Brandon Som: Two elegies & title poem from 'The Tribute Horse,' with a note by Marjorie Perloff
My grandfather’s grave in scorched grass has two names in the gravestone’s granite: one with strokes—silent and once forbidden; the other lettered—a stowaway vowel between one aspirate, one liquid. Speech wears the written in the speaker’s absence to stay the sound & breath’s passing. I read that the wood, for Thoreau, was resonator Sundays when towns tolled bells—Lincoln, Acton, Bedford, or Concord. Pines with resin reverbed in sap what wind sent. A Chinese immigrant, on his Pacific-crossing, carried coaching papers for the memorizing. Approaching the island station, these pages were tossed to sea. A moon’s light in a ship’s wake might make a similar papertrail. My grandfather, aboard at twelve, practiced a paper-name. What ensued was a debt of sound.
Of Babel’s moon, I have notes. It was a marked card. It lit a chandelier out of an acacia. The trowel glinted with it. Crickets were out too, and, as if they sightread stars, settled in to leg-kick song. A light wind blew seed into the web between tines of a hayrake. A soldier stood letting his horse drink well water from his helmet. The moon trembled in it. There was nothing forsaken about it. It simply issued a shadow while burnishing a
surface. This morning, I read that when returning from a trail, Thoreau knew he had had visitors by what was left behind: a wreath of evergreen, a name in pencil on a walnut leaf, a willow wand woven into a ring. Its path not without disruption, the moon, in its orbit, tethers and tethers again. The morning of the funeral, my father dressed my grandfather: from the eyelet, each button, new to full; the tie’s knot loose as if it had swallowed a small bird.
The Tribute Horse
The handscroll woven from silk
has a finch in the cane rendered
in the ink of lampblack. Because
with some beauty you feel the need
to talk aloud to it, tell it about itself,
I got closer until I could see the depth
produced by the silk sucking on
the soot, & slightly self-conscious,
I addressed the bird, asked whether
it were sketched with a switch
of willow or a brush of goat’s hair.
It was endeared & twittered there,
flit in the cane. It asked me if I were
the scholar or the angler, if I saw
the horsemen with the tribute horse
pass the village on the way to court.
Often ink-stones were roof-tiles,
clay wattle from imperial houses
with names like Bronze-Bird-Terrace.
What kept rain out, kept ink wet.
A brick of ink fledges—a bird
in the stroke settles on the strokes’
branches, lifts & leaves them
a metronome’s sway. A hollow
stroke returns to smoke traces.
The dry brush returns & wets
its bristles in ground soot and gum
kept wet in the stone’s well,
that house for the ink’s dark.
Under roof is want & over,
a well’s winch, a finch’s chit,
light tappings sounding the depths.
If my song were smoke, I would knot
the braid & cut its movement upwards,
lariat the sinews, harnessing bone
to muscle the kite of the cane birds.
I would knot & bird the line as birds
notch the branch or leave steps
in bank mud. I would thieve the tracks
as I would the pine’s shape as it shadowed
& stretched a figure past the furthest
branches’ reach. Each tree shadows.
Each tree shades. Each tree thirsts
& traffics resin. What a pine darkens
foreshadows its pitch in the pine-smoke.
My song, if my song were smoke, would
rise from kindling & reach, pine-like,
past itself to where the wind takes it.
A calligrapher, in order to regain
the confidence of birds, selects
a whisker brush fringed with rabbit fur
& bundled with an ivory mount
on a handle hewn from bamboo.
The whisker is plucked from field mice
& the fur from the rabbit’s flank
in autumn before its winter molt.
With thumb & forefinger, a bird’s
beak at the wrist’s service, he has
mastered his strokes—bending
weed, sheep’s leg, dropping dew.
But it is a seed-eating bird he wants
in the stroke-work of the word,
the trill answer in the coarse rustle
of brush across the page grain.
Dear finch, that you may have fed
on the worm that if left to live
makes the silk thread, on which
—woven now—you, lighter
at the breast, darker on the wing,
flit and rest, poised for flight
out of the cane, suggests a weaving
finer than I might have guessed.
Legend says an empress found
in her tea a cocoon undone
by the water’s heat, & wound
the thread around her finger.
Spinners need spools, dear finch.
Four sloughs & the worm weaves
a cocoon for wings. Seems you,
dear finch, have borrowed these.
[Jacket Statement by Marjorie Perloff. “My grandfather, aboard at twelve, practiced a paper-name. What ensued was a debt of sound.” That name, which will also be the poet’s own, contains “a stowaway vowel between one aspirate, one liquid” (S-O-M), and it constitutes, in Brandon Som’s The Tribute Horse, a debt of sight as well as sound. Rarely in our time has a young poet produced a set of poems in which citation and allusion have created such perfectly rendered ideograms, a collection in which ekphrasis, whether of seascape photographs or, as in the title poem, a Chinese handscroll, can generate such luminous detail, at once “Chinese” and yet wholly American in their contemporary reference and argot. Whether contemplating the way “tunnels turn / The windows of the [subway] train to mirrors” or composing homophonic translations of Li Po’s “Night Thoughts,” Brandon Som makes not only every word, but every syllable and letter echo and resonate. The Tribute Horse is a magical book.]
Poems and poetics