It may be that the only thing these two poems have in common is that they were written by the same poet, and that they were published in Poetry Northwest, one a quarter century or so ago, the other quite recently. “Dust” was written about the time I was, you might say, entering into the possibilities of rhyme (it was accepted, as many were in those days, by David Wagoner, to whom I offer my thanks); “Hanging Laundry On a Windy Day in Assisi,” was written in Italy this past May, and it suggests that those possibilities have stayed with me. Rilke said, “Rhyme is a goddess of secret and ancient coincidences,” and that strikes me as one of the finest things anyone’s ever said about a poetic technique.
Among other things, the first is about getting very dirty; the other is about the joy of clean laundry. But both are very much about the places in which they occur. I am, it has been pointed out, a “poet of place.” That’s not something I care to explain, even if I thought I could. Many poets are after a sense of the transcendent, some momentary collision with what is holy or sublime. For me, such connections have most often had to do with where I am, on the face of this lovely and beleaguered planet.
From that hard-rutted, high-line road, the dust
billowed up like spindrift behind us,
a cloud the color of my skin, slowly ghosting away.
I loved the dry poultice a single summer day
could be in the mountains, even these mountains,
heavily timbered and ripped again and again
for their logs. I loved the dust as fine
as flour, settled in wind rows and sometimes—
in a low, exposed spot on a south-facing slope—
drifted over the road like a waterless pool, a swamp
of bones and dead men’s breath, untracked
and hot as fresh ash. And it is a fact
that we usually exploded into such places
like children, laughing, while the dust chased
us along the road. But there was one
dry wash we stopped for: lake-sized, the pure dun
from moth wings troweled smooth as glass.
It was a miracle we waded into past
our knees, a hot bath of earth you swore
we could swim through, so we did, and it poured
into us like sun, like music, and we rose
on that other shore changed, our clothes,
our hair, our hands, our lips altogether earth.
That day, we learned again the easy worth
of motion, the truck a dead sea away,
idling, shimmery with heat, and in every way
the antithesis of mountains, their imperceptible dance,
their purity of waiting, those certainties we see as chance.
Hanging Laundry on a Windy Day in Assisi
Out of the west the wind sets the bells
of the Basilica moaning, weather’s moist finger
on the rim of the champagne glass of God.
Meanwhile, I’ve decided it is just as well
if I stay up here on the terrace, just to linger
and make sure nothing too big-wind odd
happens to our bedclothes, which are, like the house,
rented. The wind has driven the pilgrims away
a few hours earlier than usual, and the sun’s
momentarily shining on a shirt and a blouse
at the east end of the lines. The sheets flap and sway
violently though. From the piazza a pair of nuns
looks up and points. I wave and they wave back.
The Poor Clares, the sisters of Santa Chiara here.
The wind also throws their habits about
as they wave and wave, so that now I wave back.
This is when I notice they’re pointing to the air
above and east of me, where a pillowcase kite
having come loose from the line fills and turns
in a sleepy-seeming almost dance, then begins to fall,
and I rush down the stairs and run out the door
to try and find it. And I do. It’s in a patch of ferns
just outside the Porta San Giacomo. No damage at all,
and I meet the sisters I’d been waving toward
in my misunderstanding just outside our front door.
They clap and say Bene, bene! I reply Grazie mille,
and they walk on toward their convent, up the long hill
at the highest southern side of town. Up there
the wind must be especially fierce, but they turn and smile
steadily into it, and wave at me, this time for real.
Robert Wrigley’s collections of poetry include Anatomy of Melancholy and Other Poems (2013); Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (2006); Lives of the Animals (2003), winner of the Poets Prize; Reign of Snakes (1999), winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award; and In the Bank of Beautiful Sins (1995), winner of the San Francisco Poetry Center Book Award and finalist for the Lenore Marshall Award from the Academy of American Poets. He lives in Idaho with his wife, the writer Kim Barnes.
“Dust” appeared in the Autumn 1989 issue of Poetry Northwest; “Hanging Laundry on a Windy Day in Assisi” in the Fall & Summer 2015 issue.