A post-hole digger. Heavens, just how tightly
—Can sounds enclose a thing, penning it
Into a function that—wrongly or rightly—
—Isolates it from the infinite
And nameless stuff of possibility,
—Driving it down in the hard ground of time?
——Sky-minded summer, and for three whole days
The old man never says a word to me
—As we repeat work’s ancient paradigm
——Over and over in the August blaze.
What we were making was a phantom fence.
—From the night woods, wild things come to possess
The fields they’ve lost to human violence
—And savvy, as the dark itself returns to bless
The troubled mind with sleep. Then, herds of deer,
—Shy as dreams, graze the rows day’s labor made
——And woodchucks gorge themselves on cabbages;
The ghostly bobcat and the fox appear,
—And timber rattlers, cooling in the shade,
——Unfold like the nightmare that history is.
It was to keep them out, as best we could,
—And to protect the body’s nourishment,
We worked against that spectral brotherhood
—Which summons us back to that place we went
Forth from, the reeling center where the prey
—And predator move together in a dance
——Like lovers, knowing neither fear nor rage,
Seeing what is, without the shadow-play
—Of mind, that place which is our provenance
——On earth and is our earthly heritage.
Six feet apart, a grave’s depth, we dug holes
—Around the field, leaving dirt piles behind
Us as if we were really tunneling moles
—Building a darkling home, our workings blind.
But then came posts, and then the fence’s wire.
A shape emerged. Until our fingers numbed
——We fastened lengths of fence wire to the wood,
Stretching it tight till, like some antique lyre,
—When plucked by the high winds, the whole fence hummed.
——The task complete, the old man grinned, said, “Good
Enough.” It was and wasn’t. So things go.
—The fence stood twenty years, though you did not,
Grandfather. And I know now I can’t know
—More than a few odd stories of your lot
In life. You rarely spoke about your past—
—That drunken brute, your father—or the war.
——Today the field is scrub pine and broom sedge.
Within the green walls you were pent at last,
—As was your work, and what you did it for.
——Still, nights, I sense you coming to the edge
Of consciousness with those dark ministers
—Of the forgotten you strove to keep out,
And hear, within the crickets’ pulsing whirrs,
—Your endless silence like a voiceless shout
Imploring me with I-can’t-understand-
—What motive to do something different:
——To spare no pains, and to spare no cost,
But make whatever work comes from my hand
—Summon the quick back to that place we went
——Forth from, and welcome back from there the lost.
Ryan Wilson’s books are The Stranger World (Measure), How to Think Like a Poet (Wiseblood), and Proteus Bound: Selected Translations (Franciscan). Editor in chief of Literary Matters, he teaches at the Catholic University of America.