- By Johnny Payne
Natural Bridge Suite
Steep path, up the limestone stair, sediment
and sand hardened to bedrock, yet porous.
Groundwater flowing through, that reinvents
the river delta into a chorus
of holes, tubes, plates, cracks, arches yet to climb
an amphitheater for amphibious
caught between states, half-deaf, half-mute, half-blind
in other words, perfect for blank rapture
for distilling the self-tormenting mind.
Geomorphology means needed rupture
in what seems solid and complete
possessed of a permanent, hard structure.
In the cascade of steps that lifts your feet
you feel the sandstone that began as sleet.
Red River Gorge, who from my earliest days
exercised pull on imagination
you restore my sight from its dirty haze
easily as mist vanishes when soft sun
touches patches and shreds of fog and mist
in the bottom of each narrow canyon.
Each precipice, each rock outcrop gets kissed
as shafts of light fall in between dark trees
the way the lightest touch opens a fist.
I bring the bruised, rank lot of my disease
to the earth to sediment your bedrock
and gladly kneel, only to scrape my knees.
In bowing down, I want to feel the shock
that shakes the earth’s deep core, cracks its firm block.
I showed up weak, everything but my calves
because I’d walked the surface of the earth
as a dog divides one whole into many halves.
I’d sniffed each patch, turning its open width
into narrow lanes, with room for a sole
mongrel body’s death passage through dearth.
Now I seek the synchrony of whole,
made manifold by mind. I quest for beds
where fossils house remains that nest a soul.
In both my hands I want to hold the dead
by the thousands, shrunken into shale
mere dry pressed husks left dense, where they once bled.
Pressing a slab to my chest, I feel swell
the stony warm print making my ribs well.
I have been haunted by a skeleton
too real because too human, not compact
enough to layer a river’s bed by tons.
Here the gorge spreads before me, ample tract
crowned with red tree-tops heightened by swift beams
of sun for which daily return is a bare fact.
Those bones, my bones, now belong to a dream
where I become the gorge, its palisades
permeable, solid, dead, alive, clean.
Fear leaves as I crest the ridge, a close glade
sheltering my body from a sudden wind.
I know myself entire, intact, remade.
The river beneath me snakes and unwinds
like loosening coils of my immortal mind.
I crouch in camp and watch the stars emerge
like so much coral in a crowded reef
clustered with things living in a wave’s surge.
A storm blows up, as if to lend more life
to teeming branches of the sky’s excess
and soon will wash down on the natural shelf
where I had thought to shelter. I’m exposed, left
to the elements, yet unafraid, quiet,
seeking cave shelter in a cliff’s cleft.
Once the lightning departs, I sit, half-spent
calm among liquid of what was once parched
self-domed in the ripstop of my small tent.
I drowse, as crickets sing to new, wet March
while water runnels fall far down the arch.
Johnny Payne is Director MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles. He has published two previous volumes of poetry, as well as ten novels. In addition, he writes and direct plays in Los Angeles and elsewhere. His plays have been produced professionally and on university stages.