American Night

by James Thomas Fletcher
The Waters
Second Place, May 2021
Judged by Sarah Carleton

The electricity disappears and I know
this is no mere flicker so I go outside
to sit in that rare darkness when all lights,
inside and out in the world are dead.

There in the chilly deep rain I watch
the absence of light. I would say blackness
but it’s not. Even the clouds seem somehow lit
like what French filmmakers call American night.

The rain sounds like echoes inside tin cans
until the elephant-low rumble of thunder begins,
ending in splinters of sound that raise
the staccato voices of dogs in the distance.

Thunder moves slowly in stereo from the far
east to the edge of the western horizon.
I hear voices drift through the night knowing
that’s not possible. My feet are damp and cold.

From a house across the lake a lone pinprick
of light. A single candle almost undetectable
becomes a focal point. Later within another
a ghostly light traverses one window then another

like will-o’-the-wisp. At times spotlights arch
through the trees like a spinning zoetrope
as someone returns home to an uninviting house.
What may be a raccoon slinks through the bushes.

The air is fresh. It smells like nothing
—simply fresh. Clean. Then lightning takes
a negative of the scene for too short a time
to focus before all is lost again to grayness.

The night is silent between booms. I enjoy
the solitude amid the silence of the natural.
Somewhere above, meteors sizzle through the sky.
The moon shines bright above the clouds.

And I, alone, direct the night.

“American Night" is wonderfully filmic. The singular quality of blackout darkness in a storm is so well described that I feel like I'm sitting out there, too, watching it roll by. The poet expertly compresses language and imagery within a narrative structure, yet the poem has a timeless, unhurried feel. Reading it, I can hear the slow rise of thunder, see the bits of light from candles and spotlights, and feel that goose-bump sense of being alone in the company of the universe. --Sarah Carleton