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Thousand Hills Radio
by Joe Fletcher
There was a ship
passed whistling through the star-pierced night.
A cavern of glassy rock where men hatched murders.
The empress's child staggered
behind the peacock, transfixed by
the flickering cosmos in its plumage.
Nightlong the sickly sea sludged
against the sagging sea-wall.
Untouched were the fly-speckled mangoes
on the banquet table.
Beneath blankets beside the cane-clogged creek
sleeping mouths exhaled malarial fumes.
You walked with a knife or
you were hunted.
You shared a cabin with strangers
and learned no names.
Something danced through the windy forest.
The general turned his face to a distant chorus
of diesel grind and someone shrieking.
We looked to the skies for water.
A rusted crane succumbed to the clench of vines
and toward dawn a paw-shaped cloud,
tinged rose, loomed above the horizon.
A priest quivered in the straw.
A doctor fingered the emerald beads on his bracelet.
A wingless bird pried a nut
from the shadow of a smokestack.
Seven metals slumbered in the mountain's red oven.
For all the world's talking, the drenched soil
still burst forth its barbed foliage,
its extravagant blossoms which dazzled
the passing convoy.
Hornets nested beneath the fountain
gurgling in the embassy garden.
Someone's solemn daughter buried
a rabbit beneath a papaya tree.
The pamphlets said nothing of the stench,
the dust-streaked jeeps descending the ridge,
the soldiers' skin so black it was purple,
their breath of goatmeat and mustard.
We saw what happened to the others, and yet:
Here comes the same sun
over the shanties and fish-strewn tidal flats.
Here comes the president,
so close to the screen you can see the elastic on his wig.
Chewing on a root that makes his mouth orange.
For moments there are only the clicking cameras,
like insects devouring images.
And then the clamor of excursions,
the hornblast in the careening marketplace,
buses rumbling through the smoky throats of cities.
The watcher on the ship watches the watcher on the shore.
On the terrace of a shrine a mirror is tilted toward the sun.
Our fingers warm with rooster blood,
we climb the day-splashed slopes.
If there was a word that started us,
no one will say it.
Carrboro resident Joe Fletcher arrived in the Triangle in 2005 after attending the University of Michigan as an undergraduate in the 1990s. After some years working in Montana and Oregon, he earned an MFA in poetry from UMass and now is working on a Ph.D. in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, with a focus on 18th-century British literature and the history of science.
Which means the chance to study, and work with, the poetry of William Blake, an important figure in his (and any) pantheon. Fletcher is a member of the editorial team behind the William Blake Archive, which gathers the poet's extensive, and often illuminated, corpus to help disseminate the work to scholars and the public.
Fletcher recently saw his chapbook, Already It Is Dusk, published by Brooklyn Arts Press. The 35-year-old has been writing poetry for "16 or 17 years, since I was about 19. What got me started writing [was reading] translated Latin American and French poems in English: Baudelaire and Rimbaud on the French side, Lorca and Neruda on the Spanish side. Coming across that when I was younger made me want to try it."
His winning poem takes some of its effects from reports of the Rwanda genocide, as well as time Fletcher has spent in Africa, but he emphasizes that the work is that of his imagination. The poem is also an example of one distinctive aspect of Fletcher's method: He likes to start with a title and an image.
"Some kind of image that triggers the process, build a world cluster without forethought or preconception. I came across the title—when I hear a title or phrase, I try to mark it or record it in some fashion. Then I return to it, my 'title bank.'"
Not all of his poems are written this way, he says, "but I feel lucky when that happens. Then I just have to write the poem!" —David Fellerath