Two Poems by Al Ortolani

The Big Gray

I usually picture November
as the gray month. That’s not meant
to sound negative, since I like gray,

a soothing color, cool to touch, slightly
turned towards the inner voice, the indoors
of long nights, early suppers,

an old movie on Turner, reading
before the lights go out. In November
there is more time for sitting

at the window, watching squirrels
running across the top of the fence,
leaping from roof to limb.

With that thought, I am happy
to drink coffee with nowhere to go,
to forget the noise of bright flowers,

the rush to save, to put up tomatoes
as a symbol, a harvest ritual
if we’re ready, if we’re lucky.

*

Acorns on All Saints Day

You walk through the woods,
shuffling leaves like fallen days.

You see more through the trees
than you have since early spring,
the rise of hill, the spur of limestone,
squirrels nesting in high oaks.

Game trails reveal themselves
winding between branches, briar,
and windfall. There’s a place
for you in change, feathers

between trees, acorns
dropping like rain. A longing for
all you’ve loved reaches beyond
your farthest step, almost further

than hope, the moving sap,
the constant heartwood.

*

Al Ortolani’s most recent poetry collection, The Taco Boat, has just been released from New York Quarterly Books. Individual poems have appeared in journals such as Prairie Schooner, Rattle, New Letters, and the Chiron Review. He currently lives in the Kansas City area with his wife Sherri and a Zen Buddhist dog named Stanley. The dog meditates in a full corpse pose between treats.

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).