World Poetry Portfolio, edited by Sudeep Sen in association with ATLAS Magazine
Bryce Milligan is a modern troubadour, “a contemporary muse poet.” He is a prolific poet, critic, playwright, songwriter, novelist (for young adults) and children’s author. Milligan’s poetry titles include Daysleepers & Other Poems (San Antonio: Corona Publishing, 1984), Litany Sung at Hell’s Gate (San Antonio: M&A Editions, 1990), Working the Stone (Houston: Wings Press, 1994), Alms for Oblivion: A Poem in Seven Parts (London: Aark Arts, 2002), Lost and Certain of It (London: Aark Arts, 2006) and Recasting (San Antonio: Gemini Ink, 2011). Alms for Oblivion was republished in its entirety in The Invisible College in 2010. He has edited several anthologies, including Daughters of the Fifth Sun: A Collection of Latina Fiction and Poetry (Riverhead, 1995) and Floricanto Sí: A Collection of Latina Poetry (Penguin, 1998). His poetry, fiction, song lyrics and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. Milligan is also a musician and songwriter, a maker of guitars and other stringed instruments, an occasional sculptor, a book designer, a teacher when he has to be, an arts activist and organizer, and an inveterate high country wanderer. Among other things he was a co-founder and long-time director of the Inter-American Book Fair, the Latina Letters annual conference, and two literary magazines. He was the book critic for two newspapers, and his freelance articles have appeared from coast to coast. His literary papers are archived at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He has been the publisher/editor/designer for Wings Press in San Antonio, Texas, since 1995.
0000Everyone who hears these words of mine
0000and puts them into practice is like a wise man
0000who built his house on the rock.
0000000000000—Jesus, Matthew 7: 24
0000Put it on stilts.
0000000000000—Ms. 21st Century
Old Joaquin’s seen the future.
She came to him last night,
one shoulder bare, hair a fright,
sandy-sandaled and ocean-eyed.
He says he came back to tell us all.
“I shall tell you all,” he said,
next morning at the Taquería del Sol.
He couldn’t get over how the graceful
young century’s eyes brimmed
con nuestros dolores, tiempos, y las mareas—
tides that will not wait, cannot wait
to drown the barrier islands
and creep across the coastal plains
bringing the breakers to La Paloma Solitaria,
thirty miles inland, turning
cotton fields and orange orchards
into salt marshes, arroyos into bayous.
“It’ll be sandy soon enough,” she told Joaquin.
He sold his truck that very week,
bought concrete and creosoted timbers.
“Elevation’s the new salvation”
he’d repeat mantra-like
as he sank shafts through the alluvium
to the bed rock, poured foundations
for twenty-foot piles that soared up
like stilt legs stalking the future
in his pasture’s chaparral.
Between One Crack and Another
On this rock face, as on every other
there is a fine line, almost indecipherable,
lying between courage and madness.
You discover it between one hand-hold
and the next, between one loop of rope
and another, and you find it alone.
Faith in finger strength, in the assurance
of internal balance when all that matters
is down; faith in the ability to test
through wool and leather and steel
the fragility of a two-inch ledge, itself
a product of ice and sunlight.
Faith in these is suddenly one with one’s
faith in the ability to fly, to free fall
in full control, as if will alone could turn
splayed fingers into wing tips guiding
your hawk-body’s slow descent, tying
time into Gordian conundrums.
Alone in this December rain, now I watch
a sidewalk of bobbing anonymous umbrellas,
stare at the fine line between ascent
and free fall, fit my fingers into one crack
then another, sensing the difference
between talon and wing tip.
Southeast of the Center of Everything
Southeast of the center of everything
they are raping the volcanoes:
the prince and princess of Mexico,
Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl,
Smoking Mountain and White Woman.
They are stripping their green gowns
from the sleeping lovers, leaving
their flanks naked to the sun.
Two thousand years Popo has held his peace,
watched one sun follow another –
cuarto sol, quinto sol, sexto sol,
watched mestizo follow Spaniard
follow Aztec follow Toltec.
He quenched his rage in molten stone,
she quenched her grief in virgin snow.
For centuries they slept undisturbed
beneath their mantles of green and white,
she in some cosmic absence, reclining
across a quarter of the horizon,
he fuming and restless, slowly
burning inside yet pleased to accept
the rainmakers’ small offerings
of fruit, tobacco, chipotles, a serape,
But now the rainmakers
have themselves gone to ground
como las chicharras and there is no one
to honor los poderes más viejos,
to keep the cycles of water and life.
Popo rumbles in his long sleep
as the chainsaws and bulldozers
denude his lover’s long limbs.
I need a metaphor that will transform
this skeleton of passion into some
thing that breathes fire rather than the still air
of overly considered conundrums, into some
thing that stands of its own accord against
time and these chill unseasonable winds.
I need a shape-shifting incantation
to turn the shaman’s cape into the shape
of the panther it once contained, to take in
whole the one mind, the one soul that called forth
the transforming morpheme, that piece of sound
that like some particle born of theory
remains unfound, unseen, but whose effects
attend all the invisible powers that force
all our hours into vectors pointing
to new futures rather than past cycles.
I need a metaphor to change,
I need a metaphor, a master rune,
a word, a sign unspoken since time was
set in motion.
0000000000Deus erat verbum.
I need to warp this, our reality,
to be the body that bends your body,
to create the pulsar, the double star.
I need a metaphor to change, to change.
The Fiftieth Face
So you are staring at the fifty faces—abstract figures really, but they say faces—that are supposed to be discernible in the soaring stained glass window before you, while you mindlessly calculate the number of pieces of individual glass there are by averaging the number your thumb can cover, or would cover if you had the chutzpa to hold your arm out, artist-like, in the middle of services but you don’t—have the chutzpa or hold your arm out artist-like—when you ask yourself what it means when meaning itself begins to pale, not like facts vanishing from one’s aging memory, not like losing faith in long held beliefs—whether or not those beliefs have any bearing on reality—but when their sense of importance, their meaning, loses its grip on those facts and beliefs and they begin to drift, having lost what kept them stable, what made them adhere each to each, what allowed a belief in an unproven god to coexist on an equal footing with a belief in love or your father’s hammer or string theory or any kind of future at all, given that the sun will eventually burn out and cease to glimmer through the 2,437 pieces of glass that you have just calculated make up this one window with its fifty figures, those hidden and those obvious, those with faces and those without, all but one of whom seem totally oblivious to your gaze—your gaze alone among all the eyes of this congregation—and you see her mouth moving, begging to be remembered, begging to be described because here she is among all these forty-nine other hooded and distorted saints and sinners crowded amidst the swirling tongues of sun-fueled red and yellow and orange, whirling from cross to cross to cross like the vortices of flame that lay down tunnels to hell in a forest fire but here supposedly lead one heavenward, skyward, upward anyway, beyond the faces and figures, beyond the cathedral itself, but gravity and the dizziness of flight bring you back to those lips, moving imperceptibly, silently begging to be remembered, begging to be given a name, to be given a meaning that will not be lost in some rambling rumination on a dateless Sunday morning but will last like Persephone’s story, as good on one spinning planet as on any other.
when the dream returns don’t
panic but let it stream past you
know you won’t die even
when suicide is preferable
to living out the same movie
when the dream returns
and the ladies of Avignon rise
up from the back seat of the car
you ditched in 1983 when
the dream returns observe
watch for the details that shift
that shout here is the lie
that sheds the light the fallacy
is the theorem’s proof
when the dream returns
She Sets the Pace
She sets the pace as I cannot,
does not allow the madness
of my momentary metaphor
to stay her steady progress,
will not bend when the winds shift
from lyric to narrative.
Rather she takes each step
as the marvel that it is,
standing as if at some scenic view
beside some mountain highway
absorbing each blue peak, each
snow-blotched pine while I,
impatient to see the next white pine
behind the next blue peak,
am always astounded
when she hands me the next line
polished and new
All things have boundaries,
– Joseph Brodsky, “To Urania”
I would that we could celebrate continuance,
the putting of one foot before another,
the drawing of one more breath, inhaling
the scent of piñon in the Wild Rose Pass
where our paths have yet to cross except
in these highway idylls where the contours
of the eroded mesa become your profile
as if you lay sleeping across this fifty-mile horizon.
I would that we could celebrate continuance
observing small marvels – invisible ice
that rings the moon with echoed light –
had you not declared all that had been
to be all that would be.
I know I was there, he said.
There’s my face in the photos,
my phrasing in the manifestos.
It was all tweed and black turtlenecks
back when black was a statement
though it has never not been.
I know I was there, he said,
my hand on the presses that bled
raw revolution and cooked culture,
marching ahead of the marchers
churning out words that would
chant themselves tomorrow.
I know I was there, he said.
The paranoia struck deep and left
echoes of fear: narcs and moles who
had been friends, trusted friends
who shared everything
in the purple haze of hope.
I know I was there, he said,
though what I say today eludes me
and the keyboard’s become a maze
that coffee won’t cure and
midnight will not illumine
though I know, I know…
“To fly’s to live,” she often said
at fifteen, showing the sling
with the broken arm that would
not be her wing.
Post cards came, always aerial
scenes or shots of sudden drops —
cliffs or canyons, a skyscraper
a bell tower.
Then photos of her flying machines:
F-15s then the black wedge
silent, stealthy, a bat’s shadow
against the stars.
“To fly’s to live,” she often said
at thirty, showing the steel-
that was her arm.
On the impossibly high bridge
above the Rio Grande
she paused, left a pile of post cards,
each stamped and signed:
“To die’s to fly.”
Beside the Dry Bed
0000for Edward Thomas
Beside the dry bed of this brook
I read in drowsy, dying shade
as withered roots all softly groan
at each limb’s leeward incline
toward other valleys, other brooks;
but here I’ve settled with no blade
of green in sight, no seed unsown
to worry with, no sound or sign
of life or hope. Yet in the book
the story strays where I have strayed
in dreams where “meadows wild have grown”
and drought is but a daymare line
in ink that’s paled past second looks.
Still, shadows cast by green-sleeved maids
that raise the flesh up from the bone
are dreams of dreams beyond our time
where all that’s green is what we took
to tuck in books where grief is played
out page by dusty page. Alone
like some Baptist to whom no sign
is shown I stare beyond the brook
to the west—yes—some storm’s displayed
and distant cat-eyed dice are thrown.
Below, there’s rumbling in the mine.
The Green Man Returns to Greenland
Icebergs are melting even as the sea
surrounds them, lapping fresh water wounds
with salty tongues that cannot staunch
the molecular awakening.
Sunlight and ice yield virgin springs,
freed at last from millennia upon
millennia of placid, frozen dreams,
cascading in crystal rainbowed streams
into the gray waves.
Ashore, stones split, crack with sharp
hallelujahs in sunlight so long unseen;
the frozen droppings of a thousand
generations of puffins and gulls, seals and hares
steam and team with the brilliant rot of life.
All around the streaming bergs, men in kayaks
and umiaks take fish seldom seen so far north—
lumpsuckers and cod fleeing the warming,
deathly, central seas.
Somewhere in Greenland a furtive shadow falls
as the Green Man walks paths dim in memory,
calling forth blade and leaf, yet even he—
for whom green is all—stares confounded
at the cause of this riot of life.
On every hand, vessels greater than the greatest
gray whales converge, floating islands—
steel forests to his eyes—with roots that draw
black blood alone.
Down the road a bit in America
If you didn’t own a Ford back in the day then you likely didn’t take those long rambling road-trip vacations to remote caverns or hidden canyons or desert meteor crash sites, and so there will not linger at the back of your memory a dusty adobe motel with honest-to-god tumble weeds and windmill water thick enough to chew, but rather the postcard visions of these same places, painted in back-alley New York studios where big sky sunsets and painted deserts came out just this side of psychedelic. But either way, whether the etched memory is real or second-hand illusion, now, a few miles down the road from one of America’s more famous caverns, there is a rundown tourist court. . . . Probably, just down the road from every geographic or cultural oddity in the world there is some equivalent of the rundown tourist court—I mean, Lord, there’s a souvenir shack on top of Mount Sinai—but in America, generally a mile or two down what was in the ’30s a new two-lane blacktop but is now a pot-hole pocked, disintegrating back road half a mile or more off the smoothly sterile modern highway, up out of the landscape will rise some raggedy remnant of the days when being a tourist was a serious communal adventure, some L- or U-shaped building made of the very soil it stands on, lined with peeling, turquoise-painted door frames with illegible numbers, looking very much like some backwoods brothel except that you’re in the wrong state for that and besides, only the goldenest of golden-hearted hookers would deign to make a warm and welcoming getaway of such a place—and there are not many of those ladies left (maybe there never were very many at all)—and with the wind whipping up a dust storm in the distance that looks like sundown before the Ragnarök, and your GPS spouting nonsense, and your cell phone that’s texting “are you kidding?” to your every inquiry— then that place by the side of the road begins to have a certain appeal, and you begin to think of yourself as a hollow-souled wanderer about to meet Gabrielle Maple by the now-defunct gasoline pumps where she will be reading Françoise Villon and you will quote T.S. Eliot to her, or maybe its appeal is not Depression-era romanticism at all, but simply the exotic absence of neon, whatever, but you see a wavering light in the office window and a rusted “vacancy” sign that’s creaking a soprano solo above the deep tenor hiss that is sand-blasting your windshield, and now you don’t really decide, but your hands turn the wheel of themselves and set the brake and turn the key, and you wonder if there’s coffee inside and just how gritty it is, and just how bad the scorpions in the shower will be, and whether the silhouette in the window can possibly match your imagination.