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What Do We Know and When Do We Know It?

ISSUE:  Fall 2008

Hot day, an old guy is climbing into a tractor,
bright orange, as yet ungouged by gravel
or tree stump. He’s testing levers and gears
and settling into a seat built only for him
while we sit at the signal next to the tractor lot,
next to an oil drum painted blue, bright
with utility. And on the weekends outside
the ballpark a man does play the oil drums,
a dog sits wearing sunglasses with a hat at its feet,
its owner nowhere in sight in these last shabby days
of summer. The days right before the mist
starts to rise in a fusion of twilight and evening
over the neighbor’s garden, when the hollow shafts
of sunflower stalks almost whistle, when we think
we can see the golden thread that will lead us
out of the labyrinth despite the stories people stop
to tell us at every turn, the glass bead rolling away
catching light, the ink on the page growing spindly,
each story feeding the one we don’t know
how to say yet, the one waiting in us for the right story
to come along. And sometimes it does,
like that moment in The Bicycle Thief when the boy
and his father go off to work and each is proud
of the other and the boy is, I’m certain, my brother
walking to work with our father after the war,
walking down to the Water and Power yard,
and later, when the father is beaten by the crowd
for stealing the bicycle, the boy is no longer my brother
but me, the silvery entrails of failure swirling
in chiaroscuro, the man beating his oil drums
and the dog with its paw outstretched in the last days
of August grimy with dust, blemished by indifference,
when, finally, we know there is no way out. There is
a rusty dredger in the Umpqua hauling up gravel
from the riverbed, there is a river and we’re in it,
an osprey nest resting in the cradle of stadium lights
and now a woman telling a story riven with such loss
she has to tell someone and she has told you,
your head barely above water as you follow
the current filled with branches and upended trees,
filled with pawnshops and homecomings
and a boy who could be you or me
or my brother watching his father fall down.


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