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Dead Poets

Author Biography
Poetry By
  James R. Whitley

Published on: 4/2/2009
Sonoran Desert, 1998

Our self-appointed mission that year:
to choke adventure from
the parched throat of Arizona.

And what you would later describe
to our former friends simply as
a wonderful vacation,

I still recall, in nightmares, as
Nature's blistering invective
against human frailty.

All the desiccated while there,
you in your own remote space,
admiring Life's cameo appearances

on that sweltering sandy stage-
the gaudy displays of blooming
cacti and creosote bushes,

those chatoyant cicadas fanning
themselves like pious church ladies
in the coveted shade of a Joshua tree,

that diamondback rattlesnake
and its many-jointed argument
for persistence-

and me, focusing on
likely future outcomes, wondering
why anything would stay in

such an unforgiving climate,
pitying every sweaty creature there
obviously thirsting for something.

Published on: 12/15/2008
Notes on the Predator-Prey Relationship

Until the danger is a scant
few yards away, the grazing
antelope ignore the lion
lumbering toward them
with purpose in its jaws.
And it is this fatal allowance
that the lion, deceptively
slow arrow, relies on:
that it will be granted
a grace period wherein
it can drag its heavy
hunger nearer. Though
alarmed, the antelope herd
just watches as the distance
between growling need
and fulfillment decreases,
as fate stalks the veldt
like a blossoming sirocco.

When my mother first felt
the dark fruit of her cancer
growing in her abdomen,
she continued on with
her daily routine-
frying pork chops in her
purple house dress, reading
her cherished mystery
novels, playing dominoes
with her dear grandsons-
thinking, like a doomed antelope,
that a setting sun is just that,
not a tragic herald,
not a dim omen,
concluding, with sincere
but misplaced modesty,
Not every bell heard
is necessarily tolling for you.

Published on: 9/8/2008

It was a scene so perfect that
it's hard to look at Hamilton Lake now
without that small wooden boat on it,
the buoyant couple inside,
coquettish bass and bluegills
flashing their argent bodies nearby.

That sacred year, we showed our respect
to the goddess of lazy weekends
by sacrificing an entire October of
Saturday mornings just floating there,
moving the oars just enough
to gently nudge the water lilies
littering the serene surface aside.

Here is more evidence that
paradise may be a leasable commodity,
never intended for anything more
than the briefest periods of possession.

Still, we were meant to be there.

But now this bulging basin
of water has been emptied of
something essential, has been
filled with something
that will freeze soon
like loss.

On the lonely shore,
I see the wind sweeping away
the discarded leaves of a cypress tree
as if to groom the land
for the coming season.

I listen as choppy waves vent
their ire against the scarred belly
of our abandoned boat
as if to drum out a message:

No, erstwhile sailor,
even here,
you are not home.

Published on: 6/20/2008
What Lies Before You Might Not Be Your Future

Perhaps our voyeuristic gods expect too much of us,
inherently flawed creations that we are,
weak putty in the hands of temptation.

Even with the various edicts we've been issued
not to look back,
who among us ersatz images could ever resist?

Think of the paradigmatic case of Psyche,
ordered to tolerate the smooth hand groping for her
from behind the mysterious veil of nightfall,

her understandable curiosity burning
like melted candle wax
on her husband's immortal skin.

Or tragedy's poster boy
Orpheus and his impatient lyre-
something tapping him on the shoulder

as he climbed into sunlight just
steps ahead of his beloved Eurydice,
something hissing repeatedly in his ear,

Turn around
and check her out, man.
You know you want to.

And what recourse do we have when
there is no appeals process available?
Simply to move forward despite the questions

littering the road like deep potholes,
despite the incessant buzzing of knowledge
swarming around our inferior human heads?

Such an unreasonable demand since
even we lowly creations know that
in this ever-expanding universe of magic and miracles,

there is always something left to see and,
no matter the concomitant penalty,
there is always some compelling reason to look back.

A final moment of silence now for Lot's wicked wife,
perhaps suddenly realizing that she'd left
the family poodle tethered in the garage or

just wanting to catch that once-in-a-lifetime glimpse
of what an Armageddon looks like,
whatever her motivation,

turning to behold the something still back there,
the spectacle singing her name from a flaming rooftop,
rationalizing to herself,

Surely He won't begrudge me
one parting glance
considering all that I'm leaving behind.

Published on: 3/17/2008
The Goddess of the Hustle

When the ninth treatment to shrink the tumor
in my mother's liver proved unsuccessful,
she said no more.

No more to the chemotherapy and dashed hopes.
No more to the avoidable agony.

I come from a long line of women who excelled
at telling men what to do, so that doctor,
urging her to continue on, must have annoyed her
to no end, like a classical thorn in her vulnerable side.

So I understand why she swore at him even as
his compassionate fingers checked her waning pulse
or adjusted the level of relief in her morphine drip,
and why she finally ordered him to
stop the futile doses of radiation.

And she probably thought the birds and clouds in that
unbearably blue Virginia sky were mocking her-
a mere child in her fifties unable to bathe herself,
watching helplessly as her dreams piled up before her
like a useless heap of pistachio shells, her mind
stained deep red with the very thought of them.

She must have known this was her final
turn under the glittering globe, her last chance
to grab Kismet by his unfaithful balls and
lead him around in that one remaining dance.

And although I wasn't there to comfort
either one of them, I imagine she felt like
Cleopatra did as the dutiful asps slithered
away from her punctured throat, thinking:
Nothing left to do here,
but lie down and wait
for the chariot to swing low.

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