Bargainers by Ralph Culver

Bargainers
—for Louise Glück

In the market, Saturday, the world’s commerce on the simplest terms,
terms anyone can understand. Hanks of dried chilies
like garlands of tongues, baskets of Roma tomatoes in the noon sun,
warm and firm to the touch.

A young man leans against the stone facade of the pastry shop
under the shade of a window awning.
He is trying to catch the eye of the girl selling the tomatoes
while an old couple haggles with her about the price
and when the tomatoes were picked.
The young man lights a thin cigar; it’s black and slightly bent,
as though he were setting fire to an oak twig in his mouth.

He shakes out the match and snaps it into the street in one movement,
a gesture he had seen in a film as a child and never forgotten:
some actor in a narrow tie and lapels and steel-framed sunglasses.
A doomed hero, not too bright really, although this hadn’t mattered
in the least—sheer determination and purpose, that was what counted.
The details of the story, the movie’s title—a movie as old
as the young man’s parents, maybe older—
all that’s forgotten.

As every Saturday, the girl sees the boy clearly—a blossom of flame,
the spent matchstick spinning out of the shadows and into the sunlight—
even now, as she tries to reassure the couple the tomatoes are fresh.
On the vine this morning, on the vine this morning,
she repeats. Two thick ropes of smoke begin idly paying out the boy’s nostrils,
braiding upward in the midday stillness. And then in one movement
she snaps a paper bag open and begins to fill it with tomatoes
as the old couple points: this one, this one. This one.

by Ralph Culver

Editor’s Note: This poem documents a moment in time, but it is not a static image. Instead, the narrator, the young man, the girl, the old couple buying tomatoes—they are all moving, and the poem follows them so that the reader can see into the soul of the market.

Boy at the Plate by Ralph Culver

Boy at the Plate
—for my children, and for my parents

Spread, the boy’s legs are unsteady
as tent poles in a squall.
It is useless to tell him
I know what this is,
waiting on someone who seems
as near as the end of his reach
to give him his chance
at shame. That he hardly believes
it is himself: I heard that voice
in my head so many times
it became a weapon,
the only weapon I had.
It is useless to tell him
the same voice splits from the throat
of the field mouse, rearing up
to teeth as long as its own forelegs—
useless, and wrong. For now,
the boy must believe he stands
in the mouth of the first fear
birthed in the world. Later,
in time, perhaps while
watching his own and shaken by
the glory of it that it is,
he will see for himself
the common fear, the common love
he fell out of, now into,
and watch, and love, and be thankful.

by Ralph Culver

Editor’s Note: Some poems are so tightly constructed that the emotional impact of the last line slides into place the way a home run ball unexpectedly flies into the grip of a child waiting for a hot dog, not a miracle.

The Tinies by Ralph Culver

The Tinies
—for Thomas Lux

Bless them, bless them,
the tinies:
sipping a drop of tea from an acorn cap,
changing a flat on a Lego car
the color of daffodils—

how I love them, the tinies,
always on the lookout for
the blind foot, the mouse
sozzled and reeling from the meat
of a turned apple.

This one digs down
through her handbag:
one pea-skin.
“Do you have the keys, Harry?”

The tinies, the tinies,
who will care for them?
Who will help paint their living rooms
with a blueberry?
Who can possibly tie their shoes
if they hurt their fingers?

The tinies skip stones in the birdbath,
set sail across a swimming pool
with a week’s worth of provisions,
meticulously catalogued….

Oh, you tinies,
who will protect you?
Danger is a storm the size of a hat,
death waits in the black thread
of shadow that trails
from a needle of grass—

and yet, and yet,
they know
it is a world of joy,
these tinies,
large as it is,
large as it is.

by Ralph Culver, first published in Bateau.

Editor’s Note: The narrative imagery of this poem draws the reader into an unexpectedly small world where one learns that perspective makes huge all of our preconceptions.

From the archives – Prelude by Ralph Culver

1field

Prelude

Come winter. Autumn pockets
her colors, pulls up
the once warm roots
and hunches southward: a gray,
drained hand rises. Shadow. Shadow.
It stops the blood. It stops
the brain’s fragile traffic. It stops

a buck, rumping a doe
grazing near fast water. He lifts
a tentative hoof and peers.
Every November that he began
waiting to starve is coming in
on the cold purpose of this wind.

And I count the times
I could not keep from turning
to check, mid-step,
the footprints strung behind
in the climbing snow.

from Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY, November 25, 2015 — by Ralph Culver

photo by Christine Klocek-Lim

Memento: For My Friend, a Carpenter, Whose Father Has Died by Ralph Culver

Memento: For My Friend, a Carpenter, Whose Father Has Died

—for Erhard Mahnke

When you are in your car
driving the darkening road
and the sadness strikes you,
when the lost face rises
from the shatterings of rain
that uncoil a pale longing
across your path,
when you are eating
your cold lunch
by the half-finished houses
and something leaves you,
and you take up the handle
of the hammer and close
your grip on it slowly,
slowly—

when in a moment there
is the sea change, a draining
of blood-salt that harrows
your eyes to fire and water
and your cupped hands await
something that never comes—

remember, do not ever forget,
that the road you take is taking you
under the quavering stars,
that the rain is a thing
you wear in your hair
like dew crowning the trees in summer,
that the houses are patient,
the nail is straight,
the hands are in no need of waiting—

that your eyes are the father,
they are of the world
and are not,
and their seeing bears you
across the world and the water
to witness what all is not lost.

by Ralph Culver, first published 10×3 Plus

Editor’s Note: Second person point of view offers readers a unique perspective into this poem—a man’s words for his friend, both grieving and beautiful, yet also broad enough to describe death’s universal reach.

To March by Ralph Culver

To March

Cutting carrots for soup, I’m distracted by the trees outside the window, their branches
making sweeping gestures through pale air half an hour before sundown,

officious yet somehow disinterested, the somber limbs directing, urging us to move
more quickly past the scene of some disaster or other and go about our business,

and I think, That’s March, isn’t it? They stand, the trees, above cracked plates of snow
that look like a pile of slate shingles just tumbled off a truck

and spilled around the trunks in shards. But that’s March, too, the declining sunlight
suddenly flaring up across a glaze of ice that appears without warning

at a bend in the road, this unavoidable fact about yourself and the moment, and
you realize, as you turn the steering wheel smoothly into the skid, that

you are at ease with the prospect of any possibility. Everything in the bed
shifts as you hit dry pavement and then goes cascading, the whole load thunders overboard,

but you’ve stopped; stopped. Somehow, you’re on all four tires. And when you climb
out of the cab, there is the wind, that storied, oft-venerated wind

moaning and clawing at your throat, a lover who wants you or wants you dead. Maybe both.
Probably both, I think, looking across the snow crust

gathering murk as dusk settles in, winter each day just a bit more distant, each day itself
just a bit longer and brighter than the last,

and return to the comfortable heft of the knife, the kitchen sweetened by steaming broth
and promise, another seeming catastrophe survived.

by Ralph Culver, first published in Common Ground Review.

Editor’s Note: Second person point of view gives this poem an interesting perspective. Is the reader a part of the conversation? Possibly. The season marches on, regardless of perspective.

First Night, Perkins Pier by Ralph Culver

First Night, Perkins Pier

Here a woman draws a white coat close
. . . .against the cold. The sky
. . . .presents its chalice.
. . . .Pleas dissolve in steam at the lips of
. . . .young children refusing to come in.

. . . .Nothing will change.
. . . .Each day plays the songs of
. . . .water, of bread, of dying.

. . . .Yet the winter lasts only a moment.
. . . .Edging the lake ice,
. . . .a girl tests her new skates,
. . . .ringing a silver bell, eating a coin of chocolate.

by Ralph Culver, first published in Seven Days.

Editor’s Note: Acrostic poems need not be obvious. This gem gets its point across with simple statements and a delicious last line that leaves the reader with a clear image of winter’s ephemeral nature.