Gusts and ghosts, the rattle of traps, the tap of rain asking to be let in or out. It’s still January but the year’s already tired of itself, tossing calendars in the recycling and putting down deposits on a whole new set of dates. I’m finding it hard to distinguish between sleeping and waking as I sit to break bread with schoolmates I’ve not seen since the 60s. I know that most of them are dead, but they don’t, and to tell them seems unfair, or at least a breach of unstated etiquette; so, I answer their questions about my job and why everyone’s wearing masks, and pass the new potatoes clockwise around the table. All the while, those tiny sounds of an old house in an old year are converging into something that’s close enough to music for those kids from the Music Club to pull out their fiddles and accordions and join in with the squeaks and sighs. Everyone is leaning in and smiling, chorusing a song of rain and paper-thin leaves, and plumping pumpkins; but when I take a photo to share online – #justlikehalloween #goodtimes – even my own face is missing.
Oz Hardwick is a European poet, photographer, occasional musician, and accidental academic, whose work has been published and performed internationally in and on diverse media. His prose poetry chapbook Learning to Have Lost (Canberra: IPSI, 2018) won the 2019 Rubery International Book Award for poetry, and his most recent publication is the prose poetry sequence Wolf Planet (Clevedon: Hedgehog, 2020). He has also edited or co-edited several anthologies, including The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (Scarborough: Valley Press, 2019) with Anne Caldwell. Oz is Professor of English at Leeds Trinity University, where he leads the postgraduate Creative Writing programmes. www.ozhardwick.co.uk
During my third May in the house I built, a sog of mist dripped from one day into the next. One afternoon, when no doors were closed, a drizzly fog drifted up the valley and entered my front door and trailed—like the ghost of a snake—through the house and out the back door. It passed by me, a strand of vapors, and merged with the mother cloud on the other side of the house.
A fog in the old cantos forebodes reckless actions caused by short-sightedness. Or else its drift is a symbol of memories lost. It mutes nature and makes implicit the forms it contains. As such, fog is elegiac—an encrypting ether that spirits the imagination to the horizon’s absence, the erasure of trees. It settles on the world a crown of longing.
Hemmed in by a dense fog, I walk the slim margins of visibility without orientation. This kind of fog is a labyrinth without hedgerow corridors to follow and right-angled choices. In the place of spatial acclimation is the visual cancellation of depth. Dense fog is a self-referential experience, a targeting of consciousness as a center without circumference.
Or—in the near distance—the fog fills the woods: the air permeable, a murky waft that silhouettes and desaturates the trees. Forms appear more like a dream of forms, emerging and disappearing as the fog settles and unsettles. I see outlines and contours—what I might call the forest’s presentness—as vague references. The wooded horizon dissolves into a play of restless tonalities.
Acting as the cloud it is, fog is ephemeral. It persists without anchor—drifting away or lifting—vaporous droplets incubating rain. In late summer, a wisp of fog often settles over the valley in late evening. Although a common scene during mornings, it is hard to pass by and not take notice: ridges and mountaintops poke above a sea of white—an archipelago of the high Appalachian Mountains.
In this area of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina it is lore that for every morning fog in August there will be a day of snow in winter. In my county where students miss an average of 15 days of school due to winter weather, this form of forecasting is practiced more than you might expect. The tradition is to put a large bean in a jar for a heavy fog and a small bean in for a light fog. Each large bean represents a heavy snow day in winter, and a light snow day, determined by the ability to track a rabbit in it, for each small bean.
After the sun rises above the eastern ridge the valley fog burns off. Slowly, increments of color clarify. Forms—still ambient in the last of the mist—tighten their lines of contrast and depth. Remnant moisture rises back into the sky. The fog is gone in a breath.
Philip Arnold’s essays have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, Gulf Stream, Fugue, and apt, where his piece, “Stereoscopic Paris,” was a notable selection in the 2017 Best American Essays anthology. He is the author of the poetry collection The Natural History of a Blade (Dos Madres Press 2019), and has had work appear in Arts & Letters, Iowa Review, Atticus Review, Midwest Quarterly and Southern Poetry Review.
Seventeen, quit school, lied my way
into nineteen and a night-shift job.
When the world settled into dusk,
I’d ride the Bathurst streetcar to the stockyards,
walk past the cattle pens, gusts off the lake
braiding their calls with the growl
of shunting box-cars.
I worked alone, hauled skids of meat
through a maze of rooms and freight elevators,
buzz-saw of neon slicing the silence.
Within an hour I’d be talking to myself
pushing the skid–loader, singing
songs to keep from being haunted,
the endless body parts and boxed meat.
After midnight, I’d go out the sixth-floor fire escape,
look for the north star, an imposter
lying without knowing why.
The world still as a dead sparrow,
I mined dreams from the dark hallways,
thought that when I’d made enough,
I’d take the train across the prairies
before the snow came, find a way to start over.
Day men brought the rumors of light,
prodded the steers up to an elevated pen.
Shot, the floor split open and the body
slid down a chute to the kill floor,
cut apart in twelve minutes.
How fast life vanished,
how little time there was
if you were ever caught lying.
I’d walk to the time-clock room, surprised
to see my name-card with all the others,
bellowed two-note laments riding the air
before the slam of the floor-gate.
Out in the land of schemes, calls
sticking to me like the smell of wood-smoke,
I’d drift to sleep at the back
of the morning’s first street-car,
rail-joints click-clack heartbeat.
Mark Burke’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in the North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Sugar House Review, Nimrod International Journal and others. His work has recently been nominated for a Pushcart prize. See: markanthonyburkesongsandpoems.com