Wise Poison


GOD THE BROKEN LOCK

I've died enough by now I trust
just what's imperfect or ruined. I mean God,
God who is in the stop sign
asking to be shotgunned, the ocean that evaporates even
as we float. God. The bent nail & broken lock,
God the hangnail. The hangnail.
And a million others might be like me, our hopes
a kind of illegal entry, a belief in smashed windows,
every breakage
like breaking & entering into a concert hall,
the place my friend & I crawled into an air shaft, & later
fell asleep. After breakage
there is always sleep.
We woke to gospel hymns from the dressing room
below, songs commending
embrace to the fists, & return to the prodigal.
And hasn't my luck always been a shadow, stepping out, stretching?
I mean I trust what breaks.
A broken bone elicits condolence,
and the phone call sounds French if the transmission fritzes,
and our brains--our blessed, desirable brains--are composed
of infinitesimal magnets, millions of them
a billionth-of-a-milligram in weight, so
they make us knock our heads against hard walls.
When we pushed through the air vent,
the men singing seemed only a little surprised,
just slightly freaked,
three of them in black tuxes, & the fourth in red satin,
crimson, lit up like a furnace trimmed with paisley swirls,
the furnace of a planet, or of a fantastic oceanliner
criss-crossing a planet we've not discovered yet,
a fire you might love to be thrown into.
That night they would perform the songs half
the country kept on its lips half of every day.
Songs mostly praising or lamenting or accusing some loved one
of some beautiful, horrendous betrayal or affection.
But dressing, between primping & joking about
their thinning afros, they sang of Jesus. Jesus,
who said, "Split a stick, & you shall find me inside."
It was the winter we put on asbestos gloves, & flame proof
stuck our hands in the fireplace, adjusting logs.
Jesus, we told them, left no proof of having sung a single note.
And that, said the lead singer, is why we all are sinners.
What he meant was that
we are all like the saints on my neighbors' lawns--
whose plaster shoulders & noses,
chipped cloaks & tiaras, have to be bundled
in plastic sheets, each winter, blanketed
from the wind & the cold. That was what he meant,
though I couldn't know it then.


AGAINST GRAVITY

Blue sky, ungated clouds, & on a sand-pitted
highway sign the number 10 stands out--
a minor footnote in a monograph on drugs,

a reference instructing the reader to study
my nap on the floor of a Ford Econoline
summer after high school. As if rest, & only rest,

were what we found ourselves made of, sometimes.
Though rest is only one trait, actually, when
you've been hitching between Tucson & El Paso

and gotten picked up by a van. The equally ingenious
others look like tie-dye & restlessness, like
rest stops & silvered heather, maybe jimson,

and a little lantana raising its nippled red speckles
into the scent of sagebrush rained on & drying.
They got me high, three men & a woman costumed

estimably in the style of out-of-work jesters,
jovial people of 1971, wearing the standard issue--
fusty cloches, velveteen pants, embroidered emblems,

with shiny balls like cat bells dangling
off one or two ears. For one a self-etched tattoo,
its motto the equation ACID=BLISS framed

by a multiplying fungus or exploding chloroplast.
For another, a fu manchu & fedora. A synaptic Apache
snake cinching the woman's frayed macrame belt.

Mirror sunglasses for all. And small mirrors,
like tiny ponds, frozen pools, had been sewn
onto the woman's India print blouse by some

Kashmiri laborer, who, if he could have looked into
them, might have seen me dozing off, stoned
on pan hash, bits of myself reflecting back,

scattered, a tired grin from the woman's
right sleeve, the puffed wrist, pale ear at the tip
of a breast, nose on her stomach. And haven't I

always loved being broken up & abrogated by sleep?
But when I woke we had pulled off the road
into a ranch. From the tape deck "Brain Salad Surgery"

blared, a form of premature senility disguised
as endless synthesizer riffs. For a second, in the nazz
and compression of noise, still stoned, I thought

they intended to kill me. An intuition
so melodramatic & dumb the sight of two of the men
kissing in the front seat had to wipe it away.

I had never seen two men kiss, & the surprise,
which in another setting might have shocked,
even disgusted, my sheltered murmurous little self,

somehow reassured me. The kiss implying
not so much gentility as distraction.
Then, out of the eddies of shade, the woman

ran, having tossed off her incongruous imitation
alligator heels, naked now except for
purple tights, she ran & turned cartwheels

three times across the yard. Gravity.
Gravity. They had wanted to visit a friend
who, they claimed, was connected to anti-

gravity research being conducted there.
Merely a windbreak occupied by
an adobe shed and barn, it seemed abandoned,

as if during the night the hard rains,
the lightning, had chased away the enemy
of gravity, & now we were to take his place.
"Wise Poison gives us floods, highways, self-exposure, over-exposure, pink light, “the consuming lime & gin of the later”—Rivard is our best poet of such states since the days of new verse by Denis Johnson or James Wright…His aerial sentences defy the pull of line breaks, then snap down into epigrammatic, end-stopped closure, like birds diving over open ocean for rare prey; his subject is our unrealistic aspirations, the ways we can feel dead without them, and the ways poetic language can incubate and give wings to strange ambitions."
—Stephen Burt, Yale Review

"In his first collection Torque, David Rivard proved that he had a storyteller’s ear and an eye for gritty detail. In Wise Poison, winner of the 1996 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, Rivard relies less on setting or personae, more on his own delicate wit and sheer poetic nerve (in consecutive poems he steals titles from Baudelaire and the country western great Merle Travis). The gamble pays off. With this collection, Rivard has come into a truly American voice, at once eccentric and universal."
Publishers Weekly