Sunday Jul 14

BlackRalph Ralph Black’s poems have appeared in West Branch, The Georgia and Gettysburg Reviews, Poetry Ireland Review, and elsewhere.  He is the recipient of the Anne Halley Poetry Prize from The Massachusetts Review.  His first book, Turning Over the Earth, was published by Milkweed Editions. He teaches at SUNY Brockport, in Upstate New York, where he is Co-Director of the Brockport Writers Forum. 

6:35. An overcast, overshot Thursday.
The phone rings, a sound
like a satchel of tumbling glass.
I lay a ten of hearts below
a jack of diamonds, practice
my squint, punch “talk”
on the receiver before the third
jangling trill garrotes what little
is left of the stillness.
A voice, a man’s voice,
smooth as a fast ball, though pitched
like a hanging curve, a bit high,
maybe from downstate, west of the river.
The Curve says “Hey, Dave,”
as though Dave was who I was,
or might suddenly become, like
walking from dusk into daylight
through a revolving door.
And I say, “Sorry, no Dave here.”
And the voice, taken, a bit, aback,
answers, “Dave? No Dave?”
And I say, “Sorry, wrong number, Pal,”
though, really, I don’t say “Pal.”
I’ve never called anyone “Pal,”
not the guy at the bagel store.
Not my bookie, if I had one.
And the voice says, “Oh. Sorry.
Jesus Christmas,” and hangs up.
And clarity opens like a small
tampered safe. I know it’s a clue,
this Dave fellow, this Jesus.
I push “off” on the receiver, tussle
the phone in my hand, as though
weighing a couple of loaded dice,
ready to dance them down a rain-slicked
half-lit alley. I place the phone back
in its cradle, this cheap Chinese knock-off,
a phone that couldn’t clock a con
on the bluesy side of a smoky room.
Everything is still, even the photo
of my wife, which should know better.
Even the dog, if I had one.
I pour myself a tumbler of 1% milk—
clichés being what they are.
I think about Dave, and the last
lost gospel of Thursdays in June.
I lay a nine of clubs against
the ten of hearts, and think about Christmas—
how many shopping days until.
And about the dog I don’t have to follow me
all the way around this desolate block.

Lunch Break, Wayland, NY
At the Pinewood Inn
the dining room’s closed
for the winter, so the three men,
friends since school, pull up
to the counter where the gray-eyed
waitress greets each by name, pours
without asking or being asked
three cups of coffee for her boys.
They order from the chalkboard
without looking, breathe steam
off the tops of their coffee cups.
The trout stream south of town’s
been ice for a month, the post office
and the tavern next door the only places
forging steady through the cold.
The man in the blaze-orange ball cap
says his sister’s son’s been called up
from the reserves, shipped off
somedamnplace, but no one’s saying
just where. It’s hard on his mother,
he says, squinting out as the snow
squirrels through the parking lot.
The waitress brings three plates, sets them
on the counter so gently they might be carved of ice.
She leans against the wall where the pies
are lined like trophies, then pencils some
figures on her pad. The taller one,
younger by a good few years
than his friends, forks chunks of potato
around on his plate, stabs
at the dulled suns of the egg yolks.
The oldest one, in logging boots
and watch cap, sucks at the few teeth
still in his mouth. They say another foot
tonight, he says, to the room itself,
or to the snow that might be listening.
A whole new world, says the first,
though it might as well be a question.
The waitress looks out the window
as a man and a boy, in matching blue-
emblazoned snow-mobiling suits
kick grayed snow off their boots before
clomping up the stairs into the liquor store.
She knows the tone of that jangling door
sure as she knows the song
she hummed to her twins all those years ago.
The sign in the window says
Holiday Sale, in a voice they all
would recognize. The nephew’s uncle
nudges his coffee cup toward the edge
of the counter. Shar? he asks, calling her
back. She reaches for the coffee pot,
leans just slightly to pour,
still light on her feet, but older now
than she was, and feeling the cold.

Swimming Lesson
Go ahead hungry monk, strip down
to your Speedos, wade to your unglamorized ankles
into April’s needling surf, those tiny,
scavenging waves the Master parabled against:
so many mouths in the world, so little kissing.
Leave your prayer flags bannering like anemones
on the beach. Forget the cities of alabaster
and mud chiseled into the mountain’s high relief.
Let drift the chaff of the evening gong,
the morning’s bowl of tea, thin and green as celadon.
Think of something like heaven as your body’s
lifted, as it’s held almost in place by fingerlings
of light, bones worn on the outside
delicate as diatoms. The sun on your back
will alchemize your scheming cells, the water
drizzling into the crack between mask and grimace
will leave on your cheeks its thousand drying stars,
a galaxy of salt. Go on, flippering novice,
suck down through the snorkel that thick bubble of air,
a shimmering weight tied to a drowned thread. Then
kick yourself deeper into the unsounded blue,
counting as you descend the starfish suctioned
to their ephemeral rocks, and the jellyfish, those
precarious dreams drifting past, reaching out to you
their tendrilled, enlightening songs.