Deer County by Martin Willitts Jr.

Deer County

I’ve seen the night beating like a frightened heart.
An apparition appears out of nowhere —

I should have gone slower at that time of night
when objects loom suddenly. A deer zig-zags.

We all should compensate for the unknown.
We never know what lurks in the dark.

Fear stokes more fear, jolting us,
a deer bolting out of the dark —

finding a tuff of brown hairs on a car
or lose a windshield or broken engine block.

On rain-slick roads, when deer lunge
like heart attacks. We pull over after a thud,

find nothing but a small dent we could beat out
with a ball peen hammer. Or, find a deer

pulled to the side like a marker, red glass splinters
from a broken break light like blood splatter.

In a blink, every moment can change direction
and night takes your heart in its hand.

The unknown lurks in either light or dark.
We never see the inevitable coming.

If we could, we’d swerve,
sigh many heart-jerks, many tear-jerks.

Sometimes, we’d survive the deer combat zone.
Sometimes, we make it home in time, undented.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: The stark two line stanzas in this poem emphasize the sudden jolt of an unexpected trauma, creating an undeniable allegory for life. Also, the first line is truly remarkable.

Shore of Tago Bay, Ejiri at Tōkaidō by Martin Willitts Jr.

Shore of Tago Bay, Ejiri at Tōkaidō
Katsushika Hokusai, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, picture # 18

Men have cast their fishing nets from the prow. All day, they pull up nets of emptiness, over and over and over. All this hard work in harsh light, and all they catch is sunburn. They will return home at the end of the day, once again, with nothing to show for their efforts. It is not easy catching the nothingness.

On the shore, workers are tiny and insignificant, raking the flats for salt. Some have already gathered the salt, and now they are carrying their bags to the kilns. Inside the kilns, water boils to keep the salt. These workers will have much to show for their efforts. It is not easy boiling down a day into a single moment.

None of them care that they are close to the Tōkaidō highway. That road could take them far from all of this salt and lack of fish and pull of oars. The road is always there, yet these people always stay performing the same tasks as their ancestors. Small details persisted. The more they struggled, the more they failed, like sunlight, like heartbeats, like salt trying to avoid crystalizing in a kiln, like birds circling uncertain where to land, if to land. It is not easy to be so near a road that can take us elsewhere, and stay doing the same meaningless task.

Mount Fuji is always in the background, always with snow on its peak, always below the setting sun. The sense of Always is the only constant we have in this world. Even that is temporary, dissolving like water in the kiln. It is not easy being temporary.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Sun is in a net,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .taken to the kiln to bake,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .turns to salt in heat.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: This ekphrastic poem (prose and haiku) tells a straightforward story, or so it seems, but the persistent energy of the images resonates with the woodblock print, creating more layers of meaning than is immediately obvious.

Image by Katsushika Hokusai

The Sounds Water Makes by Martin Willitts Jr.

The Sounds Water Makes

Grandmother hated the rusty click-clack whoosh
metallic sound of the kitchen hand pump,
preferring I’d go out: Fetch a wooden bucket
of water from the well.

I’d creak-creak the pulley rope
until I’d feel the bucket slap-bottom-touch the water,
go slower, sensing it sink-fill, then
tug-yanked up into sunlight, a slushing bucket,
fetched it back.

Water tasted different when from a bucket
or the hand-pump or metal ladle at the well.
I never understood how the texture and flavor changed.

All I knew was grandma hated the fancy hand pump,
choosing the old Amish, sensible ways,
without gadgets and gizmos. She desired a world
waking up to hardness of life, as loose
as water. But the rest of the world was moving
in a blur she’d never understand, leaving her behind,
set in her ways, her bones too old and stubborn
for there to be any other way than plain-spoke,
careful with words, listening before speaking,

She wanted a time when water was water,
and sky clung fiercely to the land.
She declared, “You can keep your ways.”

I was too afraid to ask her what she was going to do
with all that water. I went softly back outside,
floors screech-scratching behind me

like a rope being lowered into the deepest well.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: The plain-spoken tone of the narrator mirrors the subject—a grandmother married to ways that feel simple, but are often anything but.

April 17 by Martin Willitts Jr.

April 17

It’s April. It’s snowing —again.
And, again, flowers close.

Snow is a cruel joke.

The world is speechless,
disappointed —
all this unfulfilled desire!
It is April, after all.
It’s not supposed to be like this —

white, cold shock,
purpose driven away —

this peculiar weather,
this unevenness,
this lack of rapture.

It’s our turn,
insist the purple crocuses.

Snow returns, anyway,
any way it can.

Death can happen at any time.

We can only sing our way forward.
The journey is long,
and the length varies
depending on each of us,

and when we get to the end,
tired, forlorn,
we will brighten up,
at last, and open
like spring flowers.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: Anyone who lives in the USA (particularly in the east) will understand that this poem is a vivid and immediate response to this year’s exceedingly frustrating and late spring season.

Waiting for You by Martin Willitts Jr.

Waiting for You
(American Sonnet)

Just like a good steady rain,
handwritten by the blue jay’s flight,
the edges of the world need you.
I am aware of the heartbreak
behind the rain’s curtain.
The river banks swell, the ground
is saturated, run-offs follow
a downward slope like arpeggios.

The clouds are squeezed tight.
Rain crunches on roofs, abundantly;
but like love or pain, it cannot last forever.
There is no sound inside the rain
that is not you. A heart is breakable,
but the door is unlatched, waiting for you.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: This poet’s exploration of the limits of the sonnet form continue in this poem. Emotional imagery is highlighted within the form’s fourteen short lines and octave/sestet relationship.

Sonnet: Songbirds by Martin Willitts Jr.

Sonnet: Songbirds

Never had so many songbirds been so silent.
Not one was spreading noise, curving over the pines.
A congregation had gathered, and not one bird
erected a thin mist of music. Not one note
rustled its wings. It was eerie. Curse?
Silent worship? What caused this hush?
There were so many birds in the sky
like rainclouds, darkening, enigmatic, quiet —

a strangeness of birds, and their ambiguity
purposeful, their luxuriant colors, their frequency
of moment — why were they composed
this way? This wall of fragments and silence,
not even one wing beat? Are they insulting us?
Is there some bad news that they are encapsulating?

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: This poem’s eerie questions seem strangely apt today, in the midst of Hurricane Harvey’s ongoing lashing of the Texan coast.

Sonnet: Uncertainty by Martin Willitts Jr.

Sonnet: Uncertainty

Think of rain. Think of it bringing a message. Think
of the rain singing, and how its melody is getting closer.
Notice how the rain is smiling. It is thinking.
Think of the rain as a guest. Treat it kindly.
Think of rain catching in a deer’s antlers. Think of rain
being as large as forgiveness, but also as less
than a gram. Think of small, wounded words.
Think how rain can start with tiny baby-steps.

A person receiving a transfusion, lays near roses
someone delivered, and now the patient is too tired
to notice their bloom, fading. It’s a kind of courage
to watch a calendar change while minutes
become less abundant, more uncertain.
Rain concludes on the windows.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: Once again this poet’s sonnet series presents a lack of meter and rhyme that nevertheless supports the meaning of the title. Careful imagery and enjambment show that even free verse can be formalized into an emphatic emotional metaphor.

Nelly by Robert Ford

Nelly

We buried you on the hottest day for years.
No breeze. The cornstalks were silent,
the air seething in crowded spaces under
a sky wiped duck-egg blue at the edges.

Through the heavy substance of veteran oaks,
sycamores, gasping over the hedgerows,
you could see all the way down the lazy apron
of the river valley to our town, the thumb of

its church steeple gilt-framed by the haze.
It seemed apt. A decade later, it’s still how
I picture you – though I’m no more than an
unopened parcel of memories in your future

—a girl, each thin-ice step you take a question,
leaving behind farm, family, village, home.
A whole lifetime waiting for you down there,
waiting to gather you up into its embrace.

by Robert Ford

Editor’s Note: Grief often defies description, but poets keep trying. This poem’s intense imagery presents yet another facet of sorrow, embedded in present, past, and future.

Sonnet: Disquieting by Martin Willitts Jr.

Sonnet: Disquieting

This present moment — is gone, gone
like sparrows into the disquieting sky. Gone
white as sycamore branches before memory
releases their leaves. Gone as flattering light.
Gone as bliss and recognition of bliss. Gone,
taken away, the way rivers take silt,
depositing elsewhere. Moments are dissonant
and gorgeous, then — gone.

The pristine rains never last. It cannot rain
metaphorically everywhere with consistency.
Gravity cannot hold wind, even if wind
kisses our faces, even if it sheds sycamore leaves,
even if light folded, even if sound was shaken,
even if we clutched every moment to our chests.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: This poem’s lack of meter and rhyme contradict its title while also emphasizing the meaning of it. This poem is an uneasy testament to the power of words used to describe difficulty.

Variations of Stories I heard in Vietnam from the Wounded by Martin Willitts Jr.

Variations of Stories I heard in Vietnam from the Wounded

They would be firing non-stop, it felt like for days,
and the enemy would come endless as rain or breath,
and there’d be this moment, not certain when,
the body and mind separated.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .The body would be
clenching the trigger, fingers numb, or throbbing,
or frozen, or attached, firing, eyes no longer seeing,
but seeing too clearly what was happening, accelerated
or slowed-down, and heart firing like endless bullets,

and alongside, a temporal spirit, perhaps the soul,
outside and transparent, disgusted, refusing to act, or
rescue, or advise, or return to the body again,

and now, the body was being operated on, and
sometimes, the spirit was nearby watching detached
at the incisions, and sometimes, the spirit
had already walked away.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .But when the body awoke,
it would search for the other missing half, the
human part that knew caring. But, the two
could not merge any more than light can join shadow,
or night with day, always longing for what could have,
what will never will be again, and needing
a different kind of healing.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: This poem uses repetition to convey the intractable trauma of war.