Joseph Olschner – “The Long Horn” – A Long Poem In Three Parts

The Long Horn

The Going

The stillness, the whistle,
but it is the distance that ripples.

Through the darkness,
measured by the sound that is the pulse
of this deepness,
dropping
a seam of metal onto the fabric
of curtained night
hemmed by dark morning,
all of this,
a whisper of adventure
to the balance
of youth and lost causes.

It falls like clockwork,
beating back all
the other sounds in our lives.
It falls on our doorsteps,
in our beds,
enveloping the countryside
like an all encompassing wing.

It becomes a melody of history,
a one pure multi-tone beacon
of disjointed harmony,
rolling into the Carolina countryside,
remote and unclaimed,
like an army coming home
with nothing more behind it
and little else to name.

High
clouds rimmed
in bright
ice moonlight,
the silhouette of pine top
tree lines,
all of it becoming
canyons of the echo
as this train horn spills
over thick, stumped forests
and one light crossroads of deep America.
This simple holy horn drives into this rich countryside,
rolls through rows of summer corn,
over silent fields of cotton
pebbled white
with the fabled pale light of a slow-bleed dawn,
erupting over small neat gardens
laced with vines
on webbed string
and bushes
speckled with berries.

The tonal diamond,
rich for its piercing,
lonely for its calling,
pummels through
the black-on-gray-black landscape
as the livestock
gathers at the wooden trough,
the foreboding crow calls
when the nightgown is pulled back down
and as the morning
wicks are lit,
there is a pause given
to turn
to this distant whistle in the
invisible night,
to look up and remember
that once,
you wanted something,
once something wanted you bad enough
that you divided the distance between
a simple dream and rough ideals
and packed your daddy’s only rucksack,
made it to a room in St. Louis,
paid homage to the choices that conflicted with desire
and left with the one that won out.

The whistle gathered you up
and pulled you home,
and where now the same triple pulse metal horn
will always raise your head,
you will always look towards the sound
that pulls a pale light from the indigo universe,
and know that
this lonesome, wholesome sound
is splashed evenly among men, their angels
and dreams still bucking at the gate.

But still,
no one here has a memory of this
of trains passing farms lit by candles,
dirt towns surrounded by fence and animal,
smoke lines drifting into morning skies,
pencil-lined
until reaching
the same exact invisible height
where a hidden
current finds them, and
the wisps bend to disappear,
becoming
a faint lattice among
the flicker of high morning stars
and a sliver of moon.

No one here has a memory of this,
of giant wheels
slowly
grinding their way
around warehouse loading docks,
high pitched and
screeching with weight,
box cars stacked
with cotton bales
wrapped
in ragged, tanned
burlap and moved by black men
with dollies,
farmers with sun reddened faces,
topped with sweat,
white-shirted bankers
with wilted ties,
skinny children and quick,
running
uninterpreted through it all.

No one here will hear a train whistle
and pull a watch from a pocket,
or calm a horse
held at a crossing,
or look up to smile
as the family
sits in the shade of a dusty magnolia tree,
the girls with their fingers in their ears,
their grimace half fought with smiles,
the ground rolling thunder
under them.

No one here will run
beside it,
barefoot on hot dust,
mammoth iron wheels
crunching
their sound onto tin cans and bottle caps,
laid out on hot summer train tracks
hours before their jubilant flattening,
hours thick with wait and
slimmed to divinty.

What a day maker,
a memory taker,
to have the prize
from a plan so well conceived and better made
now laid out on the bedside table and
lit by a lamp
until
the summer night,
long fought by a longer day,
pauses well enough
to allow curtained windows
to pull in the sleeping breeze.

The moment does not end
when the flame is puffed into smoke,
and the victory falls to sleep
with
a triumph equal to a march
through an ancient, empty Rome.

It does not end
with the crickets pouncing on bedlam
and the moon glazing silver light
on farmland laying still for day.

Who were we to witness
the world-rimmed dawn pulling the train
from farmland and wooded swamps,
or the steel whistle to cull the colors of
microscopic light ebbing onto the world
in time
to be perfect
and no where noticeable for it.

Who were we to gauge our rise
by the growing light
and the chorus of yard roosters,
boots heels clomping
room to room,
the quiet knock on wood doors,
we who lit the stoves
and sipped harsh coffee
in a sparse but warm kitchen,
staring out
window panes needing glazing
but getting flowered curtains instead.

This same horn
that laid sound to barns
long since buckled
with ragged age,
laid sound upon wooden
churches
with two front doors,

onto and through clapboard homes with
packed dirt yards,
and upon the roadside
family graveyard
where headstones
lean into thick eternity,
guarded
by a knee high
wrought iron gate door,
half froze open,
alone
and rimmed with weeds,
the fence itself long since
gone and lost
to another purpose.

The Leaving

For days, the dark truth kept coming home,
wrecking each blinking second
and knowing nothing but despair.

He could not skirt it, move it, ignore it,
beat it down or even just beg out of it.
Still, it flew out to meet him,
hard, nose up and cruel.
It had no other purpose but to
whittle him down to nothing,
to make him gut ill beyond any ailment or cure
weak beyond his bones,
to smack him into a bottomless pit
even as he lay on this cold and stony ground,
staring up at a cold and
cheerless blue sky.

What burial could be easy.
What moment could be more driven into his heart
to forever pour a grief inside
that weakened him like a bullet
and never taking him far enough to die.

What trust could now be so honored
that for all of his upbringing everything would fail in the understanding,
no, in the quality of what refused him, in the reason he had
to believe that he ever knew anything at all.
Whatever was godly, righteous, holy even
now existed in a void, a part of all there was that
did not, would not know or ever see him again.

And he had no hand in any of it.
Out of reach but directly
in the path, no amount of lifting,
no wavering in the pattern of Life, no call from God
to take as a warning,
not even an omen.

She was now so far beyond him,
laid out in her fine little Easter dress and petticoat,
her five year old curls still brown, wavelets flowing from under her bonnet,
begging to be touched and straightened, forbidden by what was beloved,
deserted by even the bending of the elbow.

He had found the money for that dress when
Old Man Darcey needed his fence repaired after the
storm of ‘04 drove his cattle through the old one
and his money calves were lost to the swamp.
A fence was nothing
to the big hands of his providing,
but dresses for Easter was not where he thought the money would go.
She had said it was a good thing, that the children could be
fancy dressed for one Easter at least and he put off thinking about
that breeding hog of John Lilley’s that would ‘a paid for 10 dresses in
a year’s time.

Not knowing how to watch for it, the grief descends suddenly
like a hawk hitting a pigeon. He was good at kindness,
better than most, better for resting his worth
in hard work and jokes told on the labor of the daily routine.
He was not good at this,
at the sadness,
or the busting of his heart,
not good at understanding
how grief could keep pouring a loneliness
into what was already gone and finished,
or the knowing that her skip was gone, her glee,
her scamper, his walk to the house, the emptiness within.

They had used the wagon
to get her there,
borrowed Dilsey’s mule with the one blind eye.

The day was crisp for April
but sunny all around,
The preacher lamented, his neighbors lowered,
his handful of earth fell forever
and fell silently but for the distant sound
of the 11:08 crossing town.

He would return alone more than once,
weep with a choking that left him numb and outside himself,
powerless to scratch a thought,
wanting to know anything at all
but never getting to the part that
made any of it worthwhile.

Putting up the little iron fence
had been her idea. Set it up she said, around Ma and Uncle Cletis
and the baby of course,
leave room for you and me, whatever you think
and he reckoned that the thinking had no where else to go
but he had mentioned the fence later to Harlond Black
so when
he found that cache of Yankee rifles buried under the town livery stable,
they melted down the metal and pulled wrought iron
enough to make that little fence, together with the hinges
and H.B. hardly charged him anything at all.

He had put it up one day, alone
in a soft rain. Patted down the earth
around the tiny posts with the sole of his worn boot.

It would not be the last time he would go back.
It would be the only time he ever left.

The Coming

In a dark
kitchen a white
Coffee Maker spits,
into a plastic
and glass
bowl.
The black
liquid drips.

A red dot of light dignifies the trip.

Tiny points of colored light
on metal boxes
on low hum, blinking to their
electric task.

When the infant’s cry slams
into the gate of sleep
and mom’s shadow
crosses
the soft wall night light,
the finger light of day
slides
above the gables,
content
to survey forests and farms
plowed under,
to billow up and over
land laid bare by landscapes
and curb appeal,
swamps drained
by raised highways
roaring
with its own history
as it plunders
the quiet morning night.

The steel wheeled trains
are still well known
to darkness,
their metal bellow
believing
in the stillness enough
to wing the phantom of sound
over tracks and trains,
beyond woods
and curbed yards,
announcing
its own distant schedule
to the vinyl homes
cut
by tight windows
and weather stripping.

Fading through space,
the lonely, lost blast,
a mix of music, combos of
flats and sharps,
textures of tones remaining a single note,
still clears a path
one crossing at a time,
for no one in particular,
for wagons and one-eyed mules,
for kerosene wicks
lit in moonlight
or for the dreams
of a sleeping girl
on her way to school.

Where are our allies in this?
Where do we go with that memory that pulls us?

When the horn sounds,
we become a partner to the past,
a funnel to the history
with all the railroads, the rail yards,
the barns labor raised,
the homes now rotten and caved,
the trees lynching named,
the ripped forests
now paved over
and powdered
with metal roofs.

We become the ally
of rucksack dreams,
of desperate ideals,
all of it coupled to the Earth
and rescued by Heaven.

We become those who were us,
with all the romance the dawn arrested,
with all the stillness that swung dark memory
onto a buckboard
and began a bumpy funeral ride
with someone’s only child.
All of it and more
telling us,
reminding us,
revealing in us
that we are always
a portion of what’s around us,
loosing nothing of what’s forgotten,
claiming all that only surrounds us.

Not Knowing is no excuse.
It’s the same as Belief.

This train’s wail is not a simple sound.
It is like a church
bell that moves
across the stillness
of a planet
rolling slowly
into
the path of the sun.
It knifes
through the same
dark morning,
announces the same
dire caution,
it culls
the same look to the clock
or turn of the head.
And it knows
what it always knew,
how to breathe into us
and how to rotate desire
and turn us
into our own clear window.

It pulls us from darkness,
bleeding into our hearts
where
we will not go but could,
what
we could not do but did
and from what eternal mystery
we salvage all struggles
and extrude all joys.

But tell this to the kid who never
knew his own kind
as he tiptoes past those sleeping
to slip out
and is never seen again,
riding this low mournful train
sound to a new beginning and quicker end.

Tell this to the buckboard rider,
the organdy curtain maker,
the walker to the dark feed lot
in a dawn long lost to the pallid past.

Or to the cradled child, mom’s soft hum in his ear
as the muted train pulls its freight
across another soldier’s crossing,
a crossing that once held
countless hums
of its own.

Or twenty miles the other way,
as the distant,
one-note diamond drifts
and circles over
the neon-lit,
leaping-yellow Waffle House
and a brown
hand pulls
a crumpled dollar
from a worn pocket
and drops
it beside white plates.

A solder farmer turned internet trucker
will walk into
the new
darkness,
the blue exhaust lacing
the early morning,
the last bright stars
lacing pale light,
the trailer rig
filled with live pigs for bacon,
his cab filled with Loretta Lynn,
and he will pull this weight into
a deserted sweet daylight
erupting over
the headlights of stacked traffic,
grinding the gears for another chance
to stand at the gate
or march through Rome,
or give witness
to one more truth
unknown to purpose.

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