Five Poems (Contest Judge)

by Lisa Ampleman

North County
 
Down Washington Street, the church
crests a distant hill, small spire against sky,
one of few in this part of the county
that have not closed.
 
Others auction off school desks, move altars and statues
to new parishes.  Here, corn fields
surround the outlet mall, and the highway exit
has both an industrial park and a family farm’s
small fruit stand.  I nearly forget how
 
to get home because the streets all look different,
new traffic patterns.
Land west of the airport is razed for a new runway,
 
new tunnel that can withstand nuclear force.
There, people used to watch jet after jet
roar into the sky—now, planes taxi
where teens sat in their cars and necked.
 
All this work, though the largest airline has cut
its flights and closed down one concourse.
Ground molded by backhoes and tractors—they’ll
pour some concrete and call it a day.
Each flat house
they go home to dolled up for Christmas,
blinking and gesturing. Each dark living room
lit blue by television.  Traffic signal flashing yellow and directing no one.
 
Glass and Steel
 
At Easter Vigil, we each hold a white taper
with its paper skirt to catch the wax.  In darkness,
 
the light spreads slowly—one candle leans into another
as if whispering a secret.  Wax tears drip down then clot,
 
and I think of the church burnt
and rebuilt, how the lightning strike shut off power
 
to the alarms.  When the pastor checked
the dark church that night, he saw
 
nothing.  Lightning sang in the wires
and rafters for hours, until the church
 
blazed on the hilltop, until the white steeple
fell, engulfed. The church is not a building,
 
but the people, my parents said.  It rose again,
steel beams to frame the new sanctuary, tarp over
 
what would be stained glass.  We walked through the half-
finished place and had to imagine what it would become,
 
this crowded room where a man holds his breath
as the priest leans him into the water.
 
Rose
 
She drinks root beer until
the pain is such she says
no more liquids and eases
into sedated sleep.
 
Pink sisters praying behind
their grate for her.  Office
shut and dark, books piled
to the ceiling.  Someone else’s
 
now.  She walks into the dark
forest, able to call out
to any approaching shade
in its own language—
 
pobrecita.  Ciao, rigazzi.
She’ll ask each name, expect
a dirty (but not filthy)
joke.  Let there be an irreverent
 
wink of greeting, a guide
to rooms with the best light,
as she leaves behind this salt
the rest of us are made of.
 
Low Water on the Whitewater River
 
We saw what seemed a white-and-blue tent on the hill,
but closer, the colors resolved themselves
into metal angles: a 1960’s two-toned Thunderbird,
roof flattened by flood,
wheel-wells buried in mud, tires long gone. Grasses grew
out of the hood.  But the rusted chassis,
shocks and all, lay separate
just above the waterline, a toy dissected by curious hands.
 
We rowed past in reverent silence. I thought of the possum
turned inside out on the highway’s shoulder.
Morbid, you said,
and splashed me. But my mind had
latched on to horror:
a man decapitated on a bus, the sounds
the other passengers heard.
A soldier’s head deflating like a balloon
after the bullets were done.
Bodies dragged to scraps.  The ways we are taken out of them.
 
Under a high bridge, hundreds of beehives
huddled in the green oxidized recesses.
Convinced I heard them humming
even one hundred feet below,
I threw our soda cans in the water,
and when we landed, wrapped my arms around you,
buried my face in your back.  The canoe rocked
back and forth in the wake from a speedboat.
 
Missive
 
I dreamed I felt far from you.  With thick, clear tape
I closed a box, sealed in the long note, the knick-knacks,
 
my heart which was an avocado, its greens
fading to yellow in the middle.  I wrote
 
your address in large block letters, a handwriting
not quite my own, and once the box
 
left my hands, I wanted a bottle-message
in reply, something still damp with salt water,
 
something a long time in arriving.
The box lay open in the corner
 
of my room, drawing in the dust-motes
that danced down in the light
 
from the window.  It was a dry season,
my throat raw from the dust,
 
lips cracked.  A harmonica wheezed
somewhere, and I never said anything,
 
never sent anything, never wanted reply.
On waking, I cannot at first remember
 
what has happened, but lines
from the note come back to me.