Robert Hill Long is a runner up in the Marlboro Review Prize in Poetry for his poem, "The Book of Joel", selected by Chase Twichell

The Book of Joel

Parable of Luck

The beach house, when we drove up, was hedged with figs;
when we returned from our first swim, starlings clung
like predatory fruit to the fig bushes they'd stripped.

Then they exploded overhead in a ruckus
of wings and spiteful noise-nearly Biblical,
I thought, a parable of how sudden bad luck is.

And while we were swimming our young friend Joel
died. He was dancing in a club, he was eighteen,
his heart failed. His parents are religious people,

they know how, in the Book of Matthew, the fig tree
falls under this heading: All these are the beginning
of sorrow
. It puts forth shoots, it is withered. Weep,

says the Book of Joel, and the Lord will bring rain
and new wine
. Too brief a book. But God took Joel dancing.

I Try Not To Think about That

His green Goodwill tee read, I May Not Be Perfect
But Parts of Me Are Excellent
. In his highchair
he directed breakfast-food plays: Joel's Toast Theater,
they named it. Like a benign Old Testament prophet

he called his big-eyed Fisher-Price figures "My people."
They left Texas at night, heading to Oregon:
"Sometimes it all seems like a dream," he said. "You mean
driving through the dark?" Bill asked. "No, I mean the day. All

the days." He was eight. They searched his backpack for clues
to the inexplicable, and found Rabbit, Run,
his camera and journal, Great Expectations,
Kerouac's Book of Dreams. Bill asked, "When you wake from this

dream, will it be better?" Bill launched the coffin's prow
with a song: "I'm going to be perfect, starting now."

Parable of Water

We lived in an estuary of assurances
I'd just written, wry nostalgia for my boyhood—
a safe one, near a boring river. After that
first line a boy died. Not mine, but one just past the age

my safe one is, whose heart kicked its two-step dance
routine. Just this June, his name was summoned on stage
like my son's, a purple-robed high-school graduate
urged to swing into his next life, and there make good

on the promise his parents made from a few ounces
of fluent love. His next life, I understood,
is no river. Strangers laid him out on the street.
I quit writing. Then the sky floated an image:
clouds. I found his small one. Above it, his mother's—
breaking up more slowly–tracked the small cloud downriver. The Dyer's Head
The last five years we watched Joel's ideas ripen hues
in the mild Northwest berry seasons of his hair.
Experiments with marionberry maroons,
blueberry bangs, streaks of green blackberry runner.

Teaching college, I was used to heads exploding
in new dyes week to week, like a pack of Day-Glo
kids markers busted open. Heads deciding
to signature the air for each bright rush of the new

gusting through the centuries to change their quick lives.
They drank smoothies, and bloomed Titian blue. The pale
Apollo torso urged color on them. Joel's beliefs
arched out of the old covenant: in his spectral

mind, each strange view fruited rainbows that talked back.
When they parked him in walnut, his hair was dyed black.
Joel as Ezekiel, Singing Wheels of Fire

He had a fifties car, and fifties hair: basic black.
He could have groomed both to a wax-museum gleam
but liked his head spiky; his Plymouth Cranbrook

chugged and waddled like a fat widow. Joel felt at home
fiddling with props for the role he could not afford
to claim until he'd aged enough to let it play him

for decades. A young man fast-forwards the past, weird
trick, until it furnishes him with a history
that trues his life. Joel's Bungalow of Old Cool Records

is where I see him, fifty, building community;
serving communion, too, through loudspeakers crammed with dead
bluesmen shouting Yeah! at bins of antique LPs.

A white Les Paul hangs by the cash till. His gray head
hums Albert King; Born Under a Bad Sign puts him to bed.

Parable of Irrational Numbers

From every angle it does not solve, Joel's zero,
this hole square in the middle of the imagined
end page of a life that had so many numbers
naturally waiting to become anniversaries.

For two months Joel crossed America from one end
to the other, a pilgrim making memories
he would someday withdraw from undated chambers
of the heart, in a night of wine and smoke, to show

a lover or a son all he'd learned in that slow
pioneer drive crossing through his childhood countries—
Minnesota, Texas, Oregon. Understand:
his triangle's sum is zero. Then remember

him returning, glad — the end of his travels new—
to tell his parents: I have so much to tell you.

Time Trial

Prosecution's opening statement: Saint Francis,
clear the room of birds. Jesus, quit your wound display.
The poor dead we know will be forever with us

but too many jam the galleries today.
Each one can be a bird when Jesus starts his
encore Sermon on the Mount outdoors. We're in a gray

zone here: how to nail the defendant with the crime
of being jury, judge and executioner
and being nowhere and everywhere at once. Time

never answers our charges in particular
questions of murder. Time will only offer sublime
vistas of clouds. Of silent granite gardens where

victims quietly turn witness for the defense.
I enter Joel's quieted face in evidence.

Means and Ends

What's worse than dying young–scrounging roadside bottles,
fiftyish, drunk. The ex-logger canvasses the park
for barefoot hippies to buy these old running shoes.
His soles are horny, they can last until the next

good deal. He scored an antique steel gridiron, too—
know anyone old enough to prefer waffles
cooked on the burner? Each deal's the means to the next
brownbag forty of Pabst, muddying the nurse–shark

pinpoints of his eyes that guard his durable truths
against getting drunk with the adventuresome lies
meant to regale his marks and probation officer.

He'd trade skin and soul for a drink. It simplifies
my limits: I can't trade mine for Joel's lived-out youth.
"Keep those shoes on," I say, and tithe him with a dollar.

Reasons That Reason Doesn't Know

Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death,
wrote Pascal, and lay down with a migraine. Reason
numbs the wanderlust itching each novice beneath
the robe his vows roped him in. Footprints on the moon

spell the airless word at the end of our evening walks
where stars keep thinking What if, and banked roses breathe
yellow to envy of their stilled content. What stalks
this restlessness from room to room but a heart that seethes

its nomad muscle in milk our mothers expressed?
Meaning: Still the hunger that white shower feeds. Calm
the wave of thirst you want to walk on like the palm
of God, who grew new fruit far from our homes as a test.

I just checked the stars. Joel's earth is traveling still.
I go back in to Pascal, whose thought makes me ill.

Parable of Sleepwalking

The blue–tailed skink starts and stops along the roof peak—
hunger's errand, transacted fifty times a day
fifty times higher than its six-inch-length—
alternating the spurt of habit, the stutter-step

of care. Its death is catbird-quiet in a white oak;
its lifeline consists of sugar ants on their way
through an attic window to the kitchen. The strength
of hunger aims them at some sweet spill missed by the mop.

Wake up, Rumi sang: You're drunk, and on the edge of the roof.
His listeners stretched prayer carpets on the sand
and believed. At night they climbed the roof and got drunk.

Most of us ground our faith one step at a time. The skink
is trying to finish lunch when the catbird lands.
Joel's heart missed a step. The catbird's song is proof.

Nuites Americaines

Through a glass darkly is how I saw the West was shot.
John Wayne overturned a desert rock, searched the dead
Comanche's face, and plugged his eyes. A soul cannot

track its ancestors once the lights of its death head
are burst. Movies were speed with a morphine chaser—
childhood's legal weekend drug. Then the blackness read

The End. Houselights pushed me out, the sun's eraser
rubbed out each actor's phantom life; mine, too. Day for night
is the trick filter Paul used like a hack director

to darken the role Jesus played in the white light
of one rule: love, plain and strong as the crayon sun
that lords the first page Joel drew, before movie screens

made him search out new roles projected in the flight
of illusions speeding through the eye of John Wayne's gun.

A Music Theory of Premonitions

Summer coyotes composed a pure A-minor chord
against the Grand Tetons. They loped along the lake
in concert, never altering the interval's ache
that tunes midnight to its groundnote and flattened third

and there prepares each sleeper in his mummy bag
and backpack tent for the minor apocalypse
of dreams where every daylight doubt wakes, unzips
the flimsy scrim of the body and blows like a rag

of cold mist choiring after the coyote-song.
We drove to the mountains to dissolve the city,
Tough the siren never quits crying emergency—
altering nothing but its voice grown wild and strong

enough to blow loose any unstaked solo tent
whose dreamer chased the one coyote running silent.

Parable of Shadows

What turns cities gray are ghosts: that's where they answer
monotonous inquiries about the future
in monotones of ash, exhaust, and verdigris.
The residue they leave is like a sustained kiss—

on this portico that sheltered one's live embrace;
on that marble sill where another leaned her face
into her arms and listened to the song of sirens
and taxis, and weighed the summer she held the reins

of a milk-paint horse, and no one called her in at dark.
The city ghosts touch gray is a moon-luminous ark,
they're its true passengers. The living are ballast,
perishables with no sure date stamped as their last.

Something stilled in them wants the facades to keep graying.
What the dead do with their colors, they're not saying.

Smoke and Mirrors

I want to be honest, I tell Joel's cigarette,
and need to lie. I'm talking to a flame smaller
than the tongue of Odysseus in whatever
circle of hell made Dante, in his wool robe, shiver

in the art of telling lies for special effect:
the hardest basic lesson always, when the aim
is truths that get you tossed out by the very same
city fathers whose children will pronounce your name

with reverence once exile leaves you derelict,
then dead of some obscure fever. In my courtyard
my luck holds: my loves, my home safe, still, sequestered
from this boy's death that beats my friends' hearts too hard

for them to bear hearing each good lie I won't reject
until the coroner writes how Joel's heart got wrecked.


Joel, they carved the grave turf in six pieces equal
to zones of your closed body, parts you will not use
but to stun our visits with undivided repose.
Your feet: finished dancing. They lock their long sequel

of calf and knee and thigh into fixed acknowledgment.
Your boy-god sex will never deliver a child
into your hands, those two self-taught teachers. They styled
your rainbow hair; sketched chairs, bowls, bits of craft you meant

to master in the heart's household. It was apt to break
its handiwork many times more, until mind and soul
worked out their lifelong repair in memories. These heal
worlds wounded piecemeal by love's repeated mistake:

the dream of your body outlasting your father's claim
on death first. On you, tending the cut grass of his name.

Joel, Singing Proverbs
The earth is not satisfied with water. Waters
flowed over my head; I said, I am cut off.
But I was set up from everlasting, before
the earth was, when there were no depths, no fountains of
abounding water. Before mountains were settled,
before the hills I was sung forth. He had not made
the fields, the whole sum of the dust of the world
I was there when he set a circle upon the face
of the deep, when he made firm the skies. When he gave
the sea its decree that the waters should not transgress
I knew he would bring me rain to drink in my grave.
What I have sung to you is a psalm of the grass.
We are no more divided than light from water.
Where you look, I listen. The rain has a father.

A Lullaby for Surviving

Wire grass,
creek-willow sedge
and sassafras
stanch the sunburnt edge

of evening's western coast. A catbird,
charcoal touched red, ignites the first syllable
of night's original word--
the culminating, indivisible

flame that tips each cattail's taper
to light the sky indigo. Worlds blacken
where night-words smoke the Bible paper
clouds to ash: no revising Joel back in

the light blue breath of days. Let his name anneal
my mouth. Tomorrow has other wounds to heal.

Parable of Lines

Sonnets like families are a matter of lines
intersecting well or not. Unforgettable,
that's what mothers and poets want for the trouble
they push their bodies through: this creation refines

its maker's urge to make it better as it hungers
out of whichever opening birth's body made,
into this sum of unspeakable lights that have played
across the face of genesis waters longer

than even God, our firstborn, knows. Where is the face
I had before I was born? Joel should have asked this
of his mother once. That question's pain is worth the kiss
she could not answer with. Each line I erase

was a mistake of breath; another breath gets it right.
Two lines fall short here. Joel: goodnight.

Joel William Rossi, 1980-1999

Robert Hill Long's poems, prose poems and flash fictions have appeared in anthologies -- Best American Poetry (Touchstone), 1996 Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry (Monitor Books), Flash Fiction (W.W. Norton), Drive, They Said (Milkweed Editions) and in numerous journals across America. His books include The Work of the Bow, which received the 1995 Cleveland Sate University Poetry Center Prize, The Power to Die, and a book of flash fictions, The Effigies. Robert Hill Long currently teaches at the University of Oregon.

Copyright 2004© Robert Hill Long

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