Out of Place
The house we bought when I was five
the McKinnons owned. I only met them
once, so how I remember them,
lord only knows. The father worked
at Ma Bell (and for you millenials
that was the almighty phone company
back in the Jurassic). They left behind
two tiny replica phones, pale yellow and red,
and a different wallpaper in each room,
all of which my mother painted over,
excepting a lone barnyard chick
hidden in a corner behind
the Frigidaire, stranded in its field
of chocolate brown, forever pecking
at an imperceptible grub. Their teenage boy
pulled me aside and said he’d hidden
toys all around the yard for me
to someday find. I never did.
A stuffed teddy’s slouched on the park bench.
A mitten singleton’d on the pointy bits
of a hurricane fence. A monochrome photostrip
curled at the curb, teen couple mugging
for the lens (before selfies were a thing?)…
What story ended with them stranded there,
out of place on their separate shores?
Is anybody looking for them? Who
chose their noticeable resting place
or ignored where they’d fallen? I
each day walk by that photo,
as it fades and tatters in all weathers.
Things out of place — like hobo signs:
hold your tongue, good place to sleep, bad water,
go this way, prepare to defend yourself.
Sneakers dangling from the telephone wires —
do they mean drugs for sale here,
as urban legend claims, or just a prank
on some unlucky dweeb, who’s out of place
himself in a world of unexpected communiqués,
unwanted attention? Hide him shoeless in
the flowerbed and hope a friendly gardener,
young, naïve, and new in town, unearths him.
Deaf as the proverbial
post, Stella no longer responds to calls
and whistles. I tug her leash to draw her schnoz
from rhodies or juniper, spots she invariably,
implacably, visits daily analyzing scents
like a forensic pathologist.
I keep my eyes skyward, zoning out
on flickering birches, firs studded with crows
yammering, as Stella inhales the culvert
for evidence some earlier mutt deposited,
a memo left for her to decrypt.
In the road, chicken bones some raptor kiped
from The Colonel’s dumpster and dropped,
or the crimson pelt of a roadkill squirrel
or rat flensed in the gutter. I keep a tight rein
as Stella hauls toward the tempting bouquet.
Behind plate glass, curs sound alarms,
behind cedar fences they hurl themselves
streetward and snarl and bay. We avoid
walkers of large dogs: the labradoodle (hyperactive),
the retriever (deceptively sedate), the pair (insane)
of boxers. Small ones are no better, terriers charge
unleashed or chihuahuas prance at the end
of their tether, yapping without reason,
primed for offense even at a third of Stella’s size
—arrogant, snouts stretched up to sniff her behind.
We say our hellos to usual suspects:
the limping septagenarians, teens on bikes.
We keep tabs on gardens evolving and remods,
out-of-state plates, telltale yard signs. We see
the teddybear topiary needs a trim, he’s growing
an elephant’s trunk. We see the hen coops
have disappeared, an untarped RV presages
a roadtrip, a biting whiff of lighter fluid a cookout.
Crows follow us from tree
to tree, bitching. A red-breasted sapsucker
raps its manic message on a streetlight.
Far from their lakeshore eyrie, three bald eagles
whorl in lofty silence. (Lost-cat posters
festoon telephone poles: a correlation?)
The banging of a hammer or nail gun, crash
of bottles into recycling bins, whine of a strimmer,
and the smells of white gas and fresh-cut weeds
clues I also note in passing. I have my
daily perimeters as well, venturing humanly
to the bank, the smattering of specialty groceries,
Corky’s Chevron, the all-important Library, the cliché
coffeeshops where I scribble amid a dull roar.
Check email, do laundry, dishes, my own odd
weed-whack. Noting, thank the lord, the sun
vis-à-vis yardarm, and only then booze in hand
tuning in the evening news onslaught. Whip up
a dinner, and lastly lay down my leash
to follow the mesmeric spoor
of another night of wandering dreams.
Then sloops dotted the Malibu Pacific like the tiny blue
jellyfish sometimes blanketing the beach: Velella,
sea raft, by-the-wind sailor, purple sail, little sail.
Now Bakersfield lay like a circuitboard
far below. Into the Sierra the lobed hills
furred with pines, a few cloudlets
hanging cottony above the crags.
Then past peaks, patchworks of fields,
one aqueduct wriggled through, highways
bisecting acreage like Nazca earthworks
visible only from space: shapes
of weird animals and gods, ancient
furrows straight in uncanny perfection.
Now vast folded knolls sheltered jade lakes
and reservoirs, towns, and suburbs veiled
in valleys, dirt roads snaking the geography
like ribbons from unwrapped gifts
strewn on the crumpled paper.
Then here and there a tiny, bright star blared
out of the wilderness: a pond? Something
man-made in that sprawl of raw nature?
I think of Einstein’s folded space: suns
hanging among the dimensions
like dew on an inestimable field.
Now a definite lake, minute in the distance,
reflected perfectly the bank of clouds above it,
portal to another sky below the earth
or beyond, through a rent in the fabric of Oregon.
Then we crossed Portland’s glittering carcass,
the dark cicatrix Willamette
sutured by ten fragile bridges,
lacing up the city.
Now the Columbia with its broken necklace of islands
wandered off to the Pacific, villages sprinkling
the river edge like agates, the delta
a Rorshach blot in negative, smoky
platinum against a leaden ground.
Then we began our descent.
In an eddy of the slow-moving
river of the pedestrian zone, camped
at a wicker table, I drop
covert crumbs of Danish for sparrows.
Around me, business lunchers,
chatterers with coffees,
and those on phones
passing in a mobile trance.
I try not to eavesdrop,
or rather to not even hear,
to drift on the matrix of sound,
a lyrical drone like birdsong. And then
someone walks by speaking
Arabic. Not unlikely
in this cosmopolis: understandable
even if not understandable.
How often I’ve sat at sidewalk cafes, in Riga,
Vilna, Jerusalem, washed in babble, undistracted by
(oblivious to) meaning, even signage and billboards
undemanding for once.
We’d hiked far up the Elwha valley
and staked our tent just feet from rapids.
I lay in the dark hearing muffled voices – mutterings,
chuckles, as though boyscouts camped nearby.
It was just rocks washing against each other,
dangling branches tearing the water
in an unfaltering slash. It was soothing and yet…
uneasy, I couldn’t make out words.
It was data in an unknown tongue.
No radio, no phone, no writing beyond
my journal, the only words
pebbles washing around my skull.
Here stop signs shout in all caps. Business logos
obtrude, as intended. The not-so-private
exchanges of these neighbors needle
through the skin of my thoughts.
No one notices or mentions me,
as no doubt was true in Jerusalem,
but even if they had,
I wouldn’t have known or cared.
Ignorance, foolishness, and bliss
swirled in a tight eddy
while my hand drew a wake
in my journal, a blue sustained ripple.
My daughter runs a fan all night
year-round, the sound they call pink noise
hiding the creaking house,
TV, and down-hall chat.
Her dreams follow their own trajectories,
unprompted by random input.
She relies on us to wake her if need be,
like I’d rely on friendly natives
to intercede if things went south
as I sat engrossed in my notes
amid, say, the tinderbox crowd,
the pink noise of Hebrew and Arabic.
The shop signs in their encoded curlicues
right-to-left presented patterns endless,
non-representational, deceptively without
meaning. Ramadan eve, the Jerusalem souk
drained of tourists as the stalls closed up,
but still, I rambled narrow lanes,
captivated, oblivious infidel, till one vendor
pointed me back the way I came, said
it might not be safe come dusk,
especially tonight, coming
at this anniversary of the Six-Day War,
when Israelis drove Arabs from Jerusalem homes.
I might as well stick my la-la
fingers in my ears, head in sand,
but isn’t the stillness
rosy while it lasts?
Sean Bentley’s work has appeared in the magazines Cape Rock, Crab Creek Review, Seattle Review, Third Coast, Painted Bride, Northwest Review, Poetry NOW, Bellingham Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Coe Review, and many others, as well as the anthologies Pontoon 3 (Floating Bridge Press), Iron Country (Copper Canyon), Intro 6 (Doubleday), Island Of Rivers (Pacific NW National Parks Assoc.), and Darkness and Light: Private Writing as Art (iUniverse). In addition, he has published three collections: Grace & Desolation (Cune Press), Instances (Confluence Press), and Into the Bright Oasis (Jawbone Press). From 1986 to 2006 he coedited the print poetry journal Fine Madness.