Poetry: Robert Campbell
O Lord, do not call me. Don’t ring me up
at night. I’m in bed, lover
at my side, trying to sleep without dreams
of your chariots, which would be
a gang of bikers, your thousands of thousands
racing the asphalt skies.
O Lord, I’m trying to rest, even as you smite
the window AC unit,
even as it rattles above my head like one
of your bitter pronouncements,
even while an ambulance careens past blocks
of sleeping houses, a death-angel
warbling high soprano through the streets.
Banshee, harpy, your little
singing telegram. Yours, the sound of red
flashing lights. Yours,
the neighbor’s baby crying in the night.
O Lord, I confess: I don’t
return your calls sometimes, the reason being
that you rarely have “good news.”
Mostly, someone is suffering from brain cancer
or arrested for living
in a house made out of packaging. It’s a hard thing
to live with too much knowing
and damn near impossible to blunder through
six hours at the reference desk
on four hours of sleep. Inconvenient, how people
are hungry while I eat. What if
I give up smoking cigarettes? Lent is coming.
I will cease to eat all dairy
(except for flavored coffee creamer) if you promise
to put a sock directly in the mouth
of the woman upstairs who screams into her phone
because she can’t get insurance.
O Lord, what was it Dostoyevsky’s nameless
anti-hero said about toothaches?
The man will scream to share his agony, even
if there’s nothing to be done
about it, or something like that. Have you ever read
Dostoyevsky while someone, somewhere
is dying? They always are, you know. Or selling
powder to emaciated addicts
while snow drifts through some Russian asshole’s
existential crisis. I’m no cynic,
O Lord, and I’m no pessimist. It’s just that my flesh
is harrowed by judgment,
O Lord, between your pale lunar parentheses
(I taketh away, I taketh away).
O Lord, let’s not go there. Let this night pass us by,
your awful promises forgot.
Driving by night past the swamps
that stagnate, crawl, shriek,
hoot, clickety-click in the dark,
the boy would watch the point
where rosy road-lights end
outside the city of Baton Rouge.
The family car jostled on as insects
warbled in shaggy-looking trees,
oaks in the stranglehold of mosses
damp and silver, pierced by strange
lights in the wetlands. Fireflies?
Phosphorus? The people sitting
behind the dashboard talked quietly
about a child who never returned
from wandering the swamps alone
(various versions: eaten by gators,
bitten by snakes, poisoned by plantlife,
drowned beneath false forest floor
of green algae). The boy looked.
He peered past the trees, looking
for a hand that beckoned, a flickering
candlestick, a darting glow
or figure chanting, Come away.
Who can tell whether the missing
miss the world? People leave;
it’s a fact, and missing is rarely
reciprocal. Imagine carrying a tiny lamp
between the trees at night as reptiles
crawl about the mess of stinking
bog-water, only you don’t smell,
or hurt, or chill, or “miss.” Some
little boys long to be ghosties
guarding treasure, leading travelers
off the path for miles, only to laugh
and disappear. Perhaps the grave
is another form of womb to which
Freud would attribute a gender-driven
longing for return. Tombs have little
to do with disappearing into water,
with being imbibed by the murk
that reflects the bases of swamp-trees
when the moon is bright enough
to infiltrate the dense, dense roof
of parasitic, growing things. “Astray”
is another example of perspective,
a construction, and there isn’t a soul
treading in the nighttime swamp
who would tell a body otherwise.