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Monday, April 20, 2009

LAND OF AMNESIA, by Joseph Bathanti

I've known Joseph Bathanti since my daughter was a toddler. If you want to try to figure out long ago that was, go right ahead! I was then poetry editor of The Arts Journal, published out of Asheville, and now, sadly,defunct. It was a great publication, on newsprint, with fabulous photos and articles. Joseph sent some of his first poems to me, and I thought WOW. Here's a poetry editor's answer to her prayers! No hemming and hawing about, well, I sorta like these but do I really like them enough to want to publish them?

I wanted them.

And we published them.

And Joseph has been at it ever since, writing poem after poem, as well as short stories and novels. Now he has a new book of poetry out from Press 53, LAND OF AMNESIA.

84 pages

Press 53, LLC
PO Box 30314
Winston-Salem, NC

JOSEPH was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. He came to North Carolina as a VISTA Volunteer in 1976 to work with prison inmates. Bathanti is the author of four books of poetry: Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; and This Metal, which was nominated for The National Book Award. His first novel, East Liberty, winner of the Carolina Novel Award, was published in 2001. His latest novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995, his book of nonfiction, was published in early 2007. Most recently, his collection of short stories, The High Heart, winner of the 2006 Spokane Prize, was published by Eastern Washington University Press in 2007. He is the recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council; The Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, presented annually for outstanding contributions to the Fine Arts of North Carolina over an extended period; the Linda Flowers Prize; the Sherwood Anderson Award, the 2007 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize; and others. He is Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.

When I read a poem, I long for a language that is strong yet nuanced, edgy yet ready at any moment to turn on a dime and become capacious, open to all the many ways of living in this world, both past and present. Joseph brings this kind of language to this new collection. I admire the heft of it, the sheer refusal to back down in the face of all the ways life can nibble away at our passion and persistence. Take a line, any lines: ‘There where the earth knows to open,/her hair like solstice wheat the day of gleaning,/going grey, but in the moonlight like milkweed/surging out of its pod./Even the unimagined returns.’ Need I say more? Land of Amnesia is a collection I wish I’d written myself. That’s the greatest compliment any poet could give.

Here are six poems from the collection.

The Vilas Flood

From the outset, the wind
signals the water’s rise,
its sudden inflorescence
stitched across the meadow,

trout heaving on the swill, speckled,
mortis-eyed. Crows: black
ingots on the green-gray gout.
Goldfinches drown in mid-flight.

Swallowtails sucked off in the spindrift.
Look out and it’s a downpour.
Glance again and it’s a river licking
at the porch, Crawfords’ house

about took, Jacky’s trailer under,
sun burning up there in the calamity
bright yellow – some diluvial hex.
What rolls out of the gap cross-lashes

the bridge spanning the gorged stream –
fenders of water, six, eight feet high –
detonating it. A red geyser spouts
from the plank flinders and sprung sandbags

as though the cork capping Purgatory
gassed out. Linville Creek,
a dark glistening documentary
of outlandish migration flashes

through the flume, on its back
the archaeology of Vilas.
Isaac’s bawling calf, split tether snaked
in the roil, rushes by.

As if spirited out of the tallow,
coyotes, smoky whisps of bony pelt,
mince on the oozing bank,
paw and snap, weep and coo

as the baby angus disappears.
Then an entire apple tree
loaded with red winesaps.
Buckeyes still ivory asleep

in their green sarcophagi.
A pumphouse. A gazebo
and a wagon tongue.
Cord upon cord of split wood.

Then the coolers and tools and baby dolls.
Kayak paddles. A Lousiville Slugger
signed by Rocky Colavito.
A white leatherbound Bible,

its writ in Spanish. Whatever
might dislodge from largesse
and parsimony. The grand.
The infinitesimal. All left to rot

and propagate, finally forgotten,
as far downstream as Zionville.
Even the wedding gown draped
like a jilted bride over a haybale.

How to Bury a Dog

Put to bed the children early.
The moon refuses such toil.

Arcturus will stand you the proper light.
Fall to your knees.

Let your wife's hair grieve
your mouth as you hold her.

She'll swear she hates everything.
Don't say a word.

Choose a place among the loblollies
where the first sun burns

the cornflowers blue.
Take the long-handled shovel

and the garden spade,
the mattock and the maul.

A shotgun will do – 12 gauge Federal –
for what you'll be digging in:

millstone grit studded with milk crystal quartz.
It will suffer your hands.

At grave-time, dirt is coy,
not a fit place to leave what you love.

You won't cuss through three feet
until you spark off a shelf

of sediment rock that's been making
since the Yadkin lived here.

Resist the temptation
to wrap him in cerements.

Face him east.
Let the earth do its work.

The Haybaler

Wandering an elbow of cotton, long-harvested,
straggled with soiled white swabs on spindles,
and limish-yellow, pollen-slick leaves
given over after a cold snowy spring

to heatspore. Blessed rot.
Raiment aplenty for the dying cropland.
Glittering work the harrow makes of quartz.
In its middle roots the rusted haybaler,

manufactured in St. Joseph, Missouri,
a Canadian patent stamped into it.
Four rungs lead to a platform, gibbet high,
a vertical conveyor chain,

withered locks of timothy
in its bloody broken teeth.
I can't help but think of Waite Trickham
at the White Store Café in Anson County

every day at noon dinner.
With his only hand removing
his banded straw hat,
setting it on the table,

then reaching with it for Mrs. Trickham's hand
to return thanks in bowed silence.
And she, mouth a slit,
cutting his meat,

lovely in that demure Southern suffering mien,
how sealed as if in paraffin was her heart
like a murdered saint's.
For half a century

she'd not been held with two arms.
Waite's hanging sleeve was stitched, I tell you,
as if each morning, like ablution,
she hemmed the stump into it.

He remained shy,
his face blunt, burnt clay.
That haybaler took his arm,
and still it takes it.

Takes it as the clouds slowly shift,
white flannel slipping from blue shoulders,
bare blue breasts a crow spraddles
like a boy's first crucifix.

The Spirit Homeless

In a field fallow since Stoneman's raid,
a place itself killed and gone to the Master,

if such can be said of land,
they quarter in abandoned automobiles

that seem plunked from space:
snapped axles, wheels slewed

like clubfeet, roofs caved,
windshields busted out with pheasant shot,

sprung doors spilling weedy bedclothes,
crank-case syrup gunked into the quartzy grit.

Freak flowers sprout two-headed, dolt-faced.
Purple-bark elms thrust into the cumulonimbus.

Someone's dump even in the afterlife.
Antique farmcraft froze in rust.

Leaky black barrels of nitrate.
Grain funnels hove beast-like in extremis.

Possums die in their sleep,
turn cipher-black,

whiptailed to thorny locust beams.
A deer stand hulks like a time machine.

These folks are forgot, nothing but lot
numbers in a grown-over churchyard.

Still they transmigrate back
to make the better of travail.

In spirit coitus they renew the shadow world.
Babies in dirt cratches teeth on bone and cordite.

So same-feeling this wandering
hand-to-mouth grubbing,

they reckon it's flesh and blood all over again,
a new batch of dog-tired. Not deceasement,

that one last give-out
where you swap dungarees and feedcloth

for a second-hand glory robe, scrubbed to shimmering
threadbare and a serviceable crown.

Habit is a cross.
Be anxious for nothing.

All a body need do is cry out for forgiveness.
They muddle about their business,

slopping supper pans in Scotts Creek,
gnawing on dried hackberries,

mucking through honey boxes
ringwormed with petrified combs,

tending fire, crafting whiskey of compost.
They have mislaid the particulars of their exile:

this ever coming back, this ever remaining
cumbered in the wilderness to make amends,

scratching naked through the woods
for that one pigtrot into the kingdom.

House-Hunting at Four Thousand Feet

The road’s not but a ledge,
near straight up, shale
and millstone. Mud.
Good God, come winter.
Three slough-bellied brown
and white bangtail paints cleat
to a shelf in the mist,
then a bouquet of pink plastic roses
stabbed in the scarp ahead of the fall-off.
By the time we find the house,
fog’s set in and we can’t see to turn around.
Shear on both sides.
The children wear those silent worried looks.
They don’t want to live in the sky
where a thing mishandled plummets
the better part of a mile;
and all there is for it is to cock an ear
and reckon altitude by the whump.
Pray each time your foot touches earth.
Hold on like Hades.
Folks up here are born cloven and slouch.
Purchase is bred well-deep into them.
The house is slant, lank,
with enough give to weather gravity,
and thus plumb.
Appalachian physics.
We creep up and beam the brights on it.
It eyes right back, querulous
like a bedridden crone, but old man too,
finicky, the tin roof
a rusted skullcap.
Thick watery glass windows,
cataracted with silica,
yellow dauber nests
like sleep mortised into the panes.
Up here is odd enough to make a house
not just thingful, but a someone
with blood and breath. Secrets.
Voices. Some say
you get used to it:
catamounts, fog, rime-ice,
the wind like Deuteronomy
when it gets het up,
snow beading down,
shrinking everything in its alabaster clout.
We venture no farther than the spinney
gnarling the busted porch,
demur like the beholden Israelites
and wait for a sign, our eyes
discomfited by everlasting.


(For Leon)

I recite the rosary
Hail Mary when I run,
a wooden bead full of grace
per so many meters: for the winter wheat,
coy blessed barely green beneath
the purple art thou Lenten crown vetch;
the sun that rations color among women and blessed
sitting in its cupboard ripening
like a pomegranate is the fruit;
the frayed, porous moon of thy womb
dissolving on the tongue
of blue morning Jesus;
cows, musk of their bowels
scenting the fog, still as tintypes;
deer Holy Mary gazing skyward in wonder
at the cry of Canada geese;
papery corn shucks whispering at my feet;
strips of loose tin from an infolded barn
thundering in the wind-lash;
my print Mother of God
alongside the raccoon's and skunk's
as I leap the creek bed
and cross Stikeleather land,
posted black letters on yellow handbills
tacked to the shaven thighs of Sycamores;
chicken houses a mile off
on Midway Road whitening in the now-
lightening horizon pray;
and far beyond in Alexander County,
on looming Fox Mountain, nectarines
that will hold migrants hostage
all spring flower.
I gulp another quart of ether,
dig for us sinners
up the steep farm road to intercept
the risen sun, sprint the crest,
my chest filled with pink shrapnel,
and fall into it,
a stretched and sweating shadowgraph.
For this searing instant
one chases now and at the hour
in the darkness every morning
the improbability of our death
that legs with hearts to prompt them
may keep lurching, decade upon decade,
chaplet upon chaplet, toward salvation Amen.

1 comment:

Brenda Kay Ledford said...

I've enjoyed reading this poet's work. Thanks for introducing his work to us.