9-4 poem

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.



A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

9.4 (Fall 2009)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Four Sounds, and Then a Fifth

Alan McGinnis


As I lay dying early one morning

(Headboard at window, blinds drawn on low sky),

Four things I heard, and through them a fifth.

When I rise and die, I hear them no longer.

Only words.  Only the fireworks of the spellbound.


Outside, the crows raked stillness with scolds.

I heard them scaring dead leaves from raw limbs.

My closed eyes saw leers at neck-breaking angles,

Beaks warped askance, wings branched akimbo,

Black shadows patched against bleak overcast.

Talking forgotten Choctaw—calling Manitou

Sealed under sidewalk and tarmac since the deer

Left town, spirits who wait to return, finger grassy cracks,

Scout from leafy gutters: time to rise draws near

(Announced their bed-eyed prophets from tree bones,

Angry, wintry, ecstatic).  Oil back to burrow,

Glass to gravel, carpet to bird’s nest, steel

Girder to rust grove.  Thicket yesterday,

Thicket tomorrow.  Or this afternoon.  Banks fail,

Chieftains in suits preach calm on final airwaves.

Three crows exulted, celebrating Cu Chulainn

Athwart his sickle-chariot.  Carrion aplenty!


Unwitting, a sportscar spoke the same tongue,

Long way off.  The highway’s rushing rapids

Seldom overshouted their green-lighted gorges

With more than a gray sigh frothing aloft in echo,

As lost as a wrapper loosed through a window.

Not so, the Wild Bill eight-cylinder six-gunning

Of some red-roving showboat, plowing white waters

In search of a catapult headstart over the cataract—

Speed to gush between break-bone timbers

Of tractor-trailers and cramped flotsam of commuters:

Speed beyond panic.  Mania for collision.

Courtship of termination.  Orgasmic dismemberment.

Rush to the sickle-chariot’s scythes.  Ruin

Aplenty.  Cutting-edge industry of outracing

Tedium, fat dull log that jams, blocks silt,

Grows islands, dries rivers, glues cabins.  Loud red race

To erase an accumulated past in future’s blur.


Sportscar past, crows cued by fresh breeze

That speed had splashed squirrel on a suburban altar,

The moist overcast hinted at its own slow pulse.

Another spinning leaf scratched the waxen holly

Which often scratches my window after midnight

(Flips falling leaves another fall, denying rest).

A tractor-trailer’s rumble… strange, restless haul—

Green-lighted straight on, yet never chuted through:

Rhythmically lapsing snore—but not from distance;

Reviving in the breeze, but not drawing nearer.

Now angry-eager in throbs like a Manitou’s

Warpathing tom-tom.  In a gust’s stronger pulse,

Trombones gave all away.  Red Raider Marching Band,

Practicing for Friday night combats before First Period.

Snort and strut.  Bombast and baton. The wind

Brought starbursts of bravado now with every felled leaf.

Enemies, tremble!  Gather, clans!  This Friday

None but the brave will deserve the fair!

Where they had picked clean a spine in the street,

The crows must have paused, and cocked their open beaks,

And then shrugged blackly: the sportscar of many horns.


The rumpity-tum once went to the trains, those days

When the Choctaw melted under sidewalks to scout—

In safety—the Iron Horse: America’s first fullback,

Steaming toward pay dirt, in whose honor we would dub

Many a Joe Fullback The Express or J-Train (braves

Thus were styled Running Bear of Buffalo That Stands).

Now I could hear the slow freight woken from downtown

Moaning a ghost’s warning to leaves on rusty rails

That they wing the next breeze or risk a snail’s crushing.

No hammering of pistons or angry steam whistle…

Just a lower wind, and longer, filtering through old clapboards,

A singing water pipe on the house’s far side,

A dream blown under the window’s partial seal.

She haunted the backtracks unknown to city streets

With a shy load of toxic waste ferried like eggshells

And a wake-up nudge to hooky-playing boys who

Now thumb X-Boxes instead of tight-roping rails.

Resting trombones heard only their own brass afterglow.

No one in town could have heard the slow freight’s passing

Who was not listening for the holly’s next scratches.


Four things: sportscar, carrion crows,

Downtown train, snare drums and trombones.

Without them, I would not have heard the silence.

Without the silence, I would not know death from life.

Alan McGinnis has contributed several poems to recent issues of this journal.  He has taught college-level English in Tennessee, but describes himself as exploring new horizons.