A Poem as Long as California

Rick Barot

This is my pastoral: that used-car lot
where someone read Song of Myself over the loudspeakerall 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 phraseshovering 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 chantfor a sustained hour. I never saw them,
I didn’t know the words they sang, but I could feelmy breath running heavy or light
as the hour’s abstract narrative unfolded, rising and fallinglike 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 poemwhere 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 carthumped 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 eatsthe takeout fried chicken in their car,
not talking, trading the parts of the meal among themselvesin 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 SixthAvenue, 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 sweetnessflowed night and day from the artesian well at the corner,
where the poor got their water. And this isalso my pastoral: in 1502, when Albrecht Dürer painted
the young hare, he painted into its eyethe window of his studio. The hare is the color
of a winter meadow brown and gold, each strand of furlike 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.

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Rick Barot’s most recent book of poems is Chord, which received the UNT Rilke Prize and the PEN Open Book Award.

Tin House

Volume 19, Number 2

Portland, Oregon

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