Curtis Bauer

A Splinter Becoming a Burning Plank

If you run your hand down
the length of a 2˝ x 6˝ piece of age-smoothed pine
to feel the grain of the wood and you
don’t lift it in time to keep the timber
from becoming part of your palm,
like you became part of the girl
everyone had kissed by the end of summer
in a ditch beside a gravel road,
the pain you feel isn’t immediate
like the sky above you or the ground
humming between your feet. So
you might look at the four-inch splinter
piercing the flesh that used to be yours
and consider a word like acumen, or sapience;
you might think of the farmer who fell
from the hay loft onto a pitchfork
upturned in the manger
then walked to the house
to die in the arms of his wife,
but now the pain is rushing
your mouth and can’t wait to squeeze
out, reckless like suffering built
up over time, and you wonder
if words like love and death have
anything to do with a splinter, with
a cracked piece of pine useless like
an image that has been folded too thin
over years to hold a memory of desire or duty
from wandering through
like the steers standing on the lawn
the morning the farmer walked out
of his house to feed them.
They stood as if the feedlot
had a welcome mat
and they’d wanted to wipe
their hooves before stepping back
into the rain-cleansed lot, but chance
left them dumb with new freedom
to track the green lawn a black
that would take months
of rain and heat to erase.
They were out because they could be,
because the posts and planks
that stretched to make a lot
had shattered in the herd’s silent push
out of the barn, and
before they were aware of place
they stood outside the lot looking
in at the others looking out,
like the night twenty years before
when you sat in a ditch with a girl
and two other boys and waited your turn
for a kiss. The men at the party stood
at a cattle tank filled with beer and ice
and smoked and talked while the women
whispered at the picnic tables. Someone
shouted above the music, above the yellow
yard light creating a line of hidden and seen,
for more rocky mountain oysters,
more beer. Laughter rolled across
the lawn like soft wind through summer
tall weeds, and the cattle nudging through
the dark in the pasture beside the ditch and
the corn across the road standing
in its communal murmur watched it pass.
Each boy was having his turn.
Young enough to feel your heart
leap with each kiss, you were the inexperienced
son of a farmer who would one day hire
you out to her father. Was she responsible
for teaching you more than desire or
was her kindness the agonizing death
waiting on the tines of a pitchfork? If you say
she held your hand while she kissed your
brother and that changed your life forever,
say you have thought about that kiss
every night, and didn’t know how to
remember it so maybe none of this
would have happened. Now
there should be silence and open space,
and dark because it’s almost winter
and you have not seen any of these things.
You are in this poem because I don’t have
the courage to say I’ve forgotten
it was me touching the lips of a girl
in the dark, feeling the stab of a splinter,
or that the man falling on the pitch fork
was really my grandfather who fell through
the floor of a corncrib and walked to his
house on a crushed ankle but didn’t
want to die or be held by
the arms of the woman he didn’t love.
Ninety-seven was the worst year, and I am back
at the barn where I watched my hand
become foreign. The wind stopped blowing
three months ago, after the night
it mowed the windbreak pine and dappled
the barn and house roof with holes.
The fallen trees are piled below
the cottonwood waiting for someone
to start the fire that will burn the sun-dried
leaves and pine needles, the twigs and branches
caked with sap that will catch and pull the flame
inside and bellow smoke out to lose itself in
the color of bleached sky.
This man sits while I stand; we watch
the fire grow and the air fill with ash
as old as the wind that carries it. The empty
sound of the barn and corncribs, the cattle lots
and farrowing house are disguised as wood
snapping and fighting the fire’s heat, unwilling
to burn before its time—there is no use.
Like the splinter inside my palm,
like this man fallen through the floor, like
the boy after he’d acted like a man, the fire
catches and burns from the center out and
fills the air with sparks that catch the hog house
roof and a pile of planks this man remembers
lay in its rafters. Maybe he knew their worth
and mine, maybe he asked if I would save
the wood because he’d lived his life saving,
maybe there was disgust and despair
in his voice when he’d realized
I hadn’t learned what he wanted.
If the wood was a man waiting to die,
and the flames licking the rafters a man
waiting to forget, nothing would change.
I refused. Fear is easy in the face of fire,
beneath the shingles trickling tar drops,
under the weakened rafters collapsing
and the planks popping and snapping
inside the shrinking walls, but salvation
is a trick to make us think.
We watched, my grandfather squinting
from his chair, me standing with my hands
in tact, wondering if anything turned out
the way it was planned. If I could say
the wrong fire was started by the wind
that splintered the trees, and the wrong boy kissed
the wrong girl, and the wrong man was dying
in the chair beside me I would pray
to the god of smoke and the god of stench
and the god of this man’s thoughts
to become the wind and blow this fire
down to a lingering flicker that won’t burn
the charred bark to cinders and scatter it
across the fields, but leave the fire-hollowed
trunks broken and black, oblivious
to the rain and wind and let them both
creep slowly back into the ground.

Curtis Bauer
From the poetry collection Fence Line (BkMk Press 2004)
Poem, copyright © 2004 by Curtis Bauer
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission
Audio file, copyright © 2005, From the Fishouse