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Shelby Graham

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Charles Atkinson

Words for Silence

thirty-day retreat

Day 3

Raven on the roof
           burbles sotto voce at
                     our backs. It’s first light; 
           bowed heads bob toward a great hall.
Temple bell: a steel

canister—once held
           propane. Hangs now from an oak
                     crosspiece on bolted
           iron stanchions. Summons us;
silently we come.

So many choices:
           cooked grains, fresh fruit, raisins, seeds—
                     fragrant. Take it all!
           Milk spills over the bowl’s rim—
whose greed can this be?

The days already
           tunneled: we rise in dark, sit,
                     nod, eat, walk (sun), want,
           sit (wind), ache, walk, remember,
sit (rain) . . . dusk.  Which day?


From morning lecture:
           Unpack the layers—
fear, desire. Let them rise and
           pass. Ask, “Who’s watching?”

Side by side, three men
            enter three stalls and gaze up:
                     soprano tinkle,
            tenor staccato, bass drone.
Three flushes at once.

Day 10

Each day the fierce bell 
           calls us back from walking or
                     from sleep—our private
           dreamlets—to this one moment.
Soon I’ll make it toll.

Same dull bowls, same smells.
           Skip the grains, mound honeyed fruit—
                     peach, plum, nectarine.
           Rain sweats the windows. Coughing—
hall a Petri dish.

My mother, ragged 
           in her final days, a note
                     pressed into my palm:
           “When you’re able, open this.”
For days I forget the dream.

Poised upright for hours
           in dead grass, a Great Egret
                     lunges down, skewers
           a twisting gopher, flips it  
up, swallows it whole.

Coax the monkey mind
           back to this step, this seat, this
                     breath—a hundred times,
           a thousand. Where have I been
for this waking life?

Afternoon lecture:
           How to see the world  
clearly, rinsed of our selfhood?
           . . . Let go of judgment.

Day 18

Approach the austere 
           bell as you would a teacher.
                     Bow. Lift the mallet
           from its hook, grip it firmly,
stand to one side. Breathe.

“Rabbit, rabbity,
           racket, rackety, talker,
                     talkative, faker,
           fakery, mock, mockery”—
shut up, frog chorus!

Find the bell’s center:
           swing as if the bell weren’t there.
                     The mallet bounces
           back for the upcoming stroke.
Count ten, swing again.

I hate his smug walk.
           And hate that taste in my mouth—
                     a second judgment.
           What a way to build a life:
I desire, I loathe . . .

Aim straight through the bell. 
           If you glance off the steel curve
                     it muffles the peal.
           Nine strokes: become the clapper,
remember the count.

They all slurp; can’t they
           pay attention? He shovels
                     his food, she daydreams
           out the window. Miss the primal
world inside each bite.

From evening lecture:
           You can despair, sink
in not-knowing. Take with you    
            your bare attention.

Day 24

Oatmeal’s soothing steam,
           currants’ tang; pumpkin seeds snap.
                     A hundred eaters
           bent to bowls; spoons click and ding—
morning carillon.

Another lecture:
           Freedom’s not so far:
can you let this one moment
           be the way it is?

A tranquil morning—
           no want, fear, judgment. After noon
                     vengeful ghosts storm back—
           neighbors’ scratching, throbbing knees,
unattended lust.

And someone sits here,
           watches them rise and disperse—
                     unmoved. Who is this
           spacious one, savoring his 
only life, just so?

Day 29

My father knows how
           to fly; he’ll teach me . . . Wake up.
                     Dress in the dark, shoes
           on, under sharp stars—stop: these
were once his loafers!

Screech owl’s soft po- po-
           wafts invisibly here, there,
                     shawl on my shoulders.
           Swath of Milky Way trembles
in a brisk north wind.

Greet the bell again,
           again—breeze that snaps the pants,
                     whisks the ringing off . . .
           On the umbrella, rain’s thrum . . .
Sun on cramping neck.

His face a grimace:
           pain makes a man walk that way.
                     “Smug” is a story
           the scared self must have needed.
We share the same air.

Let the harmonics
           fade out, hang the mallet up
                     and bow one more time,
           inside a body hollowed,
tolling gratitude.

Charles Atkinson’s collection, The Only Cure I Know (San Diego Poets Press), received the American Book Series award for poetry; a chapbook, The Best of Us on Fire, won the Wayland Press competition.  A third volume, Because We Are Men, was awarded the Sow’s Ear Poetry Chapbook Prize. He has published two full-length collections with Hummingbird Press—Fossil Honey and This Deep In, and two chapbooks—World News, Local Weather and Skeleton, Skin and Joy, from Finishing Line Press.

Charles Atkinson
Wilma Marcus Chandler
Diana Hartog
Rosie King
David Sullivan
Ken Weisner


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