A Poem as Long as California
This is my pastoral: the used-car lot
where someone read “Song of Myself” over the loudspeaker
all that 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 among 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,
sometimes changing in abrupt turns
of speed, as though a new voice 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
pushed against a concrete island, the forgotten melon
in its 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 take-out 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, “A Poem as Long as California” from The Galleons. Copyright © 2020 by Rick Barot. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Milkweed Editions, www.milkweed.org.