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.
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.
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
— 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.
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.