Stormwatching in Campania
You could have found us anywhere,
on the bank of any
we didn’t have to be
in the shadow
of someone’s volcano,
shatter the upper sky,
olives pelting lazily
there didn’t have to be
loosed of their fruit,
ascending ancient stone.
We needed only
each other and to forget
what it meant
to be weighted,
to rest a while
in pregnant darkness,
our hands empty,
our eyes absent
I remember the warm earthy molds
of the door, the wood rotting gently
beneath its trinity of windows,
the windows arranged ascendingly.
My grandmother prayed in a hierarchy
of light. Jessie’s door stood in charity—
open, it seemed, always—the sun baking
away at its damp fragrant fibers. Inside,
past the wafting doll-head scent
of the plastic sofa covers, her kitchen.
Its generous, free-standing, white
aluminum larder. Penny tang of rusted
hinges. The contact-papered shelves
unfolding the nutty odors of salted
tinned peanuts, honey-roast almonds,
her Fig Newtons. Powder-dry rice
before the sin of butter. I learned
to breathe in in that house, learned
the urge to call things vanished back
and back. To collect approximations
in capped glass jars. My bedroom
closet, a hidden altar bright and full
to bursting, bears bottles of civet oil
and smoke, glittering golden aldehydes.
Elixir enough for a whole sprawling life.
But a well-perfumed friend, wise both
in the olfactory and in love, taught me
to spray with economy, to wear scent
as a private pleasure, evident only to
a lover in kissing distance. How else
beside privacy—scent so contained
and quiet you must press your nose
to it—to repel the world’s in-built
aromas: manifold, ready to attach,
so potent they are nearly flesh, nearly
hands, reachful in memory. Needful
of collection. Out beyond the double
back window, the willow and the fat
summer air puffing up its mobile hairs.
Beneath it the kingdom of decades’
worth of dogs, each one with his oily,
indolic fur, bathed in summer dust,
and fertilizing the earth with scents
that would survive him. I could smell
their sweet, deep-soaked leavings
at night, on the cusp of sleep, curled up
in a pile of cousins within the porous
walls of the porch. Naps, though, I took
in the cloud of Jessie’s bed. The Bible
under the lamp. Ancient pages collapsing
out of its feral musky leather. The scent
of the onion paper still tart and gratifying.
My body felt weightless as perfume, my hand
stroking the tight-tucked cotton sheet.
Smooth, blessed cool, steeped in her Oscar
de la Renta—a watercolor impression
of talcum powder and tuberose and clove.
What brings us here can barely be called
highway: a thread of road each direction
and vines overtaking the verge.
This isn’t a dream: Dad is driving.
We find at the end of the path three towns
where my father was someone else once.
Here, houses are the hue of dust,
and sunflowers lean in the swelter.
At the Florence Sonic Burger, you’ll get
a Coke for your church program. There are
no mountains in our midst, just twenty-three
Churches of Christ. This is
the land in which they are grown. This is
the land in which he was grown, before
something sent him searching. Was it
my mother waiting unknown, was it
the pulpit he couldn’t preach from,
was it a mask of his own face speaking:
a foreigner from up North?