November 1999

R.T. Smith

R.T. Smith R.T. Smith’s most recent book is Split The Lark: Selected Poems, with Messenger coming in 2000 from LSU.  He has poems forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Triquarterly, Poetry, and Southern Review. He is the editor of Shenandoah.

Nixology    Click to hear in real audio

     Advice from a Weekly

To catch a snowflake
the science editor
suggests wrapping a plank

with black velvet
and keeping it ready
in the freezer

so no sudden flurry
can take you by surprise.
You'll need toothpicks,

he writes, for precision
study, and of course,
a magnifying glass,

if you want to see dendrites,
spikes and sector plates
behind the mask

of Belgian lace,
if you need to read
the elegant physics

of what falls.
Yet wouldn't it be better,
when cold clouds gather,

to go out empty-handed
and catch a flake
across the wrist

or on the tongue
and taste the almost
nothing where sense

and science meet,
winter's icy aria
to passing form

so gently sung.



All Clear    Click to hear in real audio

     (fragment of a letter from Charleston, August, 1864)

Of course, it is impossible to sleep nights,
so I haunt this mule-fat candle and write
a letter I hardly expect you to receive,
as half our couriers disappear forever.
The curfew restricts us to evenings indoors;
siege guns have been quarreling since dusk.
That Yankee General Gilmore, another beast,
has installed a gigantic rifled cannon
on the point of Morris Island where that
Chambers runaway hid when we were girls.
Every square inch of the city trembles—
water in the cistern, lilies, my unbroken crystal—
under its jurisdiction, and the newspaper
pundits have christened it the "Swamp Angel,"
though no God in a heaven I accept could
endure the mere thought of such a hellish
seraph. We are not cleared to venture
outdoors while the artillery crews work their
havoc, and hardly a threshold in our street
is unsmeared with blood in this unholy
misplaced Passover. I mean no blasphemy,
dear, but journalists feel compelled to make
a spectacle of death, and their contagious
rhetoric catches us all at weak moments.
Even at night we swelter in the heat
(I have seen not one chip of ice all summer!),
and our only hope resides in rumors of malaria
epidemic threatening Federal troops, as they
have no knowledge of this disease. God
willing, it will thin their ranks by autumn. How
wicked is it for me to desire their disaster?
Still, there will be ample time for penance.
Now the "Angel" is roaring in the streets,
and we are reduced to near savagery.
We scavenge for sustenance at dawn, dear
sister. No joy visits our hearts, no laughter.
There's talk of herding the dogs for slaughter
to provide stew for the dwindling garrison,
and we scarcely have the luxury to identify
the dead found amid the rubble. They say—
the gossips, the hangers-on and some officers—
that butcher Sherman is headed our way
after razing Columbia to a chastened cinder.
I hardly look at the surviving azaleas
daring to bloom without seeing the wounded
who drift by our doorways, desperate
and hungry as so many wolves. Little sleep,
less to eat, and still we keep sufficient faith
to remember you, Mother and the Confederacy
in our daily prayers. Thank Goodness children
are somehow able to dream through much
of this madness. The blockade closes tighter
than a tourniquet; we've had no relief
since Atlanta fell... but the air in my room
grows thick with this light's rancid smoke,
so I shall close my missive with love.
Often I wonder why men must sustain this
torture. I hear the soldiers speak of honor
and Yankee pillagers. I can't imagine either,
but I am no longer certain I can believe
as we used to when visiting in Richmond.
Yet sometimes a stillness opens the air.
I can go out and forage. The whistle sounds
its all-clear, and I recall cotillions or quiet
twilights in the parlor with good Christian
hope for the future. What we have now
is only now, and that in fragments. How
I long to touch your hands. Keep Mother
quiet and do not over-worry for Father
in the West. His silence is most likely
strategic discretion; he is always so prudent
and would remind us only dignity deserves
victory. I remain, as ever,
                        Yours in the Cause,
your midnight-whispering and sleepy sister,
Sue Ellen.



R.T. Smith: Poetry
Copyright � 1999 The Cortland Review Issue NineThe Cortland Review