Prayers the Gods Demand


A prayer to invoke every hour, evening then daybreak,
rusting winch to haul the sun up from its home at the underside of the world,
tipping it across the fulcrum of the sky.

Spigot wrapped in rags. Bucket of well water
across which a miniature boat is drawn time and time again.

Tiny farmer pulling even oar-strokes against the current,
smaller fox snarling at the bag of chickens beneath the board seat.

Suddenly a small fire breaks out in the bottom of the boat
like the sun, snuffed at the end of the afternoon. A steady stream of smoke
going straight up, then piling like hair atop a fashionable woman’s head.

The night turns darker than crawfish in their muggy domains.
Darker than the rich mud down where the swamp birds sing their nighttime dirges,
until the autumn prayers become winter prayers.

Smoky scarf of the season of heavy mists. Wagon train crossing into the new year.

The thorny tangle of winter rising off the marshes.
Nowhere left to build a fire that won’t spit and falter. Nothing
but a shawl of shorn hair to use as kindling. Twine to use as kindling.

The water is still, almost as if prayers for the tides were forgotten.

No: it is the gods forgetting. Gone to the bowling alley on Miracle Mile
because it’s off-track betting they’re after. Drunk on Colt .45
but scoring strike after strike. They’re whistling the cries of night birds
out to the world without thinking. By now it’s second nature.

They’re crying the long hollow cry of a ghost by the creek banks,
then the moaning of a house under wind. Creaking like a boat at its moorings.

Fox with a ruff of blood. Hen feathers wreathing his muzzle.
Hollow-bellied boat. The TVs all on the race, the horses neck in neck.

Then Man-O-War wins the race. A younger god holding his tip sheet
gasps, shocked and gleeful. Runs across the bowling alley
with his work robes billowing behind him.

See them silently kneel, bend in prayer. Ice cracking on the Great Lakes.
Snow drifting gently back to its place in the sky. The sun a re-lit torch carried
in a foot race out of the Cimmerian regions.

At the bus station, dirt farmers shift in their overalls, checking and re-checking
their tickets, their cages of foxes held shut with baling wire as baggage.

Leather apron. Blacksmith’s bellows to stoke the forge.

The wind breathes from all four corners.

Miriam Bird Greenberg is the author of two chapbooks: All night in the new country and Pact-Blood, Fever Grass. She's held fellowships from the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, the Poetry Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. She lives in Berkeley and teaches ESL, though she's also crossed the continent on bicycle and by freight train, deckhanded aboard sailboats, and hitchhiked on four continents.