Halvard Johnson: Eclipse

Copyright © 1974 by Halvard Johnson

For permission to reprint contact the author at halvard@gmail.com.

For Dad & Edna


The Seventh Knight of Heaven
First Letter from Linz
A Patchy Fog
We Were Dancing
Vista del Mar
Power & Light
Specialties of the House
Hello, Goodbye
Long Ago
Near an Olive Grove
Mountains beyond Mountains
Sun Waters
Second Fantasy
Orient Hotel


Black River Bridge
Heavy Breathing
The Answer
Riding Downhill on your Handlebars
Snow in the Shirley Mountains
A Good Place for Burying Strangers
Leaving Town
Road to Round Hill
There We Go
Wind, Water, Sky, Sea
In Service
4th of July
Running out of Horses
Life at Sea
A Modified Fish-Hook
Afternoon Rain
Tenderly Yearning
One Good Night
Death Heads
To the Reader


The Coronation of the Moon
The Gorilla Job of the Month
After Reading Tolstoi


The Seventh Knight of Heaven
They've poisoned my dogs.
It's come to that at last.
They stole away the horse
and then poisoned my dogs. Three dogs
I slept and ate and hunted with.
Under the moon, their silence howls around me.

It was Sten, the youngest and strongest,
who tore my heart. Took a full day in dying.
Lay there long, only his pain before his eyes.
The others were older -- one was his father --
not as strong. Gave in more willingly.

If I were young, this would have been different.
As a young man, I was a raider. Carried off
what I wanted, and none dared to stop me.
No man could kill my dogs and live.
And then this town, this miserable stone and rocky town,
begged me to live here, be its protector.

Poor job for a fighting man. The town attracts only scum.
But, just over prime, I worked hard for them,
kept their hands clear of blood and killing.
In their church they placed a handsome statue of me,
called me their seventh Knight of Heaven. God pity the others!
They built a house for me, built it strong of stone.
It keeps out wind and rain. They gave me Margareth
for a wife. Not rich, but beautiful and young,
and weak -- as passive as a drowned seagull
nudged along by each passing wave.
A young and beautiful wife.

Some sickness carried her off, and most of the town --
left me half-crippled, fighting off looters and raiders.
Finally then, nothing left worth fighting for. So I'd ride
and hunt with my dogs. Came more and more
to sitting still, listening to the passing rains.

The statue still stands in the church, though nobody
knows we were the same now. The dogs are gone,
and the horse. I've seen a young girl kneeling
before my statue, dreaming or praying. Are these the same?
Praying to, or for me? What difference could it make?
I sit in the house now. No dogs in the yard to give warning.

From miles away,
I see long columns of them, moving southward
through the snow. Turning aside
from my original purpose, I find
now that I no longer fear you.
I have collapsed my tent
and begun to move south, along
with the rest of them.
You are dead now,
and I no longer am full of fear.

It is warmer. The river is free of ice.
They remember us here, and have thrown up defenses.
Within the walls there is laughter and singing.
We are too hungry and tired to fight them.
Come spring, I will find you again. I will change your life.

First Letter from Linz
The woods are dark and thick.
The trees are nailed to a black sky.
A mile back it was snowing in sunlight.
We're sleeping tonight beneath the Bishop's window.

A Patchy Fog
In a house at the edge of the trees
they huddle on long winter nights, making things of leather.
Before bed, the farmer, on a stiff leg, walks to the door
and looks out. A patchy fog is forming in the lowlands,
drifting up across the meadows toward the trees.
He doesn't see us, but knows we are here -- down from the hills
and crazy with hunger. His traps lie half-hidden before us.

We Were Dancing

(after Jehan Alain, 1911-1940)
The nights there
were never unguarded.
The vaulting walls
leapt into shadows,
and in the shadows
there was dancing.

The light of the rose
in a blue glare. We
were dancing, were
dancing, were dancing.


Arising from her bed
she moved through uneven patterns
of sunlight on her floor.
She will continue to glide
through splashes of vivid color
until the voices and instruments
in the courtyard below
have grown silent.
Primary colors: greens, reds, and blues --
alternating, pulsating in wavering banners
on the walls, the ceiling of her room.
On her naked flesh.
A footstep on the gravel.
A whisper from the nearby trees.
She turns aside, stifling a sob.
A handful of flowers,
tossed through her window, falling
at her feet.
Mending a tear in her skirt
she listens for his arrival,
but she doesn't look up, not
even as he enters the room.
He looks at her and smiles.
She smiles without looking up.
It grows dark.
The first sounds of music come up
from below. There are flashes
of sheet lightning in the distance.
Silence. The smoke of a sweet-smelling wood
drifting through the open windows.
He touches her hand.
The smoothness of her hand.
Her studied composure.
Even now.
Please do not leave me.
Please do not go.
What would I do?
What would I do without you?
Without you there is nothing to do.
No one to turn to, to wait for.
I am a Pale smoke drifting through the trees.
The musicians have departed.
Only a slight breeze now,
pushing gently at the curtains.
A distant rush of water.
Go now.
There is no fire here.
Only smoke.

Vista del Mar
A view of the sea. Trees stirring
at the top of a cliff. Watching the sunset,
the wheeling, plunging pelicans,
we would talk about suicide, about throwing
ourselves down upon the rocks,
into the churning tide.

For minutes, or perhaps only seconds,
our blood would stain the rocks and sea.
The birds would descend like clumsy angels,
and when they arose we would rise with them,
our wings beating strongly, our voices good
only for screeching, eyes peeled for fish.

in darkness,
running over wet
pavement, soft
washed onto
the road by
rain --
to make
a wrong turn
on these
winding roads
in the mountains,
to get
on so little
an island

Power & Light
The lights flicker and grow dim.
Then with a crackle and tiny puff
of smoke they go out. And for the first
time in years we are left in darkness.
In town, headlights of cars sweep the streets,
corners of houses, but they will also
blink out soon. Clinica Font on the plaza
has its own power, but even there
they cannot hold out for long.
Nights settles more deeply over towns and cities
in the mountains. We still have candles
and the means of making fire. But now
we will not see so clearly after dark.
Our attackers will remain. Faceless,
dreaming shadows.

Specialties of the House
The house gives us shelter.
Its walls and roof protect us from the rain.
And from the sun. At these latitudes, we have no fear
of snow, and thus our roofs are flat.
Because our house rises above those of our neighbors,
we can look down on their roofs when it rains
and see that they are like square lakes,
holding the water until it has time to drain away,
or rise in steam into the sky from which it fell.
Many of our neighbors are adding second storeys
to their houses, so the days of square lakes
are numbered.

The houses are made of concrete blocks. Lumber
is expensive, coming from far-away places
like Nicaragua and Brazil. And then
all wood save the hardest (mahogany and such) is subject
to termites. Our house is old. We have cheap, wooden doors,
as thin as tissue. The debris of termites appears each morning
in tidy little piles beneath the doors. They leave their
trails on our walls and ceilings. This house is
their shelter too. It also provides them food.

O separations!
Internal organs are bleeding
The stuffing's coming out and passing among us
collecting oysters for the poor
This was never enough to sustain us It stank
of garbage and was unrecognizable in any other
form hair in her eyes and her horn honking
The wind was whispering in her ears and her ears
so delightful to nip at, were pinkish
The wind was cold
O accidentals!
Delightful to stumble upon and there was an old
man who liked to look at her legs and look at
her legs and her legs

Hello, Goodbye
This is just me. These words,
I mean, they are only me. Nothing
to be afraid of, or to worry about.
We can travel, go where the stars go
when they're gone. Now you're in this too.
We're going somewhere, but we don't know
where. But it's nothing to be afraid of,
nothing to worry about. Now watch me.
Watch me carefully. I'm going to
disappear before your very eyes.
Don't be afraid. I'm gone now.
You're alone again. All by
yourself. What does it
feel like? Are you
afraid now?
Are you?

Long Ago
For a few days, I was traveling
in a strange country. The people there
were very poor -- fighting over scraps
of meat I would throw to them. Their language
was untranslatable into any other.

Near an Olive Grove
The sun sets early, leaving a red smear across the sky,
you look up in surprise --
                                       the olive trees stand like old women,
bent & shaken on the hillside --
you carry a load of branches & sticks, as though you were a beast of burden,
you wear black, as though always in mourning,
you travel this road every day.

We were speaking of
a random arrangement of figures,
most of them slender and dark-skinned,
standing, as though at work with rakes
and shovels, among several -- no, many --
yellowish-white pyramids of salt
stretching off into the near distance.

Atop one such pyramid
would stand a middle-aged woman
(or perhaps she would look older
than her true age) who would be wearing
a baggy blue dress, and a headband
to keep her long, black hair off her face.
A hundred pounds of salt strapped to her back.

Mountains beyond Mountains

Deye mon ge mon.
-Creole proverb
Beyond the mountains
there are more mountains.
The road I thought I'd seen the end of
has turned another corner, vanished beyond
an outcropping of rock.

In the hot sun at noon
I meet a traveler going the other way.
He too is thirsty and without water.
He too has been walking all day.

We greet each other like old friends.
We abandon the highway. The mountains embrace us.

Sun Waters
I saw you by a lake.
I thought it was you.

I thought it was a lake.
As I came nearer

the clear, blue lake remained,
and you vanished. I thought

it was you who vanished.
The lake was not a mirage.

Blue and clear it remained,
shimmering in the sun.

There was no sign of you
in the sun by that lake.

I walked into the lake
in despair, never thinking

to find you there, sleeping,
with the blue waters drawn

about you like a blanket,
sheltering you from the sky.

Second Fantasy
I know nothing of the airplanes
or the twisted spoons. The air was clean
when I arrived here three days ago.
And now?

Well, now I sell these things from door to door.
They're light and flexible and full of fun.
There are two models. The first is soft and pointed
at the end. The other is squarish and opaque.
Don't worry. We bear full responsibility for them.
Yours only to enjoy, and make small monthly payments.

There'd be one town and the next, and I'd go home again.
The door would be open and she'd be gone, as before.
Piles of unread newspapers, squeezed-out tubes of glue,
open jars of ointment, lying all around.
Sometimes I could figure when she'd come home
by the amount of underwear she'd left behind.

Looking east in the first light of morning, I'd see her face
rising above the city, a huge balloon covering half the sky.
Later, she stares at me from the west. Her bloated face destroyed.
All day long, I've moved and breathed in the staleness of her breath.

Orient Hotel
I was driving
east along the
highway to the south.
Traffic was light. A few cabs
and horse-drawn wagons. I whistled to myself.

Where three roads came together
there was a clog of traffic. People of all ranks,
milling about on foot. The sound of a siren.
Its melancholy rise and fall. Trailing off into the distance.
With my feet I scattered red and white bits of glass.

Upstairs later, in bed, we were still laughing
about the mistake she had made. Long ago.
she had taken me for someone else, and now at last
she was able to laugh about it.

I was reminded of the splendid sunsets of the south.
The modern highway curving past the beach. Sandcrabs scuttling
Land-side dark. Last trace of daylight, caught in the web of the sea.

It was a small parade. Four or five instruments
and a couple tattered banners. I watched them from the porch
of my hotel, as they straggled onto the public square.
The trumpeter wiping his lip on a dusty sleeve.

I walked out to the edge of town, knowing she would wait for me.
The stars there were exquisite. Cold and clear.
The few houses I passed were illuminated by candles,
the men and women in them just sitting down to their common meal.

She was sleeping. In the dimly-lit room she had fallen asleep waiting
for me. I touched the smooth skin of her belly. She moved
very slightly. Then her eyes opened wide and she recognized me.

Long lines of trucks moved overland from the coast.
The mountain roads were bent and twisted. The trucks
moved slowly and noisily, and I took great chances,
darting and weaving among them.

Beside the small roadside shacks there were many girls,
smiling and waving. Their teeth were bad, but otherwise
they were not unattractive. At open-air bars along the way,
the sweating drivers would gather, boast of their triumphs.
I myself would listen, and learn.

These days were windless. The skies all day, a heavy blue.
The sweet smell of carbon, hanging in the air.
The women tending their braziers, toothless and old.
Often she would come to me during the night.
She would appear at my door unannounced, wearing nothing,
or the flimsiest of shifts. And I would lift up a hand to her.
Nights of closeness, followed inevitably by
mornings of careful indifference. Her softnesses
deferring to my strength.

Great heaps of crated machinery at the docks. The beggars moving
among them, seeking out the careless, stray tourist. The statue
of the great explorer looking out to sea. The government offices
reeking of confusion and delay. The police, their rifles balanced
on their shoulders, fingers always on the triggers.

I sat on the porch, reading her mail. Interminable letters
from those who had once known her. Looking up from them
I could see thunderheads crowding up from behind the peaks.
Within an hour the storm would be upon us. Downhill avenues
would become tumultuous streams of muddy water, boiling up
at the wheels of cars and trunks of trees, moving inexorably down
to the lower parts of the city. The slums, the docks, the harbor.
Power would fail. And night would come on unopposed.


I raced east along the coast,
turned southward into the mountains, and began to climb.
My arm hung out the window. My fingers played with the wind.
The air became rapidly cooler, and soon I was high above the city.
As the road narrowed and steepened, I ascended more slowly.
Young boys ran beside me, trying to sell me bright
green little birds they carried in small wooden cages.

I spent the night in a small hotel in a decayed mining town
high on the face of a mountain. I ordered a modest evening meal.
From a nearby table, an old man smiled at me. I smiled and nodded
back. He cupped in his hands a small green bird. He smiled and cooed
at it. He smoothed and preened its feathers with his tongue, and with
one snap of his jaw took its head off. The head, and then its body,
went out the door. He smiled one smile, blood dribbling from his
mouth, and shuffled out into the night.

Next morning I went on, higher into the mountains. But the farther I
drove the more pointless it seemed to continue. I turned around and
headed down. For hours it seemed, I floated, drifted down toward
that hot white city, the citadel of her affections.


Black River Bridge
Bandits were hiding among the trees,
and across the river were only pig farmers
who wouldn't look up from the mud at their feet
if the sun itself fell hissing and steaming
into the river. The river could turn around
and flow backwards, uphill into the mountains,
and those thick-heads wouldn't notice.

The hooligans in the woods
could strip you and skin you alive,
they could rape your wife and skewer your children
on pointed sticks, and those clods across the river
would only be conscious of mud squishing between their toes.
Piss sloshing between their ears, the piss-heads.
Their own mothers could be carved into cutlets
and fried before their eyes, and they'd only shove
their greasy thumbs farther up in their noses.

One day it was necessary for me to cross the river,
and Black River Bridge was beyond the trees.
I bid farewell to my wailing wife and children,
and set out on the path with my life in my hands.

The sun was up. The river was flowing the right way.
And across the river the pig farmers were playing,
hitting each other with clubs and falling into the mud,
laughing and spitting out teeth. And someone was hiding
behind a tree at the comer of my eye. I tumbled down
when he tripped me, and he fell atop me, pinning me
down with his ax. He breathed in my face and showed me
his teeth. He had nice teeth, considering.

"I am Tasso, a poet," I gasped, hoping to win his heart.
He quickly sprang to his feet. "A poet!" he exclaimed.
"Well, that's different. I'd sooner steal pig-turds
from those boneheads across the river than take money from a poet."

He guaranteed me safe-conduct through the forest for life,
and once a month one of his band would leave a pig,
freshly slaughtered, at the door of my home. In return,
he asked only one thing -- to see, just once, his name
in writing. So here it is:

                      Benedetto Mangone,
                      who would not rob a Poet.

Abundantly green flowing river
water in many channels
southward flowing and warmly

green things squirming and wet
filtering sunlight slow but sure
and settling bottomward,
the others scurrying upward

out of the sludge, and feeling
their way toward the light blue
flow of morning weather.


Letting fall a light green veil,
the ramshackle air of a summer morning.
Her pillows are of yellow and white stripes.
Her eyes, a light green against them.
She's half awake. Her nose begins to itch.
From the tall weeds beyond the garden
a death is announced with heavy sweetness.

But breakfast on the Porch, an orange and toast,
is very reassuring. The gathering of flies
is not for me. Some leaves stay green forever.


Little shepherd on the windowsill, we smashed him with our fist.
We stamped his pieces into the carpet, crushed his eyes.
We catch fireflies in the garden after dark, tear their wings off,
put out their fires. The dog that died behind the barn,
we saw the hair and flesh melt off his bones each day,
the buzzing swarm of flies. We dropped his bones in the river,
watched them settle, one by one, into slimy green.

Heavy Breathing
At thirteen
I was torn from my mother's arms
and sold into slavery among the Pennsylvanians.
In the years that followed -- those long, empty years --
my mother often wondered just why it was me,
why it was me who was chosen.

I'd always thought it was the fairness of my skin,
my delicate complexion. In all of New Jersey
there was no one as fair as me, I'd been told.
I always stayed out of the sun in New Jersey.
"Keep your skin white. That's all that we live for."

But here among the oil fields and coal mines
of Pennsylvania it is just the opposite.
They rip off my clothes and smear me with grease.
They powder me with coal dust. Their heavy breathing echoes
among the hills. They love me here. They just love me.

The Answer
Up along the line
there was another
child there was
another way another
line of response

thought her smile
her smile was amazing

in other words
her blue eyes smiling

she came here one night
& stayed forever.

                                                     grasping one moment
                                          of clarity
I escaped --
                     over the wall
                                                     & into the woods
listening, not listening
                     to the laughter
                                          of my mother & father
                     allowed me
at last to see
                     myself clearly i was old
my hair had fallen out
                     i had no teeth
                                          my lips
                     were frozen to the windowpane
someone was screaming at me from the next room
            the wall there was higher than ever
      the woods near the house had been leveled
               and the children, the others
                     the children
            and the children of the children
were in church, praying for me to escape, once and for all.

Look around you.
See me

The birds are my
             my eyes
in the sky.

             a tree
& tickle me.

Lick an ice cream cone
& feel me melting

inside you.

Riding Downhill on Your Handlebars
Another summer
and again you will be flying downhill
on my handlebars, your hair
will be blowing in my face,
the taste of it will be in my mouth.

Another autumn
and rolling in leaves, my hands
will be itching to touch you.
And winter comes, and snow falls,
and we drag our sleds to the cemetery hill.
We try the hill behind your uncle's house
and stay at the bottom for hours.
And spring comes in with mud and rain,
and walking with you by the river.

Another summer
and again I will be flying downhill
on your handlebars, my hair
will be blowing in your face,
the taste of it will be in your mouth.

Snow in the Shirley Mountains
Late May, and still there are patches of snow here.
Long lines of sheep, crossing the highway like pilgrims.

High mountain roads are still closed in Wyoming.
The passes from one warm valley to another
are frozen tight with snow.

High in the mountains are corners of snow
the sun never reaches. Never.

A Good Place for Burying Strangers
It is a piece of land, both ample and secluded,
on the far side of town. To get there, you take
the first uphill street from the harbor
and follow it as far as it takes you.
There is an old church. You stay well to
the left of it. Further on, there is an old tree,
which you should keep on your right.
On moonless nights you will recognize it
by the strange glow hovering in the upper branches.
Beyond the tree is a field of ploughed ground,
steeply pitched on the highest part of the hill.
Dead Man's Field, it is called. No one in town
knows who ploughs it. Or what, if anything, is ever
harvested. My sister Eva knows. She surely does.

Leaving Town
Not wanting to leave, exactly,
but having been told to get out of town before sundown,
he suddenly decided that it might be nice to take a trip.
His health had been poorly, and, you know, a change
of climate might do him good.
So he said goodbye and left town, taking
only the bare essentials, traveling light.
Towards morning, in loneliness and anger, he came upon
an isolated farmhouse, where lived a sad and beautiful widow,
who, in his rage, he would have raped and murdered
(or murdered and raped) had she not quickly found
her tired, broken heart could beat with love again.

Road to Round Hill
When it finally occurred to me
that the road might have been
tampered with, I got down on
my hands and knees to examine
it closely. Though the night
was dark and moonless, I could
see that the surface was pitted
and scarred, that tiny fissures
sometimes extended from one edge
of the road to the other. The extent
of the damage dismayed me. Round Hill
now seemed far away, so very far away.

I thought at first
it was the wind.
The wind, I thought,
had broken up the light
along the chain of lakes.

The ground was more broken
the higher we climbed.
The light, more intermittent

Nothing moved. Nothing
touched me. I might
have been on the moon.

But you were there with me, weren't you?


Each lake was smaller, higher, colder than the last.
Nothing moved. Nothing touched me. What I thought was the wind
was only your voice, echoing and swaying among the huge boulders.

We have an opening,
the songs of exotic birds
awakening just before dawn, looping
and skimming in sweeping arcs,
black against graying sky.

There We Go
Suddenly everything starts to make sense.
Your skin seems radiant in the lucky
light of love. The roads all begin
to lead where we are going, and confusion
is altogether a thing of the past.
The buses continue their circular journeys,
but this time we know exactly where we want
to get off. And what we can expect to find there.

We are translated into another life. Our moves
and gestures, deft and self-assured. No longer
at odds with our surroundings, we watch the trees
toss their secrets into the air like blossoms,
feel our roots taking hold in the dark earth.

Wind, Water, Sky, Sea
Handfuls of angels
spelling out disaster with the waves.
A starlit night yielding to morning.
Sea swelling and falling and swelling.
Breathing. Rising up on its haunches,
pawing the rocks at the mouth of its cave.
Roaring into bright, full-grown daylight.
Spitting at flowers on the sea-wall.
Raging against continents. Eating mountains
for breakfast. Swallowing ships
and men, as little old ladies
follow their dinners with
just a sip of cognac.

In Service
            In obscure corners
                                         of my mind
I always found myself
                      that if I could
            only conquer
                                      my fear
of the dogmatist
                         in you, there would
     be something
                                    between the two of us
that would never be
       small, something large.
                      as clear
       and precise
as the snap of your fingers.

Mouth pressed to mouth, we made
                                one last attempt
to make her forget that she
         only the day before had been
   a woman sunning herself on the beach
glancing up at a stranger among the rocks
            who said she later
   might come to
                    regret very much
having entered the
                        With everything moving slowly
   toward where she sat among the
          empty chairs of the old hotel, she was
              desperate about
                    not wanting to believe
the stories I had told her
   about islands so remote
                  the only sounds were those of
           bodies slipping into
the clear water,
          white flesh shining, sinking
to the bottom.

Disturbing to the ear
soft touches fell about
where mountains slid together
just below her northern mouth.

Oh, no. Now
let me ask you this.
Where were you when
they arrived, the soft women?

Oh, no. You
don't know. No,
you don't know.
No, you don't.

              I ought to --
              feeling awfully out of place
              -- I ought to know
              where I belong. Where home is.

It was a mist.
It was a mystery.
But planned by others,
their fingers probing, sliding
among the soft folds.


If Dad were here,
he'd show me how to do this.
Now go easy, boy. No need
to rush now.

Oh, I don't know. The feeling
is a mystery, a misery
sometimes. The feeling I don't know.
What I don't know is like a shadow.
It's like a shadow, Dad, that
darkens all I know.


Oh, I don't know. There's all this feeling swelling up in me.
I'd like to keep it separate. Keep one thing one place, other
thing another. But if you can read this, Dad, you ought to know
what I'm talking about. It's not like dreams that keep coming back
night after night, but it's almost like that. And it's almost
like something else, Dad. The way the things you remember best
are never the things that made any difference.

Parking tickets,
faded causes
                    & no
           frantic measures,
or anything apt to disturb you.

Chrome-plating guards your city,
where light lifts softly from the sidewalks
& streets, touches briefly at your window, & gathers
once again, so high above your head.

4th of July
Things change: for the
better or for the worse,
but they change. Even
the things which do not
change cannot remain the

You stop at small towns
on the highway, even at
Murdo, South Dakota. You
take a picture of it, and
then it goes away.

Smith pushes huge triangles of sky into place,
while Harrison erects trees.
Three small birds -- Jasper, Whit,
& Puddle -- whistle columns of figures.
Farmer Brown plants tunafish sandwiches,
but only when his wife is not around.
All things fit together, says the preacher,
whispering behind his hand. All things fit together.
Hunter & hunted are opposite ends of the same trajectory.

Running out of Horses
I saw you ride away on the last horse
and thought of nothing else for the rest of that week.
As usual, the house (we called it our "cabin," remember?)
seemed empty without you. Your "absence" inhabited it
like a ghost. After several days, I followed on foot
the trail you had taken, expecting at the crest of each hill
to see you trudging toward me in the distance, throwing open your arms,
ready to embrace me, glad to be home again.
But for years then we had gradually been running out
of horses. Our little drama was coming to an end.
Or was mutating, working drastic shifts in direction
which neither of us could have predicted. As now, even as you
vanish, something rushes in to fill the emptiness you leave behind.

They were wondering
what to do about her mother,
wandering through the thorny
underbrush, wading
in water up to their thighs.
On the Mexican side of the river
a burro, thoughtlessly,
watched them.
The air was chilly
for that time
of year. Her mother
must simply be told
was what they finally decided.

Downstream, at a car ford,
there was a Ford pick-up truck
stuck, about half-way across
the river. A bunch of Mexicans
were trying to pull it loose
with horses. By the time
they succeeded, it was nearly dark.

We are not children.
Now we are surrounded by dead planets
and satellites. No longer can we rush
off into the wilderness, throw up a fort,
and send out scouting parties
to harass and enrage the savages.
We've returned to simple pleasures,
sleeping late in the morning, sitting quietly
at a table, sleeping cats in our laps.

Life at Sea
This is so ordinary.
There is no way to tell one piece of sea
from another. A man
jumped overboard & walked away.
No one on board could remember his name.

If you've seen one cloud, you've seen them all.
The birds that followed us to sea
are garbage-picking scavengers.
Someone told me that once they land on deck
they have no way of taking off again.

At night, of course, there are the stars.
If you are interested in looking at stars.

A Modified Fish-Hook
I arrived early enough, but never understood
exactly what was happening. There were the customary goldfish
swimming around in circles, bumping their noses
against the inside of the glass.
She sat down with me and tried to explain. The moths,
she said, were everywhere. Even in her bedroom
closet, eating away at her favorite blue jumper.
I did what I could to console her, but in reality
my thoughts had turned elsewhere -- to the geraniums
in the garden below, tiny insects gnawing at their stems & leaves.
A rage swept over me. Damn your blue jumper! I said.
I insulted her--nearly struck her! -- but jumped to my feet
and ran down into the garden. I glanced up,
saw her watching me from her window, tears streaming down her face.
Above me, but just within reach, a modified fish-hook bobbed near
the surface of the water. It was silver, and glistened. I leapt at the bait.

Afternoon Rain
It wasn't enough, was it?
Or did you turn away
before she was finished?

Or was it the gray car
shining in the aftemoon rain
that impressed you?

She had the last word after all,
didn't she?

Or was it the clear, cold
water rushing past in a whisper
a few inches from your feet?

Tenderly Yearning
O, someone is sleeping (who is it? who is it?)
someone is sleeping here. My face has been feeling
the brush of her hair. Lightly, lightly.

Nightly the air is on fire. The star bleeds in vain.
The ocean grayly sweeps the empty beach in search of you.
I chant your name to the deserted sky,
but there is no answer.

The fragrance I loved still lingers in this room.
Those hands I yet feel upon my body, rending and tearing.
Joy of the sun, burning my flesh. How I desire you!

One Good Night
Turning my hand to no purpose,
cleansing a smile in clear water --
             words whispered at evening,
             forgotten by morning.
Our feet move forward on a path paved with seashells.
Our lungs suck deeply at the salt-water air.

We are kneeling at a sandy grave. Your hand holds
a jagged piece of metal at my throat. And when my blood flows
it flows unevenly, a river of many channels.

My going to sleep is like waking. My sinking into the earth,
like rising -- a scarlet flower lifting itself into
the stratosphere, reaching to strangle the moon.

Death Heads

The Earth there, lying under darkness
& swirl of clouds around
where blue should be.

             Do you think we were wrong
             about her? Could we
             have been mistaken?

She felt
her way blindly, groping along
the green walls. The gates were swinging open to her.
Before we could cry out a warning, she had entered.

We moved ahead through that green sky,
and it was full of impersonations,
the voices of loved ones and distant relatives
remembered dimly from our youth.

We often thought
of her entering that place. Her blindness
had moved us to pity. We often competed
to see who would take her hand,
lead her through the darkened streets,
and soft, furry alleys.

In order to share her world
we would blindfold ourselves,

or sit in the gloom with our eyes tightly shut,
magnifying the sounds and smells around us,
hearing her voice in the darkness
telling the old stories.

Retelling ancient stories of violence & death.
Three men and one woman together,
living in a narrow valley. She was the mother.
She spoke with the voice of a mother, and saw them
with a mother's eyes.

The narrow valley was enclosed by high, green walls,
which also embraced the sky, high above them. As daylight
faded and night sounds emerged, he would dream of her
as his wife. The soft, warm place between her breasts.
The one between her legs.

And in the shuddering cold of morning, he would die.
The skull-shattering rock, wet and warm with blood.

As a young girl, she was terrified
by the dark, narrow streets. The men of the town
leering at her from doorways.

                                             I wanted to help her,
but couldn't. They would drag her roughly into alleys,
smothering her screams. And when they were finished
I too would throw myself down upon her.

That particular street would be full
of black balloons. The gate swung open,
and you were shoved forward into their midst.
The balloons surrounded you, nudging and clinging,
pressing heavily upon every surface of your body.
With your last breath, you would appeal to
the tiny flecks of green dancing before your eyes.

The words. There came a time when I could no longer
command them. When they sailed into high, piercing wails,
or diminished to points, fainter than the faintest of stars.
Confronted by rabble -- robbers or common soldiers -- I was unable
to deal with them. I was at the mercy of waiters
and taxicab drivers. I became absolutely dependent on you.

After the meal, he would stand in the doorway of his house,
picking his teeth and watching the shadowy figures
passing by in the street.

                                   She would cling to the opposite wall.
To her, his eyes seemed like small fires. In the small, mud church,
the handful of flickering candles in their red glasses
reminded her of his eyes. On her way home, the door of his house
was shut. She hurried along, wrapping herself
deeply in her own shadow.
After the meeting, the blue badges were handed out.
Round, blue badges, with no inscription or device upon them.
The more daring immediately pinned them to their lapels
or shirt pockets. Those who were more cautious would pin them
to the underside of their lapels, or the inside pockets
of their jackets. The timid, or uncommitted, would slip them
into their pockets, discard them later in the street

The well was dry, and he soon grew thirsty.
From bottom to top was a climb of fifty feet, with two secure hand-
holds on the way. He had attempted it and fallen back many times.
He sat now at the bottom looking up. At the top of the well
the sky was like a blue disk. Perfectly round, if he stayed
at the center. Slightly elliptic, moving toward the wall.

The meetings were endless, and she attended them
only because of him. The speeches, the arguments,
went on forever. Eternal disputes over lines of action,
over subtle points of ideological difference. I waited,
watching her watching him. He would fall.
It would be only a matter of time.

The women were with us. They hid hard things in their soft places.
There were explosions. There were accidental detonations.
The sentries would handle them roughly. No longer
was it enough to show them their empty hands.
At night the sky reflects fires,
and in the morning old women search through the rubble
of bombed-out buildings. Sometimes I wonder
what they want, those idiots.

There are always the rumors. Uprisings in the countryside.
Schools and farms burned by terrorists. Or by militia.
Provincial capitals are retaken after capture.
Insurrections succeed, or are put down.
So and so has been shot, or has gone over to the other side.
A neighbor's wife has been betrayed by her children.
The wise man believes nothing,
trusts no one.
Farming is always a pleasure. Laying a furrow
in the wet ground. Scattering seed in a wide arc,
and watching things grow. Feeding your corn to your pig,
and watching it grow. Feeding your pig to a stranger
who has lust for your daughter in his heart.

Then there's the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer's
daughter. It seems that after dinner they're all sitting around in
the livingroom, except for the daughter, who's supposed to be in bed,
but is actually on the top of the stairs, listening. And the salesman
is telling her daddy and brothers all about his wife, who's a bitch
and won't let him out when he's home. And his wife's sister, who eats
so much she's a cow, but he'd fuck her anyway if there was a flag
big enough. And how when he's out on the road all the chicks sail
for him, but they're mostly dogs or pigs or the horse's ass.
And at the top of the stairs, while he's catching his breath,
the daughter whispers down, "If yer tired o' critters,
whyn't yer try peoples fer a change."

But it's farming is the pleasure. And walking the woods with an ax,
picking a tree and chopping it down. The cutting of it into lengths
and laying it into the fire. Stepping out into the cold darkness
where the smoke drifts away toward the stars.
They're pulling out. After all this time they're really leaving.
Where are they going? Who knows! Who cares! What are they
leaving behind? Nothing of any value to them. What are they taking
with them? Nothing that matters to us.

                                                          They left at night.
I didn't see them, but I heard their columns rumble through the street.
All night there were airplanes landing and taking off.
Jets were screaming.

Of our own free will, some of us went with them. A few
were needed and taken by force. To those who stayed,
the rest of us were dead. Flying into darkness, we saw
the last green fields of our homeland fading, dissolving.

Why should we have stayed? Most of them are like animals.
Why should we stay and die with them? There are always those
who are left behind. If we survive, if we succeed, we'll do
what we can for them.

But there's no future there to speak of. The future is above us,
dark and flecked with starlight, shot with brilliant sunlight.
The Earth lies far behind us, blue with swirl of clouds,
like the circle of sky at the top of a well.

To the Reader
I'd like to kill you.
Really, I would!
Imagine it. Here I am
hiding among these words and letters.
You sit out there peering at them intently,
failing to find any trace of me.
But then I spring, I leap at your throat,
clawing and ripping through flesh,
severing tendons, searching out your jugular.
Your blood spurts out upon this page,
blotting out letters and entire words, attempting
to destroy me. But I have already vanished,
and you, gentle reader, are dead.


The Coronation of the Moon
                                The white lady,
whom we all do serve
                                  and honor as before,
         despite her changing faces

but have not known, or mastered,
                          though we have touched her
          as a servant
                          touches his lady's garment

whose dark phase portends disaster
                                         the quaking of cities,
                          spread of disease and pestilence,
          revolution and strife

whose shadow falling on the earth
         brings terror
                                and heartache
and darkness of night to the middle of day,

                          the white lady
turns her back on us,
        and facing her master
                          receives the flaming crown of heaven
        which she wears for only an instant
-- the instant of total eclipse --
                          and then returns to him,
          and slowly turns to smile on us again.

Now, when the cathedral
thrusts twin spires
upward into the darkness,
is when we live --
clamber over arch, buttress, tower,
tweak the noses of stoney-faced bishops,
mock and deride the virgins of downcast eyes,
gouge the wounds of martyrs with our claws,
perch on the heads of saints, shrieking.
And at dawn, when the Eye of God comes
peeping up over the horizon,
we go to our places and freeze,
spend our day waiting for night,
making faces at children sometimes.


I made this.
By which I mean I planned it, conceived it.
My friends and neighbors built it,
with their children through twenty generations.
And at what cost! Countless thousands devoting
their lives and wealth to it.
I myself grew old in the scaffolding,
never saw the whole of it, save with my mind's eye.
I have a small place in it, down low, under the pulpit.
From here I can see the rich and the poor,
the believer and the skeptic, the noble and the baseborn,
the citizen and the stranger -- my friends and neighbors
coming and going. I did this for them,
and whatever it is they have chosen to worship here


The whole family except one, is here
down under the chancel. Our places are marked
by marble slabs. I've seen these when the curious,
with flickering candles, shuffle among us in the darkness.
To my right lies an uncle I never knew when alive.
Never at home, but always at war somewhere. A bear of a man.
My father lies on my left. Not a ver good likeness.
Beyond him is my mother. I cannot see her.
Our family built this church, though during my time
it stood half-finished, and nothing much was dome about it.
Let's say there were more pressing needs just then.
The one who began it -- he lies upstaris in the chancel.
His tomb is gold. He said, "I build this church for my people."
What a joke!


I've seen dozens of places like this.
This one is interesting, I'd say, but not exceptional.
It's right next to the railroad station, though,
and that's great. You don't have to spend a lot of time
looking for it. During the summer, cathedrals are really
a blessing. You can go inside and they're always cool.
But in fall or early spring, that's a bitch. You can catch
your death. This one has a beautiful organ. I love it when
you're in a church and the organ begins to play.
You can sit down in back then and listen to the music
and watch the sunlight coming through the stained-glass windows.
After a long, hot train trip, ther's nothing like finding
a nice, cool cathedral right next to the railroad station.
It's almost like coming to life again.

How does it work, your new machine?
Does it glide you slowly southward
over blue waters, singing love songs
in Greek to you as it goes?
You plug yourself in, and then sit
back and relax. Cozy, isn't it?
Just for you, constellations march
across the ceiling of your room, as
(blue metal finger at your pulse)
it monitors your precious heartbeat.
You fly through the densest atmosphere
without singeing a whisker. It holds you
in its arms and calls you "lover."
And when you went to sleep, you turned
it off, of course. But can you be sure?
No need to worry though. It only obeys.
No feelings or thoughts of its own. No dreams
for its future. No plan that it's shaping for yours.


One hovers near the other,
and if they brush harshly, one against the other,
the shower of sparks would ignite the universe.
They bob up and down on the airstreams,
sharply falling, and then rising steeply.
Drawing together, then drifting apart, metal
yearning for union with metal. They connect,
and the power contained in the one
flows into the other -- pulsing,
surging from one to the other.
Then comes the disconnection.
Then drifting apart, and sighing.

The Gorilla Job of the Month
The high platform could easily be seen
for several steps in every direction.
And then dense underbrush would interpose itself.
The teeming plant-life making known its will.
The ones on the platform -- my job to watch them.

Their high platform: lowered in one piece from the sky,
crashing down through the upper branches, disturbing the birds
in their nests. Four long poles and a platform at the top.
Their poles had some spring, and did not snap. The platform
did bounces and tilts for a time, then righted itself.
Came to a standstill. Stood there.

By the waterpool, the two of them were making sounds to each other.
And I got close enough to hear one say, "One over six
by three is three over six or one over two."
The other nodded, "Yes."

Yet something essential was missing. The computations could not be
made that simply and still remain meaningful. Maybe it was the lack
of feeling in her voice. A case of simple innocence, perhaps.

The other spent his days collecting and labeling specimens.
He'd set snares for birds and fasten small metal tags
to their legs. He filled hundreds and hundreds of bottles
with dirt and cuttings of plants. A collector's collector.

The girl looked so bored, I thought I'd speak to her.
"Thirty-six is the square of six," I said, "and seven
is the root of forty-nine." Her eyes lit up, her face
began to shine. She ran to tell her boyfriend,
who reddened, first with anger, then with shame.
He said. "We're not supposed to know that now, I think."

But I guess you know the rest of their story. How their platform
toppled to the ground, all of his bottles smashed. And how,
through suffering, their life together suddenly took on
new meaning and purpose.

The sea is awash with petals of flowers.
It continues to sing its wild and simple song
and nobody minds. Here a squat, brown rock
suffers the sea to break over it endlessly,
over and over.

                        I cling to that rock --
yearning for the freedom of the sea, yet clinging
to the rock. The waves break over my shoulders.

Here waves lift themselves up, toss spume
like tiny blossoms to the wind. And gulls
slashing downward catch up small bits of life
the waves lift up to them.

                                       Yet the force that lifts
will pull them down again to lift them up
and pull them down endlessly, over and over.

I see myself lifted on a tide of flowers, broken
by a rock I had clung to, listening
to the singing of the sea.

It was on the island of Crete
that I began my self-portrait. Crete is the largest
and southernmost of the Greek islands. It was in early
March, 1973. The air was cool, and the sun was warm. The hillsides
were covered with flowers.

In March each year -- on the tenth of March to be precise --
I am halfway between one birthday and the next. So the tenth
of March has always seemed to me to be the pivot of my year.
I began my portrait of myself on the ninth of March,
just before the pivot of my year.

Crete was cool and green in the Mediterranean sunshine.
Oranges and lemons hung everywhere in great abundance. Lambs and
kids frolicked among the older sheep and goats. I was almost
precisely halfway through my thirty-seventh year.

Wildflowers blossomed everywhere -- at the seashore, on the lower
slopes of Mount Ida and Mount Lassithi, even among the ruins
of the great Minoan palaces. Only high peaks and valleys still lay
under snow. The Minoan world began to reach its greatest prosperity
around 1600 B.C., thirty-seven centuries ago. Maybe thirty-six.

So that's a kind of context, I suppose, for me. I'm thirty-six
now, and going on thirty-seven. Born on September 10, 1936.
And I can't tell if I'm rising or falling today.


On March 9, we camped in the hills above Knossos.
At the crest of a hill to the west, a low, white house
was outlined against the pinkish-gray sky. As I watched
the silhouette of a Peacock strode across its roof.

Barbie and I had been traveling on the continent of Europe
since a few weeks after my thirty-sixth birthday. By then
we'd visited Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece,
and had been briefly into Italy at Trieste.

If I were a painter, I'd rather be Bosch, Vermeer, or Klee
than Rembrandt, say, or Rubens. But I'd rather be Albrecht DÅrer
than almost anyone else. If I were a composer, I'd rather be German
than Italian. I'd rather be Beethoven than Bach, Mahler than Mozart.
And I really wouldn't mind being Wagner, Stravinsky, or Webern.
But I have up piano when I was twelve. Today, I travel and write.


Two donkeys moved in slow circles under the olive trees.
One was saddled, the other was not. This was near the monastery
of Preveli on the south coast of Crete. On March 18, a windy Sunday,
I finished work on my self-portrait.

For six days and five nights we camped in a beautiful valley
near the monastery, taking long walks through the hills
and along rushing streams. My self-portrait, I'd decided,
should be simple and direct. (Like DÅrer's in Munich,
I thought to myself.)

So, old clothes then, and nothing fancy. Just me as I am,
with a bit of Cretan springtime in the background. Two young
donkeys playing in an olive grove, one biting the bridle
of the other. Or a shepherd and his flock crossing a stream
by way of a hump-backed cobblestone bridge.


My eyes are blue, and in the portrait they look toward you,
but not directly at you, eye to eye. My moustache and beard
are reddish-brown. My hair, a trifle darker. The expression on my face
is somewhere between musing and amusement.

You see me from head to waist, wearing a tan shirt, somewhat frayed
at the cuffs. A small triangle of white undershirt shows at the base
of my throat. All of my buttons are buttoned but one.

So there I am. Just a man, thirty-six years old, who likes to write
and travel. A man who loves his wife and lives easily with her.
A man who looks out from his portrait and can almost see you.
His left hand holds a handful of flowers,
and his other hand is hidden.

At the bottom, right-hand corner of his portrait
I put my name and the date.

                                                            Halvard Johnson
                                                            March 18, 1973

After Reading Tolstoi
Ivan Ilyich is dead.
But I am alive. Yes, alive!
Waking in the night, I consider the similarities
between the unconsciousness I have just experienced
and death. From nearby comes the monotonous roaring
of a stream. It sounds like a radio left on
long after all the stations have, one by one,
signed off and shut down for the night.

Some of these poems first appeared in Hanging Loose, Fragments, Gnosis, Granite, Minnesota Review, Hearse, The, Puerto del Sol, Little Magazine, and the anthology, The Sensuous President by "K" (New Rivers Press, 1972). "North" first appeared in North Stone Review. Grant aid from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and the New York State Council on the Arts is gratefully acknowledged.

New Rivers Press books are exclusively distributed by:
Serendipity Books
1790 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, California 94709
This book was manufactured in the United States for New Rivers Press (C.W. Truesdale, editor/publisher), p.o. box 578, Cathedral Station, New York, New York 10025 in a first edition of 600 copies of which 400 have been bound in paper, 200 in cloth (15 of which have been signed and numbered by the author).

Other Books by Halvard Johnson:
Transparencies & Projections (New Rivers, 1969)

The Dance of the Red Swan (New Rivers, 1971)
Library of Congress catalog card number: 73-89344
isbn 0-912284-55-2(paper)
0-912284-56-0 (cloth)

book design by C.W.T.
cover photo courtesy, high altitude observatory of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
other photography by melissa shook
all rights reserved

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