Bill Brown just retired as a part-time lecturer at Vanderbilt University. He has authored five poetry collections, three chapbooks and a textbook. His three current collections are The News Inside (Iris Press 2010), Late Winter (Iris Press 2008) and Tatters (March Street Press 2007). Recent work appears in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, Tar River Poetry, English Journal, Southern Poetry Review, Connecticut Review, Atlanta Review, Asheville Poetry Review, and Southern Humanities Review. Brown wrote and co-produced the ITV series, Student Centered Learning for Nashville Public Television. The recipient of many fellowships, he recently received the Writer of the Year 2011 award from the Tennessee Writers Alliance.
The Light That follows Rivers
Like the light that follows rivers in the night,
a figure hovers ghostlike in my dreams,
my father or stranger, sometimes the same,
his blue eyes stained with thoughts to read.
His gruff hands hover luminous in my dreams,
above my childhood slumber they touch my head.
His blue eyes like his hands I wish to read—
yet I am older than my father when he died.
Above my childhood slumber they touched my head—
his eyes, his hands, his storied voice, all lullabies.
Though I am older than my father when he died,
as men we travel alone, I know that now.
His eyes, his hands, his storied voice, all lullabies,
my father, my stranger, always the same—
as men we travel lonely, I know that now
like the light that follows rivers in my dreams.
You’ve been dead
almost as long as you lived,
and still birds
eat black oil at the feeder,
the little house
you built when I was twelve.
Like everything dead,
it is falling apart. Cardinals
don’t mind. Today, ideas flit
in and out
like blowing leaves, maple and gum.
the ground as I try to pick the one
I need to
hold me here. I lie in them and,
beneath my hips—I become a museum
pharaoh, my chin
sticks out, my nose points to the sky,
my eyes almost
blind to the circle of buzzards scouting
Some days just focus on winter and death—
would argue with physics, not in the solstice
shorter days blink by, feed on memories—
a father dead,
a feeder’s decay. Leaves make their own bed,
and I lie in it.
Today the Goddess of December relies
on these infant
touch, as I
fondle dry veins of maple with fingertips,
my own death
buried beneath me, and daydream how
rubbed my cheek when I was young.
Post Contemporary Romanticism
Back forty years, canoeing the Buffalo River,
current swept me close to the left bank.
I ducked to avoid a branch, and spied
a hummingbird perched on her nest inches
from my head. Amazed, I thought I would
never be blessed with such a moment again.
I was wrong.
On my bike ride
this morning—five bluebirds, a mink family,
a murder of crows badgering a barred owl,
and a migrating grebe fishing Sulfur Fork.
The grebe dove and swam holding its breath
seventy seconds—I stopped to count—
and thought about hundreds of years of its
ancestors feeding at the same stream
on their journeys.
In my writing class
a young girl fancies herself a poet like Keats.
I watch her compose, wording down the page.
She stops, shrugs shoulders, shakes head.
(Parts of her brain are talking; perhaps her
seat of emotions advises her frontal lobe.)
A light bulb turns on, she smiles and is
at it again with more intensity.
If you think
the Age of Miracles is past, or the title
of this poem seems an oxymoron—
pay attention—in this broken human world,
small miracles still emerge before us,
even amidst the quicksand of vanity,
all is vanity, even cynicism, even sorrow.
The river speaks as lyrical and hopeful
as a mother explaining a rule to a child or
the lyrics of a song or the reason “no” is an
answer as “yes” is an answer—
The flow of it is the river moving
around boulders, around willow and sycamore
roots that reach from the bank like witches’
fingers to grasp what floats just below the
surface of what a mother means to say—
Like wind in fir trees, a language
made at the same instant by tree and wind—
one that must be made by both or it is silent—
mute the way a child knows silence, what
a mother means before she finishes and both
must be present or there would be no need
This is why stories explain the dead
who live in memory of mother speaking
to children about uncles, aunts and grandparents
who must be saved to instruct the hearts about
not forgetting until the last child knows to speak
to her children about the characters and language
and song and food, always food, and rules made
for them, especially by the dead ones who must
live in other lives—
Because river and wind in firs have
the need to be listened to like mothers, and can bear
messages a small child knows are important by
rhythm and sound even before she can speak—
Why the poet must tell the reader about
her mother’s hands, her grandmother’s language,
her biscuits, her hate of waste because of the Great
Depression and all the wars, about the rules that will
help us learn to live until we die.
Let the teachers teach English and I will teach baseball. There is a lot of people in the United States
who say isn’t, and they ain’t eating.—Dizzy Dean
In the clinic a fevered old man told a nurse
that he was more worser. It should have burned
my English teacher ears, but I was concerned
for the man’s health. He explained that he
had been at home sick, came to the clinic
the first time because he was worse and
returned today because he is more worser.
He certainly got his point across, one of
language’s major functions. His speech
might keep him out of law school and equate
him with a lower caste, but he is a farmer
on the ridge of Robertson County where
tire is often pronounced tar, and Hi are you
is one word—Hiryah. Once at a college reading
by poet, James Still, a student asked him
if he had known many illiterate people
in the mountains of Kentucky. Still told
the young man that he didn’t use the word
illiterate because it too often meant stupid,
and that some of the wisest people he knew
were unlettered. So today my neighbor is more
worser, and as a retired English teacher at the clinic
for a checkup, I’m more better than I thought.
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