Permafrost; Icon; If Birds Mean Something
By: Justin Rigamonti
After wobbling 400 million miles
through ice cold space, the little craft
lands on a pitch of scree.
It gestures with an eight-foot robotic arm.
A convex eye
sends back fuzzy photos
to all those huddled in the viewing room.
Mr. Watson, come here,
I want to see you, one man whispers
before pulling a lever,
and back on Mars
the robot reaches for a single pebble,
lifting it to the lens,
filling the 10-foot screen back home
with bluish rock.
One man thinks of his old, dead mother.
One thinks of the far-away glitter
in a lover’s eye.
One remembers that Mr. Watson
recorded the words differently than Bell,
Come here, I want you.
The pebble sits in the viewer, unmoved.
The robot waits for a command.
A man was killed on the far end of this field—
pheasant hunting, a scramble of guns.
No one’s sure what happened,
but after the dust and copper feathers settled
they found him spread eagle in a patch of thistle,
flannel soaked red. They say sweat beaded
on his forehead in a glistening grid. His eyes
like two dark swirls, gaped quietly,
swallowing the sky, the odd trail of clouds,
and he said, “Listen, it’s alright friends
come here, tell my wife, and
did I get the bird?” A bunch of them leaned in
and said “Yeah, we got him, don’t worry, friend,
we got him” and his eyes went black, and they took the glossy corpse
and carefully stuffed it, straw, or sawdust, they tell that part
both ways, wept as they did it, and set him in a frozen strut on the mantle
where they all could see, a wire through his iridescent
blue feathered neck, and on the side of his face, masked in a blood-bright wattle,
they put a fierce yellow bead for an eye.
If Birds Mean Something
If crows mean present-gloom, and owls
mean present-mind, and little red birds
mean all the present moments, each bird signifying
one eye-full, skin-full, of conscious life,
then what’s implied, and by whom, when I wake up
to a sparrow chirring in the tree outside the glass?
That’s the question. If we take the falling hawk
to be an omen, then someone must have sent it,
and if we take the feathered pool of red birds
ebbing round your ankles to mean being-here
then someone must be trying to wake you.
But who would be telling you about presence?
What god would do that? And if not a god, what devil
works against you, trying to wrench your mind
away from all this song?
Justin Rigamonti teaches writing at Portland Community College, where he is serving as the 2019-2020 Writer-in-residence; he also helps run two literary non-profits, Poetry Press Week and Fonograf Editions.
Interview with the Poet:
CNP: Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry?
Justin Rigamonti: Yeah, a few. One was the poem that taught me what a poem can do, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Nightingale-- the way Coleridge's thought meanders, "runs a course of lucky events," as Frost puts it, ending with those lines about his son looking up in wonder at the moon-- it did something to me I can still feel right now as I write this. Another was the poem that pulled me into the magic of poetry, Trying To Tell You Something by Robert Penn Warren. And then to round out a trio of Old White Dudes, I really fell in love with poetry the day I read Whitman's Song of Myself in the bustling courtyard of my Christian university on a gorgeous, windswept February day in Orange County. CNP: Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
JR: Well, all the poets/poems I mentioned already, plus Jack Gilbert-- The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart, Waiting and Finding-- and gosh, Sharon Olds, Danez Smith, Bob Hass, Ada Limón, I'm just looking at my shelf. But my friends are my favorite poets now, Chrys Tobey, John Brehm, Andrea Hollander, Leah Green-- whose Whitman Award-winning book The More Extravagant Feast just came out from Graywolf (available here). Y'all recently published my friend Van, too! Those were great poems (see for yourself!). CNP: Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
JR: Moody ambient music always puts me in the mood. I just hit play, look out the window, and try to open my heart to the absurdity, terror, and beauty of being alive in that moment. CNP: How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
JR: "It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life--not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion." And then: "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." CNP: Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
JR: Keep writing and reading poetry, and don't worry about it. CNP: What is your editing process like?
JR: I work on my poems until they feel done, and then I show them to my friends, who explain to me why the poems probably aren't done, and so I work on them some more, and show them to friends again, and they tell me again, and so on. CNP: When do you know that a poem is finished?
JR: Once I've shown it to my friends enough times that they sigh and relent. Also, if it feels done.