Mixing Socrates and Descartes
“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.”
“I think, and therefore I am.”
the only thing
A Likely Story
At a busy intersection
under an overpass,
we came upon him late,
after he’d laid his Harley down,
and now, dazed, babbling at nothing,
he was trying to steer his bike
out of the still moving traffic.
I jumped out, helped him push it
to the curb, cars speeding by,
coming within inches of us.
I asked if he was okay–
and he looked at me,
as if for the first time.
Asked who the hell was I.
Well, I was nobody,
just a guy passing by
who stopped when others
stared, inhaled a look,
then drove around his bike.
In the car, my wife was calling
the police. She’d sent me out,
saying it was the right thing to do.
The guy said, did you hit me?
Was it you? You run me down?
I told him I hadn’t,
nor had I seen who had.
Likely story, he muttered.
His face was crimson on one side,
ghost white on the other.
He was limping. He slurred
like a drunk, but he wasn’t.
I have to go, I told him.
Thanks for nothing, he said.
Back in the car, my wife said,
Look at it this way, you’ll
probably get a story out of it.
I nodded, turned the key.
Next time, I told her,
you can have the story.
They Are Just
It’s fitting for the young to be arrogant,
to burn the wisdom of age page by page.
Shelves must be cleared to make room
for old learning learned anew.
Who trusts the dying’s heartache,
the corpse wrapped in its paper shroud?
Youth shakes loose Shakespeare
for slam stammerers. Do not complain.
There is nothing you can teach them.
What you have they do not want.
What they have you cannot win back.
They are right. They are just.
Not claiming to have what you don’t,
but to know what it is you’ve forgotten.
Make way. It’s their turn to foul things up.
James Valvis is the author of How to Say Goodbye (Aortic Books, 2011). His poems or stories have appeared in journals such as Anderbo, Arts & Letters, Barrow Street, Baltimore Review, Hanging Loose, LA Review, Nimrod, Rattle, River Styx, Vestal Review, and many others. His poetry has been featured in Verse Daily and the Best American Poetry website. His fiction was chosen for the 2013 Sundress Best of the Net. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.
Editor’s note: “Red Paint Hill” was nominated for the 2010/11 Best of the Net Awards.
Red Paint Hill
This is the confluence, the wishbone split
where Clark’s men lifted their dripping oars
out of the river and shaped the watershed
into a commerce town they could live with
dying in. Now the hill’s a cemetery for
Revolutionaries like Virgil Deathridge,
whose name sounds too damn mythical
to mean anything genuine here in 2010.
We’d be unimpressed with his outdated
version of Hell: musket fire and gangrene
too tame for the likes of our chemical rage.
So enough about all that soft limestone
we carved into effigies and left towering
above the bones of the men they resemble.
The river tribes knew better than to chisel
their names into stone, which in the end
is owned by no one but the falling rain.
I’d pray for a flood, but that seems cruel.
And why pretend to believe in such holy
wizardry? The last flood ruined two old
churches, then stopped at the threshold
of our only porn shop across the street.
A flotilla of black hymnals drifted past
the narrow doorway to Southern Secrets.
Variation on a Theme by Larry Levis
-after In the City of Light
Descending, I looked down at light lacquering fields.
A fresh layer of rainfall settled into the spaces
between soy leaves. Clouds pasted shadows
of glue across the two-lane highway.
I was home again, and I had never left
for longer than a year before driving back
to the place of my father’s birth, and mine.
All those familiar clusters
of pale vines, and small towns, each
its own city of light and growth.
How easy it was to crawl back
into the muddy womb
of river bottoms where I spent
years fishing for God knows what.
What did I want that night
with a water tower? Then the shadows of wings,
my own arms, appeared as I climbed.
The steel rungs slick beneath my sneakers.
Heaven hung above me like a flag,
black and rippled, mottled with stars.
Not much sound within earshot
to crack the stillness. Only night traffic,
then nothing. My own truck’s engine
still warm in the overgrown ditch below.
You can’t hover between heaven and earth
for long without wanting one of them
to claim your body. How easy it was,
the blind drive home. The roadmap
folded squarely in the glove box.
Some winter nights I hear them
perched in the river birch outside,
shaking snow from their wings
after a long and difficult flight.
They blend in with the bark—
ash-grey and shredded, bereft.
You tell me they don’t exist,
and my throat fills with feathers.
I point to the curling wind,
ask you how it arrived here.
Heaven-sent or kicked loose
by a gathering of hooves
along the river’s sloped banks,
the result is always the same.
I want you to feel my hands
slipping the curve of your waist
in this wine-soaked hour before
the house is sealed with sleep, but
there’s nothing worse than a swarm
of black eyes behind a windowpane.
This is what happens when prayer
wears so thin they have to descend
on our dark yard in Mississippi
with their ice-crusted bodies
to press their faces against the glass,
to remember what any of this was like.
Chris Hayes is a Tennessee native who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in creative writing at Florida State University. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Fourth River, Barnwood International, and Zone 3, among others. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife and daughter.
Frog is a musician, composer, video artist, and performance artist from Gainesville, FL.