Exile

by Lois P. Jones
PenShells
First Place, February 2011
Judged by Kwame Dawes


You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first. — Dante Alighieri

Memory impales like an old cut of wood.
It leaves me in this field — a scarecrow

with the sky for a head gathering clouds
for a lost country. Stripped down to nothing

but this owl on my outstretched arm.
I think of how your mother draws you out

of the Packard for the view. Somewhere
on your journey from Alexandria to Genoa.

At the top of a hill you look down
into yourself. Florence unfolds in front of you

in a river of green silk. Vineyards and olive groves,
red roofs aflame in the August heat,

the Palazzo del Bargello and its prison of ghosts.
And you weep with visions of a man in red robes

and eyes so full of rain. Years later at the tip
of a question it comes back –

the country you could not save,
the poems you wrote to douse the blaze for a land

that forgot its noblest son, the fever before your collapse.
I say that exile is a kind of death where loss is found

in every beautiful thing – a postcard, a sunset, a sonnet,
the way light kindles a wooden floor, jasmine

and rose water, moonlight on the tongue. The truth is
nothing ever leaves you and hell is an illusion

of landscape. Take these wounds worn in wood. The heart
hollowed in dust. I’ll bring what’s left, to burn.


Here is an elegant meditation on exile marked by statements that suggest wisdom—something felt deeply and understood even if only via the imagination. One actually believes that “the truth is/ nothing ever leaves you”, and because we do, we are willing to take the leap and believe also that “hell is an illusion/ of landscape”. The recurring wood image does not always hold up: how does an “old cut of wood” impale different from a new cut of wood, for instance? But that is a small thing, almost completely redeemed by the line “Take these wounds worn in wood”. Poets must pay careful attention to the tiniest things like prepositions and articles. Sometimes the care shows up beautifully here, sometimes it does not. Nonetheless, this is fine poetry when it is in full song: “I say that exile is a kind of death where loss is found//in every beautiful thing—a postcard, a sunset, a sonnet,…” beautiful stuff. --Kwame Dawes

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