Pilot Light
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An Unfinished Sentence

Toward The Unfinishable Sentence of a Moment in Contemporary American Poetry in which the Idea of the white South might be as white perceptible and relevant as it is white transitional

Whose life is this anyway? —Joshua Poteat
“Illustrating how to catch and manufacture ghosts”

Being’s a vagabond— It shows itself in its absence— —Brian Barker
“Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the
Endless Clucking of the Gods,”

Dear Brian

whatever you said when I asked you what you thought of Illustrating the Machine That Makes The World seemed right, but it was so brief I lost it, let it slip away, and that was more than a year ago,

but as I read Josh’s book again yesterday, struck (again) by the decay, from the invocatory poem, “Illustrating the illustrators”—“We said, If death is like this, then give us more”—forward

                “Apparatus to show the amount of dew on trees and shrubs”

                        The timothy grass coned long for cows
		                        and the one-eared lamb, blue flies dead

                        in troughs. Under the orchard where

	                        the rotting pears, those dull sparks

                        in the grass, could warm a man’s hands
		                        with wasp sting…

                “Illustrating the theory of twilight”

                        Down in the reeds, farthest from God,

	                        where the vultures wash their feet,

                        is where I slept the night the dogs found
		                        the wild boar, half-dead from a cancer…

                “Illustrating an answer to a question through the order in which a bird reveals
                letters by eating the grains set on top of them”

                        In the empty muffin case, termites root their black chambers,

	                        famine through the hours…

                “Illustrating the manner of communicating vibrations to the air”

                        On the branch of a chestnut, before the blight,

	                        a hornet’s nest grew its skin until it throbbed

                        with ten thousand poisons, and because of this
		                        it must suffer. I say this now as a warning,

                        as a translator of sight beyond.

	                        I watched the nest for weeks, its heart alabaster

                        with the sickness, let it grow, took its air
		                        and its long, purposeful lights to bed with me,

                        for what can one do but let the world happen?

I thought I almost remembered it, something about the book’s interest in the “antique,” which I may be misremembering,

though that’s not wrong, because there are a lot of devices here, but little that’s “modern,” which is to be expected since the book is founded, as the subtitle tells us, on J. G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science, so maybe there’s something “antique” about Heck’s “science” as delivered here, and maybe, too, something antique about the decay itself, so the word seems plausible,

though I want to remember it not just because I can’t exactly remember it, not just to scratch the itch of absence, itch of erasure, but because it seems to me a dependent clause from which a complex sentence might proceed

to ask, whether the decay of the pastoral or the agricultural idyll in the face of an imminent (a faithful but naïve) industrialization is somehow written into Heck’s Pictorial Archive and excavated by Poteat

or if this world is the world Poteat can’t not imagine beneath the Confederate afterlife into which the first movement of Ornithologies stumbles (can’t not stumble)

or whether Heck’s Archive illustrates—as it turns Nature into machine, as it mechanizes Nature—the imminent passing of the pre-industrial world that becomes the idyll of post-bellum Southern romance, which becomes for Poteat an inevitable subject, something he has to write about once he discovers it

or, to go even further, to ask if the instability of the Confederate world-view is somehow written into Heck’s vision, even as the War seems inevitable after the 1850 Compromise and the Fugitive Slave Act—making Heck’s world a kind of proleptic elegy for the world that, if it ever existed, begins to decay only more obviously in the War it would take another 14 years to lose, an elegy to which Poteat turns as a kind of extension of the “Nocturnes” section in Ornithologies but, more importantly, as way of shaping as it participates in a moment in Southern writing, in Southern poetry,

a moment in which we’re working to see what’s been suppressed for so long—not only African-American history and culture, but also whiteness—and to write ourselves into a kind of new world, while all the while being tethered to the world that’s passing—if it has not already passed—away,

namely The mythical-capital-letter SOUTH, which is to say that (to ask whether) maybe somehow Heck’s Pictorial Archive gives Poteat the material he needs to make for the present the past it needs in order to make sense—

Dear Joshua

a moment in your kitchen, that lovely vanilla-tinged tea steeping, the daylight a little tentative or lazy or maybe just shopworn to which I need to return

—and by “return” I don’t mean get myself to Richmond in the next few months, but literally to revisit that moment—with Brian’s The Black Ocean in my bag, because it wasn’t out then, though I’m pretty sure I’d read it, so I could ask you about it, specifically the book’s lastness, its eschatologies / we could maybe get Wojahn in on this, too, but what I want to ask you about is / the sense of an ending that permeates the book—though maybe it’s better to say the senses of ending the book maintains, because

sometimes the book seems to report, to observe, to visit, as in

                “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods”

                        But here, now,
		                        the air is clean and empty

                        and holds them, man and bears, as the pit sinks
                        to blackness beneath the shapes I trace.

                        If I lean over the edge
				                        I can almost touch them.

	                        They are thin
			                        and light as snow now …

		                        Now they are nothing.

                “In the City of Fallen Rebels”

                        Here they come, galloping across the river

                        of a dead king rising, surplice, bearded in flames,

                        blowing their battered bugles.

                        They want a word with the boy, they say. They take him

                        into the trees. And there he goes, still half-asleep,

                        dragging his death by a string.

                        and at other times to pray

                “Lullaby for the Last Night on Earth” 

                        When at last we whisper, so long, so lonesome

                        and watch our house on the horizon
                        go down like a gasping zeppelin of bricks,

                        we’ll turn, holding hands,
                        and walk the train tracks to the sea…

                “Lost on the Lost Shores of New Orleans, They Dreamed Abraham Lincoln Was the 
                Magician of the Great Divide”

                        He pulled his hand from his hat and held out the bridge

                        they’d never make it across, bright lights

                        and the river braiding its spell of filth beneath it.
                        He held out questions, unanswerable, and the smell of wet newsprint

                        that won’t wash off. He held out a red scarf,

                        rigor mortis, a small band of farmers shaking pitchforks at a tank.

                “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind”

                        so speak to me now as you disappear

                        and I will carry your message

                        to the cold lips of the sleepers

                        yes I will tell them I saw you standing amazed

                        smiling in another life

                        I will look them in the eye

                        I will tell them you longed to be loved

not only in a present tense that seems traditionally revelatory—but also in the future and the past, to which I want to refer you, because it’s here, for me anyway, I hear a kind of attitudinal rhyme with the scenes of ruin, the images of ruin and decay—I might even say a kind of decadence—in Illustrating the Machine

Dear Brian

—which is a way of asking, as you think about it, if you’d accept any connection between Poteat’s anti-pastorals and the apocalyptic scenes—both the historical/mythical scenes of New Orleans or the 1980s or Cherokee and the eschatological “Last Night” scenes—in The Black Ocean

Dear Joshua

—and maybe I’m reading you through The Black Ocean in a way that’s unfair—or I’m reading you through me, which is inevitable, though also maybe unfair, however many times I might invoke Eliot1

but I’m wondering if it’s possible that, whatever we might say about it, we could say that Illustrating delivers a nostalgia, encrypted in a kind of surrealism, you yourself have decrypted from Heck’s Pictorial Archive,

a diagram of 1851 in which it’s already clear that the Civil War is inevitable and also that The South as a political cause will dissolve at least into the kind of ghost that will haunt itself for a century and a half,

which is to say that maybe Illustrating creates for the speaker/see-er/traveler of Ornithologies the past necessary to the present Ornithologies imagines and the future for which it prays,

in which case, maybe it’s possible—however unfair—to read Brian through Ornithologies/Illustrating

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