on an autumn evening, i

by Eric Rhohenstein
The Critical Poet
First Place, February 2007
Judged by Pascale Petit

wander the north end of harnett’s farm.
his man is wrestling a tractor home across the field:
imperfect turnings, mechanical churn.
it’s as if the wheels would like to come out from under it,
do their own bit of digging,
as if they cared less about the world.

discover the carcass of a buck crumpled in an irrigation ditch.
there are two vacancies:
where its antlers were,
where its eyes have turned to jelly.
death has pressed a winter skin upon him:
frost-whitened flanks, a draft of dead air rushing in. . .

mutter something about a body’s atoms and the liver of life and god being a drunkard.
trucks downshift in the distance.

know the deer’s jaw is a busted hinge.
he is saying this:
salt me.
stuff me into a dead sheep’s gut.
smoke us back into life.
he does not ask me to listen.
it’s post-harvest and the pumpkins left behind huff out like deflating balloons;
what’s left but to marvel at the hunger of the world?

recall a night:
a field-romp,
an autumn love,
a blanket tossed down.
we draw together like bank tellers transacting:
intimately callous.

do none of this,
only dream it,
wake in spring beneath a loose blanket of un-grasped straw.

shake the blood back into a sleeping hand,
the death of it neither worked out nor stored–
simply there and gone,
so much smoke.

imagine a fish preparing to groan itself out of some ancient shallow–
thinking lung,
thinking leg–
then dropping like a plumb to measure the loss of beauty in knowing.

gather spilled seed from where it lays scattered,
cracked like witches’ teeth.

look into the wind,
await the cold-burning;
my eyelids are corn husks crushed into tinder.

watch the sun fall like a deer plowing into its eternal ditch,
but only like it;
it appears to bruise into red-anger,
to catch on stronger fire.

smell the hope-scent which festers around slit ground–
wherever it is broken.
my bones ache against the twilight;
my boots don’t make the sound i hear as the sod plugs and unplugs beneath them,
are not saying,

This poem slows me to its meditative pace. I like the way the familiar but estranging field gradually reveals its layers. I'm drawn underground through that haunting image of the buck crumpled in a ditch, and further down and back in time to the evolution of fish, into a chthonic realm where seed is "cracked like witches' teeth." The jagged stanzas are built like strata, each containing either a vivid image and/or a precise observation: the couple in a field-romp are "intimately callous." When the sun ploughs into its own ditch, that image of the deer falling gains even more weight, acquiring a mythic power. It reminds me of the Hungarian poet Ferenc Juhász's miraculous stag from folklore with the sun in its antlers. I admire this work for its depth and ambition, and the care the poet has taken to make fresh and memorable impressions of life at "the north end of harnett's farm." --Pascale Petit