Peter Makuck is, to quote his editor at BOA Editions, "the best." It's hard to argue with that when your read his poems. Peter is not only a splendid poet, he founded and edited Tar River Poetry for almost thirty years. He's also a sharp book reviewer. He's published four books with BOA: Where We live (1982), The Sunken Lightship (1990) Against Distance (1997), and Off Season in the Promised Land (2005). His book of short stories Costly Habits (U. of Missouri Press) was nominated for a Pen/Faulkner Award. His work has appeared in The Hudson Review, The Sewanee Review, Poetry, and North American Review. With his wife Phyllis, he lives on Bogue Banks, one of North Carolina's barrier Islands.
In April Peter sent me his new chapbook Back Roads, the first poem of which is titled "Drag Racing."
From the diner hangout
we'd simmer toward that long dark stretch
flanked by graveyards
where even the dead were divided,
kill our lights and let the dark come in.
We revved up.
Someone signaled with a match.
and roared for that blind curve at the end.
Win or lose,
we'd be back and back for revenge.
Ten as now
we'd burn and squint into that flying dark.
Peter has a new book forthcoming from BOA Editions in the spring, a New and Selected, so be on the lookout for it. Here's the cover.
What follows is brief collection of Peter's poems, the first three from Off Season in the Promised Land. (Boa Editions)
We were sitting on the roof deck,
four friends with a bottle,
maybe six months after he died,
low sun melting on an emptiness
of ocean, waves almost quiet,
when into view floated a line
of brown pelicans,
hedge-clippers with wings,
more than a dozen
in a slow motion glide
along a curving sickle of sand
wings motionless, fixed,
as if we were in somebody’s sights,
Gerda saying they were his favorites—
and soulful at the same time. Then,
as if called, one bird
left the cortège and returned,
turned tightly over the roof
four or five times,
the last an eyelevel pass
before he angled off
to follow that long dark line.
We looked at each other
and finally laughed, Gerda too,
her eyes wide and wet.
We felt the wind
pick up, saw waves whiten,
but until the water went black
and the bottle was empty
we went on talking, nobody
saying a word.
In memoriam Bodo Nischan
OCEANIA FISHING PIER
We’re jigging for blues,
sunset doing its fiery fade, showy
as this tourist couple that ambles out,
all spiffed in summer whites,
glasses of zinfandel, hot for something to see.
And as if to please,
a guy gets a screamer strike on a live bait rig.
Now a twenty pound cobia slaps the planks,
and the woman in white wrinkles her nose
with a line you might have predicted:
"He's not going to keep that poor thing, is he?"
Then it gets worse.
There’s a trawler two hundred yards off the beach,
pulling nets through what’s left of the sunpath,
a blizzard of gulls at the stern.
“So pretty,” she says at my shoulder, “isn’t it?”
No, it's not pretty, I want to say.
When you see a squall of gulls
behind a trawler on a sunset sea,
don't think beauty,
think bycatch: small blues and menhayden,
spots and croaker, unsellable mullet
littering the surface for acres,
feeding the gulls.
Think trawl doors that plow the bottom,
kill coral, fill the crannies
and hiding holes for next year’s fry.
harvesting corn with a bulldozer.
Pretty still echoes in the air,
and she is too.
Lips glistening with wine, she asks
if all this ain’t as pretty a postcard?
Looking down at the cobia opening
And closing its mouth, dying, slowly
dying, I tell her it is.
MINDING WHAT’S THERE
I’m browsing shell beds
and trying to work though
the one about who we are
when we forget to practice
who we are,
only half aware of the ocean
taking itself seriously,
a tall white tumble and hiss.
I should know the ebb
from flood by sound alone
but it’s a clump of seafoam,
stranded and iridescent,
like an enlightened mind,
that tells me
about the effort of arrival.
Shells crackle under foot,
bits of scallops and olives,
whelks and razors,
then a black isosceles
bigger than an arrowhead
stops my restless ramble
and has me stoop.
Two inches from base to tip,
shiny as obsidian, but sharp—
edges themselves tiny teeth,
a dark design, perfect
for ripping and sawing,
changed only in color
since fallen eons ago
from a jawful of others.
Its edge draws
a bead of blood on my arm,
those zigzag fins
beyond the surf zone at dusk,
sometimes an attack,
that girl we taunted
in high school ages ago
her sidelong glance
and crooked teeth.
I let it fall into the dark
of my pocket, testing
its edge with my thumb,
climb from the beach
and cross the road.
At the end of our drive
the neighbor’s black cat meows
and sprawls on its back for a scratch—
sign of forgiveness,
perhaps even luck,
our mailbox empty to prove it,
pinetops giving sound to the wind,
the cat now rubbing my bare legs,
that sharp black tooth—
nothing I ever expected.
The following poem appears in The Poets Guide to the Birds, from Anghinga Press, edited by Ted Kooser and Judith Kitchen.
Nature is a haunted house
Twilight was losing its color.
On either side of the high-rise bridge,
endless archipelagos of eelgrass spread below me,
and egrets like dazzling white flags,
mullet breaking parts of the marsh mirror,
birds in their final moves, feathering off
to a distant tree line of peaks and valleys,
a reminder of vital signs on a screen.
Up close, an egret's white
might be slightly stained
with mud from the thrash of a fish
and you might be upset
by the greedy gold of its eye
before the beak-stab
and the bullwhip snap of its neck.
But farther off,
these birds are something else,
that blinding white letter S
made by the same lethal neck
against a wall of tall grass—
it stands for what?
In a depth of field,
still but for the slo-mo stride
or dip of beak,
they might be garden statues,
placed just so
at inlets or sandspits
in the rich tidal green
to urge inner movement,
these lone white icons
I saw once in number
at a sunset rookery on Goat Island,
making me think
there must be a law
that has them in heaven at night.
But during the day,
just when we need them,
they touch the eye
with the right kind of light.
just in off the ocean,
under churning black clouds in our boat,
we cross the Beaufort Bar,
and out of the corner of sight,
that flash of white
is the substance of my mother's prayer
come from a distance beyond belief
to see me back safe.
As I stood looking down
from the five-story bridge,
as if conjured, lifted from reflection,
dipped its long wings into heavy air
and rowed out of sight
to a rookery on the far side
of the bridge.
A sloop passed beneath,
a tear of burnished teak,
with flames at the stern
and two figures trying to douse them.
But that was a trick of distance,
for, a moment later,
as the sloop moved further off,
a scent reached up—
the black and red of grilled meat
that now turned me back
through the dark,
hungry for the colors of home.