Plainsong. by Keith Robbins

That first chill in the late summer air
ignites a primordial fear of mastodons with steaming flanks,
of watchful eyes in caves. The constellations flicker softly
over cattle frozen solid in Wyoming, in Montana,
in the Dakotas. They still stand. My belly squirms
with an urgency that feels both nostalgic and filled with dread.
I must tunnel deep. I will be hungry soon.
Tomorrow I wear black, and the true mourning can begin.
But there is no contest, no thought of struggle.
This you learn quickly, rising bloodied on the count of nine.
By third winter you submit gladly to the yoke.
You bend your back to carry the load
of your own particular sorrow—now,
strangely, your great romance as well.
Every morning you strap it across your shoulders,
slog to work beneath a sky that bows your head
with every imaginable prayer, with loss and lamentation.

In January the Siberian Express slants in,
subzero blast from the steppes of Saskatchewan.
It cuts across bluest black Lake Superior,
slingshotting Wisconsin’s glacial moraines.
Then the sky is so far away, so blue
it pierces the heart. The eyes explode with light,
and every sound—
the El train clanging south,
an invisible car door slamming,
the dog barking four blocks away—
comes magnified to the ear, then vanishes
abruptly, the air too thin to vibrate.
This is a time of enchantment.
The sun has never been so high or so still.
His shadowed minions swallow our secret tracks,
and we let the wind’s teeth grab us,
toss us around in our immortal laughter.

Here in southern California
everything is smaller and shinier,
and runs like beads of mercury
from mountains to coast
to end dancing on the farthest shadow-line,
where the sun is always setting
but never really goes down.
Sadness has no currency in this golden land,
so no-one sees a friend who might need carrying
from time to time, from there to here, and back again.
Everyone goes about alone, and fulfilled.
I constantly forget myself, who I might be.
I cannot tell one year from the next.
Now only the body’s own seasons, the insults,
the losses that pile on and on,
tell me that another spring and summer,
fall and winter have passed. That Time rules us all.

I never dreamed
how great was the love I left behind
there, on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Hunched yet defiant beneath solid gray sky,
shouting out reckless joy, buckshotting lust
through the neon blue air of winter.
Then, love cut like a knife—quick, a murderer’s intent,
and I was both junkie and his own restless fix.
Today I take it for granted.
Am I better off now that heartache and joy
can look the same today and only feel different tomorrow?
This endless sun blinds me. I cannot find my rhythm.
I want to hear that impossible blue sky again,
ringing like a true mendicant’s bell
across the whole wide dome of heaven,
feel the animal restlessness in the charging air
and the wind off the lake send me reeling madcap on.


Keith Robbins (aka K.L. Slaughter) writes the occasional poem, typically from necessity, but devotes most of his writerly energies to his serial novellas. He has made the curious and gratifying discovery that the landscape, characters, and action faithfully delineate his conscious self, and make possible the stumbling yet spontaneous exposition of subterranean contents as well. In addition to the yet-to-be-critically-acclaimed The Four-Leafed Clover and The Long Way Home, excavations are underway for the third installment in the Clover series, tentatively titled A Dance of Sword and Shadow. Mr. Robbins has also written a half-dozen spinoff short stories featuring his faithful cast of characters--brief description: P.G. Wodehouse + schadenfreude. He may be contacted through Facebook.