CANAAN
MORSE

Canaan Morse is a poet, literary translator, and researcher of ancient Chinese vernacular fiction and oral storytelling. His poems have recently been published or are forthcoming in No Contact and The Curator, while his translations of contemporary Chinese prose and poetry have been featured in Kenyon Review, Southern Review, The Baffler, and many other journals. His translations of the novels The Invisibility Cloak and Peach Blossom Paradise by Ge Fei are available via the New York Review of Books Classics Series; in 2016, The Invisibility Cloak won the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation. A Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, he’s currently serving a Fulbright fellowship in Taiwan. 

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FAMILY FARM

Family farm is a Boolean operator that cannot speak its own language.

 

Family farm is an hallucinogenic salt, or just a saline placebo LSD.  Family farm

 

is the digital printout of a rolling landscape painted with egg whites.

 

It is the crashing down; so much becomes the crashing down, but family farm

 

does so with an accent,

 

telling stories about auction halls full of Samaritans both wealthy and good.

 

Family farm is a crowded storage unit full of interest sucked out of the principal,

 

the empty lawns beneath the bouquet of shouting campaign signs. Family farm

 

blesses the bar but lets him pay for drinks, lets him resign after the argument

 

in which family farm drives itself below zero, gives up the carpet

 

and hardwood under it, forgoes its legal personhood. Forgo it.

 

Family farm is no longer even a term of convenience;

 

Family farm is the colloquial blasphemy where trailers congregate to supervise

 

family farm’s remaining biological children, still wearing her costume jewelry.

FIRST EULOGY

There sits the bereaved, all one averted gaze.

A plastic electric candlestick. Her air

is the grinding of a wool sweater

between rows of white and wooden teeth.

 

Her brother-in-law is speaking. A recitative,

second-act bass aria: he lungs righteous air,

conducts himself with a public finger,

his beard trimmed close. He sings of being

 

right – in which pursuit he’s held the record

since the two boys could pitch and catch,

trap muskrats, get grades and beatings. Of how

he always brought the car home on time

 

he sings, while his younger sandwich-bag of ash

once left the lunch table at the lake camp

in New Hampshire for a walk alone,

only to phone in August from Galveston. Not once,

 

twice. Had run casino money. Pointed a gun.

Gave up teaching to farm and write poetry, married

this pewed woman second in her own backyard

without their mother’s blessing or witness.

 

He doesn’t mention the high-school redhead,

Gretchen, or the night they blood-knuckled

each other until the mild, middle-school principal

father figure hid upstairs and wept, “I tried. I tried.”

 

So he’s now, and therefore forever, undefeatedly

correct. His favorite sister nods. His established

children wait and listen in the churchy vacuum.

Another handful of sharp-jawed siblings

 

shift inside off-the-rack blazers and chew a cheek.

The bereaved, who forbore then, still forbears.

She thinks of the summer that was two months ago,

driving her husband to the now-crowded lake

 

they sold their share of, so two old men

could sail and talk and gin and tonic. That night

for once, at dinner, they told stories together

to grandchildren: no and yes and world twice past.

 

Now, the live one is waving a shroud.

Later, he and his tribe will park blinding cars

over a matted pasture they don’t recognize.

The same grandchildren will straddle haybales,

 

the suits will follow a priest up a skidder path

to a copse of brushed-out sumac, will watch

two half-brothers, twenty-one years apart,

cut into the root-wrenched gravel bite

 

by bite with a post-hole digger and shovel,

to lower a handmade cherry box, one hand apiece

over each milled end, unnecessary for such

a diminished thing, into a new hole

 

near the collie. The old boy will hold

his son’s elbow, feel the tailored sleeve,

and under that, the banded flesh,

and under that, the sharpening spur.

WHO DID SCHUYLKILL
(IDAHO, ALASKA.)

— for Brendan O’Kane, with his blessing

I saw a ship called the United States

float derelict in Philly. My Irish-American guide

and friend says it’s a record-breaking ship.

It slashed the bearded Atlantic at 55 knots

in ’55 like pulling a cord, without elbowing

any icebergs or inspiring heartthrobs, never

adapted into anything, though it held nine

thousand pounds of beef, two theaters, prize

fighting ring, ton-weight chrysanthemums

of gilded flatware, a fireproof grand piano.

No stick of wood but the butcher’s block,

so it would never sink or burn. That left her

with one option: the whispering, heat-leaching

river current south of the Jersey factory phalanx.

Two caldera smokestacks, panoply of freckles

the hue of dried blood, bottle rocket stars

on steel cheek as vast as a collective dream

abandoned. Auctioned seventeen times

to a new design firm every decade

to slice off zeroes and imitation walnut paneling.

My guide nods at the black stumps of a scalped

pier. They’re protruding like Morse code above the sawed ribs

of something really dead. His eyes see no soul

not there, only steel blue water and combing reeds.

The ship floats; we wait. The buyer is late. 

Its brother, the unringable downtown bell,

cracks yet another unlogged hour.

ODE TO MY CAST IRON
PAN, A WEEK AFTER MY FATHER'S BROTHER DIED

Rough-element elder, you whisper one reply

to soothe doubt and worry: give me the grease,

big boy. Then you tap the sacrum shielding

your blue peony. You are seminar, major, and field,

slow rise a scale to be murmured:

soon-lethal sun held half-over the

dark audience horizon by a silent Sergei,

letting white eggs and beets, stream-shaped

bullet of floured trout

float adream in lion’s mouth.

You are oracle to be consulted

in a green linoleum kitchen before all success.

Bacon fat spooned from a tuna can

soaks your pitted breastplate:

new asphalt found by headlights

under winter rain. I named you Jolene

because the song got its logic ass-backwards:

only a man already lost learns to pursue

heavy inches, to linger in such measured

conversation, to refinish raw cheeks

he steel-scrubbed too roughly

or left wet overnight

with a smooth painting of olive oil

on dorsum, ventrum, hips, and handle,

then three hours in the oven and cordoned-

off kitchen, kept safe from the evil

one family can invent

in a single afternoon.

ANOMALY: PORTSMOUTH

No more than a cavernous smell of decaying shellfish

bloomed under the flyaway bridge to all of Maine;

no pure midden piled between the closed shipyard

and gas works and famous bay, or a shipping container

full of gel. Only an odor and Wednesday

and dark like daylight had skedaddled, left space

after crime. The kitsch district of gold serif signs

and cobbles serves beer to two friends and the assistant manager,

while gulls do their sick things unobserved,

and the nerve in the seawall’s incisor throbs.

This stench could have no source, Wednesday writes

in a scrawl: could be a pall coughed back by the tide,

a gift mouse presented by the cat, which you didn’t train

but kills like you would. Or a pond of dead lobsters

near a dock. Someone not paid enough will know.

Someone not as drunk as the tidewater that loiters

under the expressway’s halogen hallelujah.

Wednesday has scheduled a flatness like the docks;

by the time we make it to Thursday morning the sick

will be gone, and traffic back to pounding down its one rail

like leaping into an empty sky.

THE SHED THE HEART THE HOUSE

Kept dreaming a generator into this shed

— this half-built shed, hatless, leaning-to in a spit rain —

a dream of afternoon sun and cheap plywood

coming to that one gold of brook trout belly lifted

out of sand-bottomed streams, surrounding

a blue-and-black machine brick tenterhooked

inside a rollcage, tiptoeing on plastic wheels,

lubricated, some sort of crown —

                       

                                        which it isn’t, being undeliverable

again. Mislaid or refused again. A signed receipt

at a front desk by no employee of that name.

Handwritten note on a box tossed back into

the river deniability from the shipper’s cellar.

I ripped off the old porch greenhouse anyway,

driving the paper wasps inside from the cold.

They gathered in black huddles beneath

the stormproof sheeting on their new door

to nowhere, pin heads together, abdomens

tapping, sure of heat among hard family. I had

to act. Didn’t ask the customer satisfier on the phone

who could let them live, but during hold music

I gassed them all and crushed their plastic ceiling

with a picture book. Some bodies dangled

by a dancer’s leg for afternoons, while I

framed first walls, screeched a circular saw

through knots, burning the cream, struck nails

singing up the octave, chopped rafters, opening

the birdsmouth, not to sing or swallow, just to seat

a delicate hypotenuse: temporary life,

elocuted as rise over run. Meanwhile an overweight

but nonexistent crate flew across long

American fields conceding to winter

and the autocrat’s exhale. And the sunlight quit early,

sparing the old porch piled behind a disused pool,

splayed with nails, awaiting permission to burn.