she died?
Would you honk
or hit the gas? Or would you just
sit there long after the light
turned green and cry? Yeah,
me, too. A lot of green lights.

*

James Harms is the author of ten books including, most recently, ROWING WITH WINGS (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2017).

Pocketknife by James Harms

Pocketknife

Red and Swiss (the flag embossed
on enamel), no mention of the Army
though once there were three letters,
initials now worn to a few white flecks
as the blade flicks forward, the rub
of the thumb, the crumbs of old
cheese and bread in the hinge, a corkscrew
and can opener, the tiny toothpick
shadowed by tweezers, both tucked
in slender grooves beside a ring at one end
to attach a set of keys, a perfect tool
stowed for years in a cigar box beneath
a lost tooth and a baby bracelet,
a wedding ring and a piece of pyrite.

*

James Harms is the author of ten books including, most recently, ROWING WITH WINGS (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2017).