Nebraska Center for Writers

FIRST CAST
by ART HOMER

Trout and pennyroyal mint strike
the eye with that electric
glint of a battery on the tongue —
metallic, like biting foil or the first
squint of morning through the sparkle
of acacia leaves into sun and lake.
It’s no mistake I find myself here
among these silver things, knowing we
wilt quickly in the heat and rely on special
circumstance and sparse rain, take water
near its source and offend as often as please.

At the stream edge, willows shade a bed
of watercress. I cut green twigs to boil
later with the mint. My sore throat and headache
hint at thin skin. A rainbow’s belly
flashes and disappears. This whitest flesh
stays firm until cooked, melts into oily
mucilage too strong to eat. This morning
is cool and dry. Sun levers under trees
to boil the dew away. The bruised mint
cools my palms and quickens my first cast.

Reprinted with permission from
Sight Is No Carpenter
Copyright © 2005 by Art Homer
Wordtech Communications


THE DROWNT BOY
by ART HOMER

"DID THEY FIND that drownt boy yet?"
The man asking wears a new straw hat. His wife has rolled down the passenger side window. I just arrived at this Forest Service campground, Aker's Ferry, Missouri, last night. I've planned on a three-day canoe trip down the Current River with my stepson, Reese.
I am no help, though I am well informed. I know, for instance, that I'm about twenty-five miles from the cabin where I charmed doodlebugs thirty-some years ago. Having read up on the local dialect, I could tell the man he retains speech patterns Elizabethan or older (Pepys?). His forebears crossed the Atlantic speaking a country dialect archaic in Shakespeare's time. I'm thinking of the words I looked up last week, old words: cowcumber for cucumber, sparrowgrass instead of asparagus. Wrastle...chaw...bile for boil...declinations like ketch and kotch...Elizabeth's habit of dropping the terminal g in her writing....More to the point, the shift from t to d leaves modern Americans saying salad for the original sallet, ballad for ballet, and drowned for drownt.
I hadn't known there was a drownt boy.
Last night, after we'd settled in and began building a fire, I noticed the bottoms of the picnic tables in the campsite plastered with leaves, though the sandy soil was dry. The tables, lashed to the fire grills with wire, strain at the end of their tethers. A flood within the last week for sure. We are on our way to the park concession to rent canoes.
"...church group from Illinois," the man is saying, pronouncing the "s" in Illinois as do many people in the South and Midwest. "They had to pull that counselor back out. Almost lost him too. Boy told them he could swim and wouldn't wear any jacket. I hope they find him, for the parents' sake."
"When was the flood?" I ask after a polite silence for the dead and the grieving.
"Friday." (It's Tuesday.) "Fourteen foot of water come across this end of the campground."
Noting this further Elizabethanism--the plural of foot: foot; of maple, oak and pine: maple, oak and pine--I pump the hat man for more information. Is the river going to drop any further? If the rain holds off. Is it supposed to rain? Nobody knows. Would he go in the river? If he were younger, had a life jacket and somebody who was a good hand with canoes. Reese and I leave to talk to the rangers and the concessionaires.
* * *
A different testimony of the Ozarks made itself known to me after a recent camping trip. I was driving away from a campground, noticing how the sassafras grew in cuts made for the access road. As a child I pulled saplings and chewed the roots. Suddenly, from the green wall of undergrowth, through the blur of moist heat, a red-tailed hawk took flight across the road. Clutched in its talons, the reddish-yellow tinge of a copperhead writhed. In the seconds it took to cross in front of my windshield, I registered the motion of the snake as a Persian script. Its pattern burned into my vision as a moving light will trace lines on a dark-sensitized retina.
The motion, having writ and moved on, I could almost retrace from memory. But not quite. Herein lay its power for me--that I could not reconstruct it. I could recognize this as mine amongst all the other messages of time and movement: bugtracks in mud, termites under oak bark, the ampersands and exclamations of water behind river boulders and the dissolving and reforming portraits of the world that first shaped me as seen in the shadows of windblown foliage. This one message I could neither ignore nor decipher. Called and rebuffed.
Perhaps if I had remained...In that country people still know who they are, though they are as often abashed about it as proud. Would I have thought twice about the message written before my moving car? Perhaps the place would not have needed to speak to me. The snake's movement against time and death would have been written in my bones and nerve fiber by the food and air, from having first been drunk on local liquor, from having a first sexual encounter under the same canopy of leaves with a girl grown from the same red earth with whom I would have written the same script in the dry leaves of some past fall, spoken its glossolalia. And had children the same. And been preached to and taught the same. And fished and eaten and loved and hated the same....

Reprinted with permission from
The Drownt Boy: An Ozark Tale
Copyright © 1995 by Art Homer
U of Missouri P


KILLING THE CALF
by ART HOMER

What does it matter the calf danced
at your heel, balking only at rope?
You tied it to the stump and shot it
cleanly, your hand nearly steady
under the .38's weight. Strange is gray
smoke off the brain. Nothing so trite
as prayer, what it says has the shape of sky.

Yesterday, quiet after loading the truck
down to the axles with firewood, you sat
shutting out the mute woods after the saw's
scream. The scream now of children
sent back to the house. Quiet, a friend
witnesses the job done, coaches your fingers
in that frisky little dance guiding the knife.
The left hand gauges for the right the depth,
brisket to chest, to miss the taint of gut.

Your friend holds the gun while you smoke,
take a walk that cuts too deep away from hunt
toward hand-fed echoes of your own thought.
The bullet comes last. First you load shot,
the tacet primer of chores, the child taught
to teach the calf suck and nudge with those
same fingers you now edge between skin and bone.
The fine grain charge is only a way
to name what you eat.

The lengths you sectioned from deadfall
wait to be sawn and split. Wind moves
firtops in a sky which claims,
like the small matter which brought two men
into the autumn field, importance.
Though ravens gathered in the crowns are only
thoughts and will soon move off
leaving the contrast of limb and sky inviolate,
you brought home memory in the dogs
who will bring you gifts of this, will visit
this place over and over, no matter how deep
you bury the guts, disguise the ground.

Reprinted with permission from
Skies of Such Valuable Glass
Copyright © 1990 by Art Homer
Owl Creek Press

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