The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Robert Charboneau



I - Sutro District

  "I myself raised them up from out of Nu, out of watery nothing."

                      —The Book of Overthrowing Apep


At Lands End we poise along the Roman ruins

of Sutro Baths as on a balance beam.

It is mid-morning and the fog belt peels

off the alameda, where they say

the Yelamu once sang to the sea

singing to Xa-Matutsi who capers

in a sweathouse at the end of the sea.


Point Lobos swallows the buffeting surf,

stores in its belly thunderclaps that shake the earth.

Whitman's bare feet dug in Paumanok bar,

the Father's throating coruscations,

the stuff of sea-drifting and whispering.

His song is salt spray and foam.

How did he know I would be here

quarrelsome and desperate to receive him?

I have not found the same land as he did,

though I had found it in him.


I hate America

I hate her Green Lady, and her Blind Lady

I hate her self-made men and the self-made lie

I hate the Cliff House of Adolph Sutro,

and the baths that bear his name,

whose outline in the mud drains its waters like a tarn.


When the Spanish arrived

they named the people Costanoans,

baptized them in El Presidio Real,

dismantled their boats of tule reed

and put them to work in the missions.

What they must've thought was the living fleet

of Kuksu, spirit of healing summoned

by medicine men in red-beaked headdresses,

was only Bourbon kings and the flag of New Spain

coming not to cure but to cleanse.


A century passes, and their holy sweathouse

is built on the inlet where they

once gathered mussels into wicker cones.

From downtown it cost five cents

to ride the Cliff House rail line, what is now

a trail for spying shipwrecks at low tide.

The bathhouse was razed,

the panes of its hangars burst,

the sea reclaimed its view of the hillside.


I pray it was set ablaze the same way

the Ohlone often fired the land,

clearing dead roots and duff

to lay new forage for deer and elk.

And I pray that song, too, is sung to the sea,

and is known as famously on that bluff

as the Gingerbread Palace,

and known as well

as historic Sutro District,

and is told as long as men tell

of what took place there.



II - Lake Tahoe

      "I found no place whereon I could stand. I worked a charm upon my own heart."


"So we get to Tahoe, he says he has a boat.

He doesn't. His friend has the boat. He made

it sound like his," she makes careful note.


"Wait, what does he do again?"


"Some start-up in Reno, front-end design.

And there's seven of us in this dinghy,

this little bowrider, and one ice-chest,

hardly any beer in there for the afternoon

let alone the fireworks."


                              "O, how was it?"


"Like I said, I could've used more to drink."


"No, the fireworks."


                             "Okay, I guess."


"That's what I thought.

I went there last year. It was crowded."


"Way too many people," she gives the word "way"

its own paragraph. "We were basically

parked in the middle of the water.

The gas runs out, and we get towed

into Cave Rock by the watch."




"He says it's got to do with the motor,

but I don't think he knew what it was.

Some people try so hard, they try so hard."


"That's a shame. He seemed nice."


                                                "I know, I was hoping,"

she enlarges her O, rotund and regretful,

and it swallows the memory of him whole.


"I know," the other groans. "You can never tell."


"They make the beach seem so romantic."


"Where did you two go?"


                                      "To Kiva," she says.

Her friend hums along ambiguously,

as if she might know the implication.

"Zephyr was packed, but the trailhead near Fifty

was close, he kept saying, 'Let's find somewhere

quiet, I like to lay down and watch them.'

He didn't want to have to stand,

said there were too many people around."


"Oh my god," she says, dragging god along her tongue.


"I know. I'd only had a couple beers.

We met some kids near the creek smoking.

I made nice and got a joint out of it.

He doesn't smoke, but I needed something."


"Really? Who doesn't smoke, even a little bit?"


"He gave me a look, too, a 'So you're that kind of girl.'

And you're the sort of guy who loves fireworks?"




She halts as if approaching some precipice,

heels planted to launch her next words off the cliff:

"I know."


"That's a shame. He looked like fun."


"If you're ever considering it, don't.

They make it seem like a good idea.

The second you're down, it's sand everywhere."


"Oh, I know. I met this guy last year

at Sundown Festival in Huntington.

He didn't even want to find somewhere quiet.

The mainstage lit up the shoreline,

you could see all the butts and empty baggies.

Nobody cared. Everyone looked like

big sea turtles tossing sand over their eggs.

Some of them were waist-deep in the shallows,

security wiggling flashlights at them

making sure nobody overdosed and

washed up face down the next morning.

I took off my top but that was it,

and I'm still fishing out sand."


"A towel's no good either, not when

he's excavating you with all his weight behind it.

I knew it wasn't going to be exactly like they said,

but I thought that if we took our time it might be fun,

but the whole time I could see those lights

under Mount Tallac, I thought someone could see us.

All you had to do was look long enough,

our shadows weren't moving exactly

like the surf, almost but not exactly.


"He finished on my thigh of all places.

I got up and walked into the lake,

it felt like bits of jellyfish.

I'm sure someone saw me

cause I was the only one out there

while the fireworks went off.

I wasn't sure where my top had gone,

but I gave the towel a few shakes

and used that like a shawl.

Then I saw this person standing across the way,

standing by himself, all alone,

I knew he must've been watching us.

And you know what I did?

I took off the towel, flipped my hair over my head

and wrapped it up, and let him stare at my chest.

I angled toward the light from the fireworks

so he could see it.

I thought, at least someone should get something out of this,

otherwise it all felt like a big waste of time,

at least let someone get the wrong idea."


Her friend replies with abrasive enthusiasm,

                                                            "God, I know."



III - Song of Pheidippides

                                  "I laid the foundations in my own heart,

                       and there came into being multitudes of created things..."


All down to shore, for the tide is out.

Oh glorious victory, glorious

the gambit of Miltiades,

the swan-breasted prows at last unbeached.


Gone is Datis who sacked Eretria,

and the traitor Hippias, too,

the tyrant who was so cruel to us.


We've seven Persian ships outfitted

with good canvas and sheep, and many

pithoi of wine and Libyan salt.


In the foaming breakers fair Kynegeiros

has seized the sternpost of another

as fieldhands drag stubborn oxen by the yoke.


Trembled we at the thought of gilded Medes,

and sight of their arms at the precinct of Herakles.

Yet see you those bow and slingmen grasping

jellied seaweed, now gripless in their task?


A thousand more routed to the marshlands

thanks to thee, Themistokles,

and to thee, just Aristides,


the double center bracing to the beaten zone.

Nor will Athens forget those who came to her aid,

brave Plataeans who held the left.


Henceforth will our heralds honor thee

at the Four-Year Festivals of our Fathers.

Come, let us to the burial work,


unroot the abbatis of our camp

and make us several pyres of tall smoke.

Send for a clean knife washed in milk

to meet the throats of nineteen ewes.


Where is fleet-footed Pheidippides?

Here's a task yet for an apprentice of Pan.

Make haste afield across the high fennel


and cry to Athens and all Attika

'Victory! Victory! The Greeks are free!'

Oh Pheidippides, our day-long runner


who strides with Hermes' wingèd-boots,

fly quickly over the plains of poplars,

take the busy fosse through Brilittos,


follow the marble-carts from the quarry

and sing thee all the while 'Victory'

until thy breath is spent,

until the wide world knows how we are free.


Lie quiet Plutarch. That is Plutarch's account

from Heracleides of Pontus in the Moralia,

he says all this was done in full armor,


the courier, who has at least five names,

burst open the doors of a Romanesque Athens,

the poetry of 'Hail! We are victorious'


squeezed from the last accordion note of his lungs.

Did no one offer him a bowl of water?

Except he ran, not from Marathon but Athens,


and ran to the Peloponnese

entreating the Spartans for aid.

How embarrassing then, when his haste met with

let's call it apathy, since they were busy


butchering rams and waiting for a full moon.

Even more embarrassed must've been

that Athenian a hundred years after


who ran to Persepolis asking for aid

against a Sparta thirsty for the entire Aegean.

I wonder how much dirt he stuffed in his pockets,


how much water from the wells of Athens

he poured out before the feet of Artaxerxes.

In his treatise, Plutarch considers the merits


of Athens' glory, whether by her warriors or poets

she won fame, and concludes that

without the deeds at Artemisium and Salamis

there could be no tragedies from the likes of Thespis,


for it was in those places Plutarch says

Athens laid far-shining foundations of freedom.

That, of course, was a quote from Pindar.


Nor did those German scholars and archaeologists,

Winckelmann, Meyer, Burckhardt and the like

learn of Athens and her prolific deeds

by staring at the soros of dead Greeks piled in haste

but by reading the epigram of Simonides.



IV - Omaha Beach

    "...and I wept over them, and men and women sprang into being from the tears which

                                            came forth from my Eye."


O vision beheld on Normandy beach,

beheld from the starboard bow flashing,

climbing the cargo nets over the starboard side,

the Higgins descending down the davit's grip.


There I beheld the likeness of all things,

and fell in love so deeply with the past, for I had become intimate with the present.

Was it not like Prometheus and his fire,

green ignus fatuus flashing out of the dawn breaking,

            light of the casemate's lamp, and of sparks that leap from the bridgehead?

Was it not unfurled before me like the wiigwaasabakoon, golden etchings of Ojibwe?

Was it not the same vision you had, Waynaboozhoo, from the shoulder of your dug-out,

as you weathered the Flood a full moon's time?


I beheld men breaching Easy Red

as seedlings of rice dipped one by one into the paddy water,

one by one planting their cheeks against the sand,

rolling backwards and dragging across the sandbar,

hedgehogs tenderly cradling their bodies.

Waynaboozhoo, they were like wild rice you gathered from the river,

as you fasted in your wigwam that long, chill winter,

the same rice you mistook for feathered headdresses of Ojibwe men dancing on the water.

I, too, saw E company, their Higgins like a cork upon the waves,

and felt as though I were dreaming,

for they and their flotilla breaking the fog

looked as iron-white seafoam riding the tide,

like Heavenly Aphrodite born of the ocean's womb.

And from this vision three ideas seized me.


The first, descending the cargo nets

down to the Higgins, my Garand snagged in the swollen knots,

was such love for these men I almost could not bear,

such delirious, selfish love for them,

both for those beside me, my own company,

and those men on the beachhead whose names I knew not,

yet I was in love with them all the same.

I was in love, even, with those men in the pillboxes and turrets,

for we were made of seafoam all of us,

the same salt-water corrosive to our lost sea-skin.


The second idea was that of importunity.

The coxswain summoning his voice,

dropped my gaze from battle to look upon him,

and I fell to questioning, desperate and heartfull,

as princely Arjuna, scorcher of foes, as the son of Pritha

was full of doubt gazing upon the yellow plains of Kurukshetra,

surveying from his shaded chariot armies left and right,

and fell into despair, and called upon his driver,

who was Jambul-skinned Krishna, Lord of the Universe,

Husband of Fortune, Chief Herdsman, Protector of Cows and Souls.

Bhagavan Krishna, the Supreme Purusha,

to cure the prince's heart-sickness,

arrayed His Divine Form to Arjuna,

that world-destroying Time, Ishvara, in celestial gowns resplendent, Ishvara,

into whose myriad flaming mouths go all the heroes of men, and have gone, and will go,

as surely as the moth and mosquito.

As Arjuna beheld terrific Lord Brahman on the lotus,

and trembled with consent,

So was I brought before the same portal by the coxswain,

the bow-ramp's jaws drawing open for me.


Of the third idea,

it was the same as yours, Waynaboozhoo,

returning with the wild rice cupped in your hands,

returning to the village troubled with long winter,

returning with news of hidden crops in the river.

You told your families so they would not go hungry,

so they would not starve that winter.

I, too, found those seedlings adrift in the unconscious sea.

This was the third notion I had,

unbuckling my haversack in slow thrashes,

staying myself above the wine-dark waters,

to tell of those seedlings among salt-lettuce and cloudy silt,

whose names I hold in my heart, and cannot speak aloud without weeping.


O vision beheld on Normandy beach,

such intense rendezvous I witnessed on your shore

was the same as that of the future and the past.

This was the likeness of all things,

the uniformity of bodies stacked like cordwood on the bar.

All of history has taken place along the bar,

where ignorant clashings of seas with land embrace.



V - Marathon Petroleum

    " after another, and they produced their multitudinous offspring in this earth."


There's no metaphor for the sharp flatness

of the till plains of Findlay Ohio,

but imagine a vast carapace of ice,

some primordial, Pleistocene earth-god,

its being too large to know time,

slumbering like a mountain for eons,

suddenly—not our suddenly, but its—

struck dead by the sum of infinitely

smaller motions of light and gravity.

How it slouches languorously to its core,

sweeps out the cliffs and frozen forests,

smoothing its glacial mass underfloor,

like spacetime expanding into nothing.

There's a sense of this immense sinking,

walking the moraine of the reservoir,

of lands so low they could not raise again.

Its warm blood flows daily down the Blanchard

into the green, slow-moving Maumee.


For thirty years I was senior PLC specialist

for Marathon Petroleum, now giving it up

to spend my days plying muddy banks

of Blanchard for walleye and catfish,

though more and more of late only for Asian carp.

Now it seems everything announces its age to me,

antediluvian tectonics, this home

that was once the Great Black Swamp

where Odawa waded with fur bales.

Everything tells me how old it is,

and everything is older than I imagined,

yet it all seems to be a part of me,

a reason for my reason,

the smooth lowlands mythologically old,

the black swamp, and Colonel James Findlay

laying supply lanes through the Black Swamp,

or the steam Traction Ditcher of James Hill,

Iron Grand-Dad-of-Them-All tilling the soil,

or the richness of death in the earth

giving birth to the Ohio Company,

then Marathon Oil in the thirties—

now, that is, Petroleum, a corporate spin-off,

the father of a father, like cells dividing,

like all these printed polyester flags

raised victoriously over every similar porch.

Wilson called it Flag City, USA.

Even of that I do partly bear the torch.

In the end I fear I've become a story,

one among many who are meant when people say

"A town like Findlay is a great place to live."

How much of it was my fault, and how much

the fault of all those things come before me?

Surely fate is a description of choices,

like the trend line, the line of best fit,

through the indefinite, scattered plot.

And what of those coordinates a hundred years hence?

What advantages, what injuries, what

coincidences have I performed unknowingly?

It was me who told them what freedom was:

a tank full of gas, stars and stripes

stapled to the awning;

it was me those things were meant for,

Hill's tractor, Wilson's pandering nod,

the whole damned Wisconsin Glaciation.

If I could find them, those faces

hurled into the future and obscured by it,

who see me yet are unknown to me,

O how piacular would I become,

how justly would I debase myself now,

to tell them I was not what time had undone.




ROBERT CHARBONEAU was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and lived up and down the east coast before coming west. He currently lives in Reno, Nevada, where he teaches English composition as an adjunct for the University of Nevada. This is Mr. Charboneau's first-ever publication of poetry. A second long poem will appear in Volume Five of the review, coming July 1st.



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