Pivot 57

Dick Allen
The Lost Children
(from Space Sonnets, a book-length sonnet sequence)


Skeltonics for Poets and Others

Dick and Lori Allen
Dick and Lori Allen

 DICK ALLEN is the author, most recently, of The Day Before: New Poems, published by Sarabande Books in April, 2003.  His previous collection, also from Sarabande, is Ode to the Cold War: Poems New and Selected.  Other of Allen’s new poems are forthcoming in Smartish Pace, Ploughshares, Tulane Review, The Texas Review, among others, and were recently in The Georgia Review and The Atlantic Monthly.  In 2001, he quit college teaching early (but was made a professor emeritus) in order to write poetry full time.  The Space Sonnets is a lifetime work.  Previous sonnets from it have appeared in Pivot, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, The Year’s Best Spiritual Writing: 1998, The Formalist, The Kenyon Review, The Bible of Hell and elsewhere.

           Sonnets CLXV-CLXXII, from THE SPACE SONNETS
                        by Dick Allen

Seven of us started toward the mountains,
Walking, staffs in hand, robes trailing
In the wet dew of the fields.  We meant
To find what happened there--and if some children
Had survived, to bring them back with us
And bury those who died.  The upward trails
Still held some snow, but here and there upon
Ledges in the sun we found the small
White and purple violets they loved,
A toy dropped in a stream, a little house
Of sticks, picnic refuse, words they'd carved
In birch and poplar bark, a necklace cross.
Tears came to our eyes with each new sign
We found on pasture slope or hill incline.

That first night, grouped around a fire
In which, it seemed, their faces leaped and called,
We said what prayers we could.  Quietly,
We talked among ourselves of what we'd heard
About the one they sought, that burned-face man
Who promised love, who preached the end
Of selfishness, and hate, and war.  Therefore
Those who followed him would save the world.
Or if the world could not be saved, with him
They'd find, at least, another way of life
Within these mountains.  God would speak to them
Daily, nightly, keep them safe from grief.
Although we cursed that prophet, still we knew
If we were children, we'd have followed, too.

At morning, I awoke before the others.  Down
The glade, beside a forking meadow creek,
I caught quick glimpses of a tiny fawn
Following its mother, playing hide-and-seek
With shadows and with sun.  Propped upon
One elbow, eyes still blurry, right hip sore
From the root it pressed against all night,
I watched like some conspirator
A king has sent to spy upon the farthest
And most lonely reaches of his land--
What goes on there, whether it would prove
Safe refuge should he ever be dethroned.
The doe and fawn soon vanished.  Thereupon,
I woke the others, but still felt alone.

Some wild animal had pawed the shallow grave
Where the first child lay.  They'd done their best
To bury her: rocks heaped upon the mound, a small
Cross of sticks above her head.  They'd dressed
Her in a pinafore and laid upon her breast
A wreath of daisies.  But her face looked thin
And terrified.  We knelt and prayed and then
Buried her deeper.  In the next days, as we crossed
Gullies and rivers, we found many more
Of the children, none alive--but never one
Sign of the prophet.  How near, how near
They must have thought him as they climbed
Toward him.  How deeply runs the simple need 
For simple answers and a simple creed.

None alive, none.  At the end, they seemed
To have just given up, laid down in the prettiest spot
They could find and let themselves dream
Into death.  Yet still, the prophet was not
Among their bodies.  The boulders grew more frequent,
The trail harsher.  Where was he taking them?
What mad vision possessed his spirit
That he could lead them so?  Did he condemn
Any who lagged?  Did he promise the dying
They would have a higher place in heaven
Because they'd followed him?  What god-awful resonance
There must have been to his voice!  And then
We found the prophet's body.  On a mountain cliff,
In a grove of pines, the man had hanged himself.

Beneath the prophet's dangling body lay
A felt-bound book.  We opened it.  We read
Of trees with bulging eyes, soul-lakes, a splay
Of levitating flowers.  In the dead
Wings of a moth he'd found a map of Hell.
One night he'd seen God walking on the moon;
Another, on a lonely railroad trestle
He'd spoken with two angels.  "Doomed,"
Said Brother Luke.  We cut his body down
And sealed it in a cave.  Oh God, I thought, Oh God,
My visions are like his.  Are we then one,
Following the dictates of some secret code
Leading to this?  Is my doubt enough
To save me from the madness of blind faith?

Our journey back was arduous and silent.
It was as if, should we start talking of those scenes,
We'd reveal the growing hatred we now felt
Toward God.  How could He allow these children
To die so horribly?  Before their minds were ready,
Before they knew the obligations of free will,
Before they could reason, before they could choose, why did He
Let them be deceived?  "Horrible, horrible, horrible,"
Sister Patricia chanted as she wept
And kept her eyes averted.  Worse,
Once in the distance, almost out of sight,
We saw another band of children press
Into the mountains.  We were helpless.  We
Walked apart and none of us could pray.

This is the greatest mystery:  why Death
Throws dark robes on the young and pure and innocent
While those corrupted, those who knowingly
Choose evil often live their whole lives out.
Why, God, why?  Since you can foresee all,
Do you save them from much greater agonies ahead?
Or even in their brief lives, had they passed
Some secret test of yours and were rewarded
By joining you much sooner than they would?
We could not solve it by ourselves.  The last
Evening  in the mountains, we began to speak
To one another, once again.  We linked
Our calloused hands, and wept.  Our brothers
And our sisters came to meet us through the stars.

                            by Dick Allen
Your mind’s your sentinel,
Clockwork, magic spell.
If you would set it well,
Study a peacock’s wing,
Or do a wild handspring
Into the parapets of
Wanton, erotic love.
With Philip Larkin, search
An English church.
See everything in range
As surpassingly strange:
A book bursts into flame
When it carries your name.
A poet’s house on a lake
Brings on true daybreak.
Stars fall into eyes
That evidence surprise.
And when the last straw bends,
Acquaintances turn friends.

Listen, the world’s mad.
It’s a launching pad
For fantasies and death.
Before you catch your breath,
You’re gone, gone, gone,
With all your carryings on,
Far past Babylon.
Why, then, do you sit there
Like a fading stare
And whisper, “I know, I know”
While hawks sweep Idaho
Still banked with snow,
The paintings of Van Gogh,
And Mexico, and Tokyo?
Lose touch and go
With Sappho and with Poe
Into your life.  Don’t bet
There’ll be time yet.
Real fruit isn’t wax,
Romance isn’t paperbacks.
To see the real body preached,
Walk a nudist beach.
Can’t you?  Are you free
Or a facsimile?
Must you spend your time
Turning on a dime,
Biting back your tongue
And wishing you were young,
Adoring your shame
In the Village of Blame?
Duties preconceived
Are mostly make-believe.
One truly realized
Sight of butterflies
Across a mandelbrot
Or Escher garden plot,
Even in a Kroger’s parking lot,
Is a symposium
To knock you dumb!

Cynicism breeds
A patch of weeds,
False leads.
It yaps and barks
At easy marks,
Does its dogish dance
Around the arrogance
It would make tame,
Then counterclaim.
Cynicism’s envious,
An iron bridge truss
Complaining with the weight
Of minor hate.
Tired and world-wrung,
Its followers come unstrung.
They spend their lives incensed,
Joyless, and against.
Don’t be one.
Take the hard run,
Curse oblivion,
Have Richard Hugo fun
Exploring the west
In a holy vest,
The triggering town
Where it all comes down
To how you imagine
Snakeskin, blood kin,
A single violin
Out in the prairie
Playing bluegrass
To all who pass.

“I know, I know,” you say,
“Just seize the day.”
Yet overly simplifying
Is also denying,
As if life’s some bulletin board
Where fine print gets ignored.

If even under the knife,
You won’t change your life,
You can’t be dumbstruck
In William Duffy’s hammock.
You’re a praying machine
Shown on split-screen,
A needle without vaccine,
An unfallen evergreen.
If you would be more
Than someone’s corridor
Or metaphor,
Somehow, you must
Compact with blind trust
As those overawed
Throw themselves on God.

Many are present, but presence
Is rare as difference.
It says, “By Jesus, I’m here.”
It’s sheer and severe
As an ice cliff, a last rift,
A snow drift
Over (Can you see?)
If not eternity,
The parked cars of Des Moines,
Breast and groin. . . 
And only melting, transmutes
When seeking roots:
Cube root,
Passion fruit,
In disrepute
As you must be
Obsessive, painstaking,
Always apart
Like a single heron, standing
On an out-of-way landing
In a Japanese painting,
The tall reeds shuddering,
Ripples and sun intertwined.
Here, set your mind.

"The Lost Children Sequence" from Space Sonnets,  "Skeltonics for Poets and Others"
copyright © 2004 by Dick Allen.
They are not to be copied or distributed without the author's permission.