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Autobiography with Joseph

Sometimes there are
only stars, waiting
to bow down. Sometimes
there are only fat oxen.
But then, with no warning,
they've thrown you
in a pit, sold you, bound
you in Egyptian jail.
It's dark there, you don't
speak the language.

I left this unfinished
forty years ago. What can
I tell you? Nothing changes.
The skies do still (the right
place, the right time) reveal
themselves magnanimous
with stars, but I've yet
to master the syntactic
quirks in the insular
vernacular of darkness.

Luckily, every
year in mid-July
or so, a fresh
crop of crickets,
keen, intuitive,
with unparalleled
linguistic acumen,
will all at once
noisily arrive
and till their
departure at
the first frost,
offer nightly

The darkness, it turns
out, is even more at odds
than we, hourly wavering
from jubilation—eleven
sheaves of wheat down
on their knees—to what
can only be described
as melancholia:

darkness of a copse
of firs, moonless
dark, darkness
of the clouds
eclipsing darkness,
darkness of the sky
before the heralded
arrival, or perhaps even
greater darkness after
the departure
of those desperate,
prostrate stars. . .

Is there anyone
who couldn't tell
this story? Sometimes
darkness, sometimes stars?

Your one good garment—
an indulgence from your distant father—
stolen off your back
and stained with blood?

Van Gogh even told it. You don't
believe me? Go to MoMA.
Press through the crowds
taking selfies. Surely, it's no
coincidence that Starry Night
contains precisely—count them—
eleven stars. He knew his Bible,
Van Gogh, had studied it for years,
once planned to be a pastor like his father.

Perhaps—who knows—he'd
have been better off with God;
he'd certainly have avoided
swallowing that lead-filled paint
(cadmium yellow, his favorite).
We, however, would be
seriously diminished, have
only cursory experience of
apple orchards in spring, olive
groves, almond blossoms, cypresses,
what crows over a wheat field
can unwittingly accomplish. We'd
have to trust our own deficient eyes.

Just as I, without Joseph,
couldn't have begun
to write a poem. Where
would I have found
the fatal wherewithal
without the provocation
of those prostrate
sheaves of wheat,
that makeshift
kowtowing across
the heavens, its
eleven chosen
to earth
until they're
at my feet?

Of course!—how did I miss this?
They're shooting stars:
the bent backs, the prostrate torsos,
the curve of obeisance, genuflection—
the arc of a meteor across a sky
one brief spectacular salaam.
Unless it's the gilt tip of a scepter
straining to anoint you from some vastly
inaccessible and soon-to-be-
dubious beyond, its outsized
visitation impossibly bright,
compelling your for-once-intact attention
on an errand so drastic, so formidable,
it holds even ensuing time at bay.
Nonetheless, it's very quickly gone.

Sometimes there are only stars
waiting to bow down,
only afterwards
(and then for years
and years) a flimsy
harvest of famished corn.

Jacqueline Osherow

Southwest Review

Volume 102, Number 2

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