Henry Hughes grew up in Long Island, and has lived in Oregon since 2002. He currently teaches at Western Oregon University. The poems in his most recent book, Moist Meridian (© 2009, Mammoth Books), come to life on the page through Hughes’ ecstatic voice and willingness to be both playful and sublime. His first collection, Men Holding Eggs (© 2004; Mammoth) won the 2004 Oregon Book Award for poetry. Hughes’ commentary on new poetry appears regularly in Harvard Review. The following poems from Moist Meridian appear here with his permission.
SKELETON PIRATES OF AMERICA
masts gnawed away,
we burn black slicks
for a Chinese cargo of toys.
Never dead enough, juggling
cannonballs and Arabs,
brown galley boys
to fill our clothes.
Unpaid women pinch
note-wrapped rats between the planks,
and the sun
burns so hot
can’t digest the shimmering curse.
I’m George, says the air-conditioned captain.
See all the blue
for my eyes.
DEVIL KNOWS DIFFERENT
Watching them gulp
garbage and skinny eels–two gaunt sharks,
open-mouthed in appeal–I nod,
Now, you. You come back with me.
Smell the salt, the oily churn of a twin-screw cruiser,
drunk and wide as the Fifties.
See your parents, the sandy woman
and sable rodded man, telling you to feel the bite,
Feel the flounder’s deck-flutter,
taste its whiteness. All the baked clams,
boiled lobsters and barbecued bass
they’ve eaten and served
to fuel the business of living,
of making you.
Parents gone now. It’s your chance
to feed your teenage daughter
more than money. Umbrella beach days without her mom.
Your lectures still too hot to bear.
She wades the blonde bar, waving to a yacht. Sharp sharks
shilling into the scent
between her legs. People say, What we eat
can’t imagine being eaten
Devil knows different.
NEW YEAR’S WITH CHRISTINE
Transmission busted. It’s late
and I have to drive home alone, in reverse,
from Saint Mary’s singles dance,
Bing’s White Christmas on AM.
I see the first small snow
in my taillights, and in ten minutes
the defrost sweats off a storm.
Flakes blow up
finding clouds again.
What if I kept rolling,
New Year’s Day, 1982. Driving us
in love, silly, still drunk
down that terrible hill to your house,
sliding in crystal terror
over the curb
into Neil Cohen’s handsome snowman.
His bottom sphere smushed gray
and that broom jammed in our bumper.
I held his crunchy head,
lifted that gold pipe
and said, Here, have a smoke. And you knelt,
to wear that hat meant change.
And you put it on.
HOW I FOUND THE SKY
It was the only time
my father asked me for anything.
Why don’t ya make me a duck for da office?
It was the only time I went to the library
for a book: Waterfowl of North America.
And it was the only time moribund Mr. Brown
gave me a decent piece
of unknotted pine, and put his coffee down
to show me how to bandsaw
without losing a finger.
I cut those penciled lines,
shaped the block, hollowed the center,
glued the body, shaved the head’s fragile bill
and narrow crest, leaving those buffed cheeks–
some ruddy joy
a lonely bird might fly to on a cold morning.
Joy? I don’t know.
I was rasping through recessed confusion,
burning in feathers, drilling shallow sockets
for the glassy red eyes of high school.
And when I carried that blond mallard
through the halls, it was the only time
beautiful Miss Herman, the art teacher
I loved and failed for three terms, spoke to me
of colors: burnt umber, raw sienna, cobalt blue
brushed across the folded wings.
We were friends
the night among the boxes,
unlabeled for fast stacking in the old pickup.
We’re not finished, I said.
There’s wine, and I’m not taking it with me.
Tipping that last ocean view,
you said, I’ll miss you so much, before that half-light kiss
pressed a bloom
straight through the island. Our hands
sands a wave makes
without music, without a bed. A motion
awaited, undressing like a storm
just ahead. So close
without my glasses. Can you see? you smiled,
one hand touching my face, the other driving
the dented guardrail
over the bridge.