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  • 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.


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