First Light in Concord, Mass.
Emerson steps from his granite stoop
finds above the reaching branches a moon.
Knows it isn’t beautiful because he thinks it so.
Thinks it so because it is.
How the trees entwine as the sky grows
how the gravel sounds beneath his boot.
Brown against the melting snow
a rabbit under brush.
Ice holds what ice can
mats of leaves, a puddle’s rim.
This is the first parish
its vault and altar boughs and roots.
This rutted road and left-out plow, that hitching ring
script of vine and sparrow’s print.
Each weight. Each shape.
Every weight and shape.
Another Priceless Audubon
“After Audubon rendered the birds, Mason painted the background.”
from Discovering the Unknown Landscape
That snipe enters from the right, her shanks yellow garlands,
her white breast stealing the eye from bog gloom beyond.
The gloom is mine. It fills (I measured) three-fifths the canvas
but none see how crowded light catches
in the understory of the oaks, how Spanish moss frames the sky,
trapping in its wig damps from the mire.
I think of the swamp I braved for him,
our boat beneath a drapery of snakes,
the air fetid, fever-imbued. Sedge entombed in gas.
A place named for Dismas, crucified with Christ.
Dismal, to play the supporting part even in the final hour.
I craved a yellow ague just to breathe
my last on dry, untrembling ground.
And Audubon all the while, “Observe this, George. Observe that, George.”
Mr. Mason to you, sir.
What I observed was a sun struggling in baldcypress,
learned from it frugality with light, to keep only what’s needed
to suggest a wood beyond that painter’s reach,
a wildness held in leash.
I didn’t dare raise my visor.
Horsemen went first to trample down the archers
but their chargers floundered in the mire.
Arrows whistled down, skewered the lot, noble and horse,
lashes of nails on withers, throats and thighs.
Hearts spouted. Eyes burst.
Those that didn’t fall turned back on us
men-at-arms in full armor, staggering through
the hoof-chopped slop, sliding, pulling, slipping, panting.
Horses crashed among us, veined and round-eyed,
flecked with foam and blood, hooves sharp as shovel blades,
the eager arrows piercing steel in rapid, ringing strokes,
a hellish bell that would not stop
but tolled on helms and brains.
I didn’t dare raise my visor for fear a shaft would spear my eyes.
I couldn’t see, the world half-dark around my head,
the air too thick to breathe, legs bound in a grave’s grip.
My heart rang its steel case. A courser was above me
seventeen hands or more, eyes like balls of ivory,
flanks smeared red and wet, its nostrils wide as flags.
I fell, my visor flooding with an earthy gore,
blotting out my eyes. I was not yet twenty.
Never used my blade.
Joel F. Johnson’s poems have been published in Rattle, Blackbird, Salamander, Grey Sparrow Journal and other journals. Tupelo Press included one of his poems in its anthology, Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke. His chapbook, A Map of What Matters, was a finalist for the 2013 Philbrick Poetry Project Award and the Hill-Stead Museum’s 2013 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. Rattle has posted a video of a recent reading on YouTube. Joel is a self-employed businessman living and working in Concord, MA.