Jan Austin - Hicken

Jan Austin-Hicken


It was always the shimmering,
the incandescence that overtook us,
the counterpoint of moon and cirrus sky,
love and this infinite ringing universe.
Elated, sometimes all we needed was a little embrace,
a little night music for dancing.
It had something to do with desire,
with places where it hardly ever rains,
with the solemn little tunes
children sometimes sing.
Now, the willow out back
drags its blue woe through my dreams:
one by one I pluck the landscapes from my sleep.

The river is a wonder,
its body still just mist,
the day already sea-green
with its birds small lines on the horizon.
I am a child again and sailing through the air,
the reeds a soft vowel at my back.
Once or twice the river cradles me:
I brush my face against its delicate skin.
And then it is snowing.
The prairie is bitter cold and there are no trees.
We hold each other briefly and weep:
childhood autumn appears--
the woods flare up and blaze all around us.
And then some town we don't know is old.
Dusk throws out its parallel light
and the brilliance is blinding and makes us shake:
tombstones and crosses glow,
mountain ranges glow--
they slip the flat dry earth and its tumbleweed
a kiss good-bye and disappear.

I remember nothing on waking
except Spanish moss in the trees,
lying face up on the forest floor
watching some exotic bird move
its head from side to side in
exaggerated quick jerky motions;
there was a prickling sensation
at the base of my spine.
Maybe it was arousal--the recurring illicit love,
those nameless, faceless men
who always press against me.
Or maybe it was loneliness or fear
or something like guilt or shame.

Night after night it is the same old thing:
I get up, I lie down, I get up again.
I circle around the twilight once for old time's sake:
the pin oak barely knows it's alive,
the roses ignite and burn in their sleep,
the hillside draws its final blank
and slurs toward the edge of darkness.
Somewhere far off a violin breathes a single note,
our love eulogy; a persistent ragtime
plays its way through my memory.
In the end, I am perfectly still:
I close my eyes, I hitch my desires
to the performer's hands.

But tonight I crouch down
in the shadows like a child and watch.
Sooner or later they will come to me
one by one--a delicate and gentle stranger
who will call me by name,
dust that will rise up from the earth
crimpbacked and tired
and take me by the hands,
the moment of silence that will
dance me toward the unspeakable starlit sky.
In my twilight-colored skin I will greet them:
I will close my eyes, I will whisper your name.


Light because in the
end only light matters,
bloodlight because once
dust burned bloodred
across the sound above
the horizon, hanging
on the evening mist
where we arranged shells
in rows--maroon and pink
spotted angel wings, broken
sand dollars the shape of
little doves in flight.
The field of wheat we
passed time after time
that when the sky was
overcome with too much
low sinking light turned
brilliant orange then
bright fiery red.
The flame of heart
bending and swaying
in the heat, blackbirds
flying up in waves
from tall dry grass,
waiting for water.

Listen, you say, light is pain.
Not sure, I hold my hand up to the
lamp and it is my father's hand--
agile, long, knot of guilt at the fingerjoints,
half-moon of burden rising at the wrists.


Half awake I dream ice,
cold room after cold
room and blue, blue,
the lamplight on Catawba St.
turning everything a deep purplish blue.
One face, a second face, three faces,
the fourth face behind a camera
snapping pictures of light--
crab-shadow and tide-cut,
jagged edge of noon,
love's refraction at 6 o'clock.
My grandfather's face.
The corner where he laid,
eyes clamped shut, peering up
out of death from an open casket.

You hold out a hand and
it is ice, cold root in
the cold hard ground.
Death, you say, is
that grain of light
we rise each day to

clench between our teeth.
Believing, I wake.
Out the window, one star,
motherless, fatherless,
bleeding enigma sunk
in the night sky,
locks its clairvoyance
into the pinetops.
Star of anguish, the one
at the back of the throat,
too stunning to forget or remember.

I breathe a slow deep breath
and turn in time to see the face,
half-lit, turn to face complete
darkness and go away.
Beyond black night
one sound repeats:
five points of sorrow
crawling to the edge
of sleep.


Through the river
that follows me--
river of slow grief
and regret--
through the fragments
of what was and never
will be that turn,
turn in my sleep--
through the body
of forgiveness--
the eye, the ash,
the bone--I see you,
tender breath, body
released, curled in the
righteousness of light--
silk of gray light on the
fingertips at morning.
While I wait. For darkness,
for that wafer of stone
to cross me in my sleep,
for that shadow I have
dreamt of to hold me,
in the cradle of some
soft delicate sound,
to hold me.


Our house was pure light:
long hot burning coasts
of blinding white sand,
wind-blown glint of water
--river, lake, ocean-
sky, blinding white-hot sky.

Now, the house we come to
is floating darkness,
black radiance,
some arc of silence
we never quite
Its rooms are green
breeze, raw earth
glazed and watermarked,
grass a sweetness
we could never name.

Our beds are beds
of blue flowers
and honeysuckle vine.
Our children, unborn,
lie between us, tiny
heads moon-washed
and glistening, tiny
fists fragrant and moist.

Lost children, we reach
across them and clasp hands.
We cry a little.
To make it feel more
like home, we exchange
intimate gifts, tokens
of fine-grained, binding

Your gift to me:
the sound of glass
tapping on glass or
glass tapping on sleep.
My gift to you:
a sack of young bones
pure and milk-white
as infants' dreams.


Winter is a burning,
a longing, a photograph
of stripped-down trees,
the distal landscape indistinct.
In the foreground, my mother
and her mother's sister weep.
Silk scarves tied at their chins,
the wind is blowing.
Bending into it,
their mourning skews
the brittle sunlight.
I think what they want
is to remember nothing,
to be young again.
I think they want never
to have known grief.

There is a fatigue that comes
at low temperatures, a point
when we say nothing and
have to be released.
The dead know it.
They tuck themselves into
corners of cold attics,
they lie down or lean against
blackness, storing up the fallen
snow like sorrow in their hearts.
They watch us patiently as we
huddle in twos and threes
holding tight, trembling slightly,
heads lowered to silence,
slouching more and more toward
this unbearable whiteness.


for Walker

Daylight presses its cheek against the earth,
flicks the upturned palms of its hands across
the edge of the sky one last time.
The wind rattles the darkening streets;
the house settles and shifts and I sit,
this kind of half-light filling the room,
watching you move through your late evening sleep.
Spring and summer have gone, fall has nearly gone
and now the only temptations are the small ones:
thumbnail, cheekbone, lid of the eye;
things that never leave us,
things we never touch.

All day I have been remembering places:
an estuary-salt-kiss of the sea-arm-
and the dunes of my childhood,
grain by tiny grain disappearing
from behind a ruptured sea wall;
Water Valley-April and the slick
wet black of its streets,
white house after white house,
windows the color of fever,
lattice-work porches that still underpin my sleep;
the far wood in mid-winter,
tender with blue at nightfall,
the ice of my childhood forming on its trees.

All day I have been thinking of white:
cloud forests and the sun, cloud-filtered,
gone pale white disc, and how maybe in the end
everything just goes white (a window opens:
for a moment there is nothing but light;
the hot desert blows in and carries my clean,
sun-bleached bones to a distant riverbed)-
and red: the year I planted magnolias,
bougainvillea, and a jasmine vine.
Each evening when the sun dropped behind
and slanted through the trees,
I watched birds light on the fence.
I wanted to fall to my knees.
I wanted to crawl into the red
of the red-winged blackbird and lie down.

Now, in a distant room, the weeping fig drops another leaf,
reminding me that it's the shape of things that distracts me:
Cygnus the Swan, the house on the adjacent hill,
leaves that hang like small dried wounds from the trees.
And as I watch you, I know that it's my dreaming alone
that lets me sleep: head among bursting heart,
hands touching laurel and pine;
climbing the high altitudes-up, up
to where there is no sound but the sound of my breathing,
my blood (I can never see you, but I know you are there-
tiny, miraculous, suspended in black air).

Tomorrow, I want to wake to hold you.
I want to tell you that the earth is round.
I want you to know that sometimes at night
I hold it in my palm; flat on my back,
I glide through Saturn's rings,
I balance its moons on my fingertips.
I want to show you the birds and the evening sun-
the slow steady grace of its burn-
the oleander, crepe myrtle, mimosa,
that bloom your face in my sleep.
I want you to know that the white rose is my blood,
that it carried you through the blear of birth,
and when you sleep, I know it hovers in your dreams.


I walk in and out of my body,
in and out of my sleep.

This is my body: silt-that red-brown
loam at the bottom of dreaming-sea foam
and heart-of-pine, thunderclap and peculiar
yellow sky.

This is my sleep: the sun's trellis
of fire, wisteria vine, fallen barns
in the landscape, the extraordinary
movements of birds.


for Amanda

Twilight fills the ravine.
Cicada drone rises and falls,
a half-life of undergrowth
casts its line into the end
of endless afternoon.

Three steps, wingspread,
three steps, wingspread,
the mockingbird takes
his territorial stance
marking the spot he will
come to tomorrow and the
next day and the next.

When night falls, only
the X of our laughter
marks the spot. Inspired
we do a dance against
the dense humid air.
The heat lightning
becomes us. We slip
it on like a summer


elegy for William Hibbard

My own grief is simple:
red sky at the horizon,
Venus already high,
just the barest sliver of a moon.
The marsh is alive.
The water is a fire: the reeds
come up out of rippling flames;
they reach past the horizon
to touch the high deep blue.

Nothing prepared me for this-
evening so immense and fragile
its full range of light the pang
of final kisses in dreams.
And nothing prepared me for night,
its landscape of memory the dark
and delicate figures that sing.

I am alone.
I am the woman who
fills the sky each night,
the woman holding the rose
humming the same old tones.
I am alone, and each night,
in the white room of my sleep,
I still reach for you.


for Amanda

Mingliaotse: "...And so, being unable to find peace within
myself, I made use of the external surroundings
to calm my spirit, and being unable to find delight
within my heart, I borrowed a landscape to please

--T'u Lung
translated by Lin Yutang


Above the timberline
everything changes.
Our voices are bodies
that walk away from us,
our bodies a lightness that
fades into fine gray mist.
All day, the only movements
we make are small ones.
At night, memory is nothing:
we think only of radiance,
of shadow, of the pure
transfigured black sky.


The sea has forgotten us,
drawing away and turning
back into itself.
And the moon, glittering
its inarticulate love on
the surface of the water.
But the sea-pines are there.
Bending and swaying, they
are mothers to us, fathers.
Their singing is forgiveness;
they soothe us through
the paradoxes of sleep.


If the desert belonged
to us, night and day we
would hold its flowers.
The wind, in its infinite
sadness, would hum its
half-tones to our backs.
Children would be our
mirage, dancing wildly
in their nightclothes
at dusk, chanting
to the planet that is
rising in the west.


The midnight sky is
pale and glowing;
the frozen river is
a perfect white scar.
It's the snow,
the prairie lights,
the freedom from
extraneous color.
Crossing the footbridge
the horizon is nowhere.
There is almost nothing,
anywhere, to hear.


for David Barr


The trees all become someone
I know, wildflowers turn to tiny
bones, water lilies to infants' faces

(conceived under a salmon sky in a bed
of soft tangled weeds-they are yours,
mine, the man-next-door's who never
turns in his sleep).

I kiss them.
A hundred times I say good-bye
and I kiss them.


I begin to misplace things:
wooden rose on the nightstand,
piece of stone, piece of string.
A finger slips away,
then a hand,
then the feet.

Grain-out to nothing.

What I'm about to recover
doesn't even belong to me:
an arc-a spine beginning
its slight downward curve-
a shoulder, an eye,
the corner of a mouth.

You touch me-everything burns to white.


Sometimes there are dancers.
In the blackest part of night
they get out of their beds.
Palm to palm, at first
they barely move.

The moon is their mirror.
The stars, part of some
gentle pantomime,
sign their grace
all around them.


Perennial summer:
the world has gone to just
pinpoints of color and is blazing.

The skies are almost painful with
the way they bend light and the little
stories they tell: regret is played
out in coral and blue, love in blue,
white and gray.

Where is the lightning that
used to blank the east?
And the frozen gloves of
the north that picked apart
our afternoon sleep?

Always there is radiance, so much
radiance-nobody anywhere moves.
Nobody knows a thing to say.


I crawl slowly to my bed:
the heart of palm belongs
to me now. It does its
hollow tic-tics in the
sweet night breeze and
grazes my sleep.

And the pelicans?
They belong to me too.
The same one always
flies in and out
of my dreams.
He thinks he knows you.
Sometimes he even thinks
he's you, wings outstretched
touching nothing, just
gliding, gliding.

Jan's Email