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A Poem as Long as California

This is my pastoral: that used-car lot
where someone read Song of Myself over the loudspeaker

all afternoon, to customers who walked among the cars
mostly absent to what they heard,

except for the one or two who looked up
into the air as though they recognized the reckless phrases

hovering there with the colored streamers,
their faces suddenly loose with a dreamy attention.

This is also my pastoral: once a week,
in the apartment above, the prayer group that would chant

for a sustained hour. I never saw them,
I didn't know the words they sang, but I could feel

my breath running heavy or light
as the hour's abstract narrative unfolded, rising and falling

like cicadas, sometimes changing in abrupt
turns of speed, as though a new cantor had taken the lead.

And this, too, is my pastoral: reading in my car
in the supermarket parking lot, reading the Spicer poem

where he wants to write a poem as long
as California. It was cold in the car, then it was too dark.

Why had I been so forlorn, when there was so much
just beyond, leaning into life? Even the cart

humped on a concrete island, the left-behind grapefruit
in the basket like a lost green sun.

And this is my pastoral: reading again and again
the paragraph in the novel by Delillo where the family eats

the takeout fried chicken in their car,
not talking, trading the parts of the meal among themselves

in a primal choreography, a softly single consciousness,
while outside, everything stumbled apart,

the grim world pastoralizing their heavy coats,
the car's windows, their breath and hands, the grease.

If, by pastoral, we mean a kind of peace,
this is my pastoral: walking up Grand Avenue, down Sixth

Avenue, up Charing Cross Road, down Canal,
then up Valencia, all the way back to Agua Dulce Street,

the street of my childhood, terrifying with roaring trucks
and stray dogs, but whose cold sweetness

flowed night and day from the artesian well at the corner,
where the poor got their water. And this is

also my pastoral: in 1502, when Albrecht Dürer painted
the young hare, he painted into its eye

the window of his studio. The hare is the color
of a winter meadow brown and gold, each strand of fur

like a slip of grass holding an exact amount
of the season's voltage. And the window within the eye,

which you don't see until you see, is white as a winter sky,
though you know it is joy that is held there.

Rick Barot

Tin House

Volume 19, Number 2

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