Elegy for the Mattresses Sleeping in the Past
BY BRIAN TIERNEY
Texas shipped up the horns, & Kansas put the bodies under them
the signs says, as if history were matter of poundage.
I was born at four, seven & some spare ounces, no more
than a steer’s leg those Junes in the Bluestem Pastures.
Cowboy Junes. Junes of saddles broken into red sand
like all the oldest books. Like my Rosina, my Anna, yes
the Cardarellas & the Meehans, all the ones who waited
to cross on cattle ferries, to die in ways only butchers
would’ve known about, ways none of them imagined
as they watched the Adriatic grow smaller in the leave,
waving to those too old to travel. After a while, even
the patina tumors of Wyoming sagebrush sprouting
around mesas half-erected by God, tilted West, & farther
west, & west, & west: into the great deserts of light.
Even the Spanish nuns in the rocky-pass monastery
a few miles outside Laramie, perched in buzzard-black
gowns, wished the many stars had ears in the pew-less
churches of the mountain’s universe. And once, over
streets named for states, on a balcony, the North face
of the Rockies, I thought of my father, the white boils
on his knuckles, the light in his eyes floating like a fly
in Scotch, & coming home late from the city, staying up
through the REM cycles of prairie-gray kids, anserine
vagrants choosing trees in the new heat, like Jack Kerouac.
And in every window in the 1:30 L-train: a lit sin waiting
for the orange underworld to snuff it like a cigarette
cherry, & I could tell you Jesus was a raindrop on the rail
on East 17th Street. And I could say it was The Buddha
pushing his stone of cans to the repository, a field nurse
wheeling blown ends to build a fire somewhere never
caught on film. I could write you an equation of faces
on the I-70 corridor, forgotten like high school algebra.
I could blow a sad trumpet for the man in the apartment
two blocks up, North Oakland, still as a bald mannequin
sipping honey-colored liquor from a delicate, cut glass
that catches the one lamp turned on in the Pacific night,
& I could say the whole room was a leafy dream closing
over a flashlight in a bear pit, & could grab your hand
to take you to where new flowers do not know us
in the liberating dark. But in valleys near San Joaquin,
while kit foxes eat tomatoes alone, late-night, listening
intently for slipper-footed coyotes, grape-pickers stir
in the outer sheds, praying to Our Lady of the Elder Twigs
for what grows tender, like bruises, while the mattresses
laid in the highway yards, go on sleeping in the past.
*Note: Parts of the last two lines are adapted from Pablo Neruda’s poem “Youth,” as translated by Robert Bly: “the mattresses sleeping in the past.”