The Fugitive Oil for James Wright
by Michael Danahy
The Monongahela, that flammable river, for once threatened to
prove its invisible light.
The ghosts of sons of miners’ ghosts worked hard to gather fugitive oil as it
flooded toward your beautiful river, your beautiful Ohio river.
It did not want to be there. It was trying to get to Harper’s Ferry.
Derricks knock against a hollow earth. Oil sucked up, coal carved out, that
leaves just ghosts, ghosts that leave their emptying coffins only bones, bones
becoming something else.
The abolitionist hills are in cahoots. They gird the river too steeply for the
miner’s sons to access. Oil mobs over booms. The Wheeling taps are shut for
days. The railroad bores further underground.
Men who drown rivers in black ink belong in mines.
Somewhere a pumpjack sips at black coffee, up all night, spitting off black notes
as a hurdy gurdy crank is turned by an invisible wing. Somewhere a sparrow sits
in a field where a tree was, cawing. A sparrow hidden in the bituminous branches
flutters, breathing in black notes, scabbing as a canary.
Beneath a tree a young man sits eating an apple. He grinds his teeth and spits out bone.
Seven degrees, the night black as any coal seam, the cold or oil not thick enough
to walk on. They walk on it, slow resolve-filled steps down an unturning stair.
At last the ice floes gather close around them. The bubbles close. Their blood
roils through the plumbing. We feed them through our cars. They heat a
comfortable living room where a husband sits in the lamplit corner. The room is
haunted by a distant humming as he stretches out an evening paper decades old.
The lamp burns quiet as an empty heart. The cat comes to his lap and sinks into
the cushion. The good wife prepares for bed, upstairs a faucet screams.
Now as the river’s frozen, we must go out through the ice, ice saw, tape recorder
and propane torch across our belt, and follow lamplit helmets. We are preceded
by small explosions. An Illiad is spoken in each cold-trapped bubble.
Family trees descend a stair of plain pine boxes. Angers mine our hearts. We
will make love and babies despite ourselves. We will make more ghosts to feed
Listen, James. Are you still with me? If we do not do something, something
really big, these hills will sleep long, press you where you lie down dead, press
us into coal.