The Perfect Birch

America, who speaks?
When the coiled lip
of the tin cup slakes
like a cottonmouth,
and the neck breaks,
this table’s for both.

Under gables that changed
to gibbets I’m hanged
with the Barabbas
of your breath.

From the cataract ibis
of a netherscarp
and moons of fargo
taking shape,

to the sacred cloth
of a war’s inducted
doused in death;

from tin tobacco
telescope armies
that march on rumours
and the moon’s monolith
campfires once acted;

or the many moons
in a helmet’s sleep -
Spain’s, perhaps,
as the axes leap

(conquistador,
scalps of the cross;
and a breastplate rips
the rainbow moss) –

I’m forbidden entry
to the ultimate country.

A prairie flake speaks
the mind of peaks

and the bear that the fevered
pine cabins fear
when veiled and avid
maples snowing amber
as beasts lumber
sing silently the fall;

and you, extreme eagle,
with gorges in your grail
of lustres,
and your wings steep maps
vastly worn
among vine clusters, fly
an America born
to avalanching air
and a scaling coach
in a pinnacle’s eye.

Flag and bugle
and spitfire birch,
and the rocket that waits
to gutter the sky:

America my breath,
as breathless as I:

cannon at the gates
of a captured church
uproot ambush
and a whippoorwill
by a shut paddle-wheel
and a moored watermill;

and attrition runs
fireballs of guns
for escaping hates
that hunt the harbours
of earth and limb,
where you hungered to be
the perfect birch
of a gleaming hymn.

Whose were the robbers
that set these free;
whose the thumb
that signalled them?

Creature into human,
breath trails a sash
of chases that summon
the watches of the lakes.
Cry barricade,
the language of the breed:

the halted lynx
of omen.

It reaps like a blade
what the rainladder thinks,
and the rainladder’s rungs
climb in; guns
munch mammoth moment,

each bite cavernous,
a galleyblack landfall,
and a hurdy-gurdy handle
grinds in a white house
a vacuum for a candle.

In ballroom time,
in the fireplace,
the hurdy-gurdy man
like a nursery rhyme

plays the first drawn
breath of America’s
magical release.

Put the powder in;
the cannon spring
deep into the marrow
of a birth’s tomorrow,

till a hurdy-gurdy drones
of lagoons of bones
with no place for July;
and all the straw wagons
drive on by -
and change into guns;

and we into legions
of absent ones;

into the staff
warcries can’t reach
when over the hogans
of a tributary cliff
their cataracts flow
to the wounded nave
of a Navajo
wielding heat:

an archbishop burns;
antiquities meet;
the mesa blows up

at the touch of a cup
about me; I breathe
into a gibbet torch
from a Spanish pew
denouement:

crushed moccasins
and the crust of a march.

How will you live
without me; how
slake those cotton moons
coiled in a perfect birch?

* cottonmouth: the venomous American moccasin.
* America: created the 20th Century.
* Barabbas: “Now Barabbas was a robber.” – John 18, v.40.
* fargo: image taken from the first long-distance American stagecoach company, Wells Fargo. The city of Fargo, North Dakota, was named after the company’s founder.
* helmet’s sleep: A Spanish helmet, dented by an axe, was handled by the Indian chief in the Kevin Costner film, “Dancing with Wolves”; empires had come and gone.
* spitfire birch: The Spitfire that won the Battle of Britain was made of birch – said to be the most symbolic of American trees – to give it superiority over the Messerschmidt.
* barricade: “I have a rendezvous with Death/ At some disputed barricade…” – Alan Seeger, b. New York 1888, d. Verdun 1916.
* black; hurdy-gurdy; white house: Now an American shrine, and the centre of Fourth of July celebrations, The White House was built by black slave labour in the 1790s and completed in 1800. The music at its opening was played by all sorts of musical instruments, including the hurdy-gurdy. It was burnt by the British in 1814, when, to disguise the damage, it was painted “birch white”: hence its name.
* hogan: a Navajo house.
* “Death Comes for the Archbishop” (Willa Cather, 1927; adapted), Santa Fe – founded by the Spaniards, 1609; headquarters of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, Confederate and US governors; tableland (mesa) way in to Los Alamos and the atom bomb.
* moccasin: the American cottonmouth; and footwear perfected by the North American Indians.