‘There’s some mighty good water in Tennessee’*

Tonight, America, the stars above you have been blotted out

by flitting shapes, like huge moths attracted

to haloes of darkness that form around pools

of doubt, smutches of innuendo, whispered

confidences in bars; the more implausible, the deeper

the ravines cut by these rivers of pitch,

the more enticing their deltas, glossy as onyx. 

So they have come from afar to look at you, America,

and now their gauzy drift settles

over the islands of Puget and Penobscot,

scrimlight of your ordinary evenings dimmed

beneath their feathered jostling.

 

And why not?  Haven’t you earned some portent

to mark these times?  Shouldn’t huge storm-clouds be rushing

to pound like breakers on the reef of your cities, Joshua trees

uncannily bursting into flame beside littered highways,

flattened corn like notes in a Sousa requiem for an empire?

 

(—here, where the purple light of Canberra’s dusk

fills this room at the back of the house

my regrets won’t stir a blade of your prairie grass

even as they form around your name —)

 

America where Hart Crane came ashore,  

where I linger on a corner while Stevens pauses to write

something on an envelope; I wave at Berryman drinking

alone in Hopper’s bar. America was an intricate

machine, a timing light shone

into the engine well of neighbourhoods and precincts,

an inscribed disk sent into the future.

                       

America from where my brother and I would emerge

to walk home from the little local cinema we’d been to for the matinee.

You turned the real world into plywood,

a papier-mâché bricolage plastered over

the cold late afternoon.  America

the stories you told about yourself in technicolour

bore a fidelity to the colours of another reality

not ours, a soundtrack out of sync

with the words we spoke.

 

America, your pure products address you.

They declaim from the commerce on your riverbanks,

from your deserted promontories,

from your heartland constructed like a filmset

in a language

scattered and capacious, its talismans stashed

in mangroves and malls,

beacons off the bluff, the cape, your resonant shores;

no hamlet so mean, so forgotten

off a byway, it will not have its place

in your poems of highways and lakes.

 

            (— not you, not here, not now, say the cockatoos

            their call like straps of darkness tightening.

            The reticence of our drawl

            stretches like an ill-fitted sheet to its continent until

            we learn that we too are located by names

            that move like windlight through the casuarinas —)

 

Tonight, I’m thinking of what America meant

to the camp inmates like my Dad, crowded around a window, April 1945.

They asked the one who could look out

‘can you see them, the Americans?  Can you see them yet?’ and when

they arrived, the Sixth Armored Division, when they entered

the camp, how amazed he was, my Dad, still a teenager,

who had never seen an American.

 

America, I’m thinking too about that accused woman. 

How perhaps, in her last years, she found deep wells of that fine water

in Tennessee.  About the angels that she found there.

 

* Abraham Lincoln’s advice as defence attorney to an abused woman on trial for murdering her husband in self-defence, whereupon she absconded and was not pursued further.

Shortlisted, Atlanta Review International Poetry Prize 2022

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