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Blue Ridge | Poem

Blue Ridge 

Up there on the mountain road, the fireworks 
blistered and subsided, for once at eye level: 
spatter of light like water flicked from the fingers; 
the brief emergent pattern: and after the afterimage bled 
from the night sky, a delayed and muffled thud 
that must have seemed enormous down below, 
the sound concomitant with the arranged 
threat of fire above the bleachers. 
I stood as tall and straight as possible, 
trying to compensate, trying not to lean in my friend's 
direction.  Beside me, correcting height, he slouched 
his shoulders, knees locked, one leg stuck out 
to form a defensive angle with the other. 
Thus we were most approximate 
and most removed. 
            In the long pauses 
between explosions, he'd signal conversation 
by nodding vaguely toward the ragged pines. 
I said my children would have loved the show. 
He said we were watching youth at a great distance, 
and I thought how the young 
are truly boring, unvaried as they are 
by the deep scar of doubt, the constant afterimage 
of regret - no major tension in their bodies, no tender 
hesitation, they don't yet know 
that this is so much work, scraping 
from the self its multiple desires; don't yet know 
fatigue with self, the hunger for obliteration 
that wakes us in the night at the dead hour 
and fuels good sex. 
            Of course I didn't say it. 
I realized he watched the fireworks 
with the cool attention he had turned on women 
dancing in the bar, a blunt uninvested gaze 
calibrating every moving part, thighs, 
breasts, the muscles of abandon. 
I had wanted that gaze on me, 
And as the evening dwindled to its nub, 
its puddle of tallow, appetite without object, 
as the men peeled off to seek 
the least encumbered consolation 
and the women grew expensive with regard - 
how have I managed so long to stand among the paired 
bodies, the raw pulsing music driving 
loneliness into the air like scent, 
and not be seized by longing, 
not give anything to be summoned 
into the larger soul two souls can make? 
Watching the fireworks with my friend, 
so little ease between us, 
I see that I have armed myself; 
fire charges everything it touches. 

Perhaps he has foreseen this impediment. 
Perhaps when he holds himself within himself, 
a sheathed angular figure at my shoulder, 
he means to be protective less of him 
than me, keeping his complicating rage 
inside his body.  And what would it solve 
if he took one hand from his pocket, 
risking touch, risking invitation - 
if he took my hand it would not alter 
this explicit sadness. 
            The evening stalls, 
the fireworks grow boring at this remove. 
The traffic prowling the highway at our backs, 
the couples, the families scuffling on the bank 
must think us strangers to each other.  Or, 
more likely, with the celebrated fireworks thrusting 
their brilliant repeating designs above the ridge, 
we simply blur into the foreground, 
like the fireflies dragging among the trees 
their separate, discontinuous lanterns. 

 -Ellen Bryant Voigt

Ellen Bryant Voigt grew up in Virginia and attended both Converse College and the well-known writing program at the University of Iowa, where she received an M.F.A.  She has also been trained as a musician, which is not surprising, considering the delicate music of her poems: see, for example, 
the quiet off-rhyme, in "Year's End," of "breathe" and "grieve."  She is presently on the writing faculty of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.  She lives in Vermont, not far from Louise Gluck. 

The Flexible Lyric November 1999 

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