These poems appear in Gates’s book,
The Burning Key: New and Selected Poems (1973-2023),
which is reviewed in this issue of Cable Street.
I am religious
Do not lie and yes, sometimes fear,
old coat, tries to drape my shoulders,
but speaking, it turns out, is a friend,
the raw blunder necessary
even without an I or how to make a sentence
clear I have taught some
and “they was outback talking” is clear enough.
It matters, I tell them. All of it.
Their stories and the others. I ask them to think
about a time when they will be asked
to communicate life and death instructions,
something very important
to someone they do not know
who speaks a different language from their own.
Together, they have to come up with
(and you should know that you always repeat
the most important part of a sentence in New England)
life and death instructions
for the rest of us, whoever we may be.
Those two, just those two,
will be the last outpost
for relaying news to the rest of us.
You might ask how two
people could be an outpost–
Well, who else better? And may they
better share the language
In Maine, there’s a chance
they will see It coming,
because of all that time spent outback.
It feels like years.
And no clock.
Then I dreamt about Eva,
how she went stiff in a chair then fluid again,
a scare. Naomi was there.
It was all all right.
Eva didn’t mind the suddenness, a few
seconds long. She was unsurprised.
As long as she returned, she said she didn’t mind.
I felt her body before me,
I felt her go, sent through and back,
the shock through flesh to bone, bone to breath–
I was the chair, outer frame.
She said calmly, that’s the way it is
and that’s how it’s going to be.
We’re all in line body bone flesh.
Be glad you’re here and I held on.
Last night, I turned away from the beautiful. My beautiful dying horse. He had been hit by a moving vehicle, something larger, hurt. He was lying on the ground, breathing, and my fear of death, being beside it, was large. Then a clear urge to be there to kneel beside the dying horse, his big darkening green head and muscled chest, chestnut body. The eyes knew me, a sweet relieving exhale as I took the head, rubbed the jaw and long veined nose.
I would not hurt, I would help. Looking straight ahead, soft knowing and forgiving my waiting: I watched and watch the dying change color to become real.
Yes, here: the horse knew about me, my arriving to be there to the end, his calm and changing before my eyes. Full thank you, dear witness of the darkening shade pulling down, eyes straight ahead. I have lost and found my place next to you. Dying, loving, being and being loved.
The horse is true.
Later morning, I tell the young man, my old friend’s grandson on the phone translating for her in her deafness: I love your grandmother very much, and that means I love you too. He understands, Yes, he says, I send it back to you.
Yes. Loving means loved.