Poems from Alan Birkelbach
Alan Lee Birkelbach (’78), a published poet who works at the Plano office of Freddie Mac, was named Texas Poet Laureate for 2005. He succeeds Cleatus Rattan (’65, ’69 M.Ed), also a North Texas alumnus.
Although the one-year appointment has no duties, no obligations and no pay, Birkelbach took the advice of former poet laureates to "act as an ambassador for poetry across the state." He has spoken at conferences, festivals, poetry groups, colleges, public libraries and bookstores.
A poet since age 12, he is the author of two poetry collections, No Boundaries and Weighed in the Balances. He says he tends to write about those who have lost their direction in life and uses Texas and the Southwest as the foundation for many of his poems. Here are a few selections he shared with us:
The Former Poet Laureate Said
that he had finally just had enough
of admirers puttering their way down the sidewalk
onesy, twosy, like lost flagellants,
with copies of his books in their hands.
They were always mewling and whiny, waiting
for him to appear on his stoop
to "bless you, bless you all."
He admitted he was too accessible.
When he was younger inspiration
was as common as meatloaf.
He could pretty much rub two sticks together
and make a poem out of it.
But the reality was that one day his Muse
died inside him and he was left to try and hold
his reputation together on momentum alone.
It wasn’t, he said, so much a matter of losing control
as having control getting up and taking a flight
one-way to Bolivia or some other godforsaken place
where it’s probably struggling right now
inside some mustached coffee-picker
who owns one shirt and two goats and whose
entire vocabulary rhymes with ‘sangria."
But I noticed that even as he talked
he worked the chicken on the grill
and between the turning of each breast
there was an unspoken, counted pause
and they were laid in regular rows
that he would constantly write and rewrite.
She would stop
hanging the clothes on the line
to watch him build
the stone fence.
His stiff arms
lifting the barrow,
his pushing steps as sure and measured
as a pallbearer’s,
the shoulders curling with the tilt and dump,
and then the rattle, roar and tumble
of the stones, like heavy bones stolen from an ogre’s cave.
He’d gone out clean
and grown dirty.
What a good word -- grown.
She squinted a little.
He seemed bigger now,
slathered in soil and chips of stone,
sheened with brown sweat,
the barrow seemed small beside him.
She wished the wind would blow from him to her.
He was a golem, as solemn
and steadfast and holy
as any jewish-born statue.
She realized that her mouth was open
and that she was slowly pinching and unpinching a clothespin.
She knew he would come home later,
even darker than now,
all root and mineral,
skin-tone a myth,
bright eyes shining through a mask,
hands large and throbbing.
She didn’t care as long as there was grit.
And she would meet him at the door
aching for redemption,
hungry to hold the magic,
searching for the mystic scroll
under his tongue
with her tongue.
In Lubbock, in the middle of summer nights,
when the power would go out and the fans would die on us,
then we would remember the cast iron bed
had wheels, so we would creakily negotiate it
out the door and across the yard
and park it there in clear view of the road,
and you’d wear something flannel
and I’d wear faded boxers,
and you’d lay your head on my chest.
The moon was an icebox cooling our eyes and cheeks;
it was white and pocked like a thin,
late Winter Texas snow,
and we would watch satellites
drift overhead like determined fireflies,
watch them blink steady like breaths we had to take,
like our heartbeats measuring the length of night.
Right before you leave El Paso
going east there ought to be a kind of customs stop
where you are instructed to call to mind
all the songs you know
and sing them right into something sturdy.
Imagine that place:
“Here, Bobby, here’s a candy wrapper, and, Sue, here’s
a little extra room in a suitcase. Dad can have all the empty pop bottles
because he knows a lot of songs."
(And some folks, the ones who are poor and aren’t toting much,
will be convinced to hum right into a paper bag,
or up their shirt sleeve, or into a shoe).
Imagine a Ranger grabbing Grandma by the ankles,
shaking all the tunes loose.
“We’d better not hear you singing out loud
until you at least hit Alpine.
We can’t take your radios
but we’ll be listening if you sing along …"
Heading back south and east into the Rio Grande
the Big Bend doesn’t tolerate much talking.
It’s too big a place, too set in silence,
and all the people who have been here before have tried to fill it up.
But the Rangers say they can’t tolerate any more nights
where the hot, humid wind carries pieces of old, foolish, brave voices
and impales them on the claws of the ocotillo and lechuguilla,
leaving torn shreds of songs
that weep and shriek and drift
from cactus to mesquite, from bush to thorny bush.
A Painting of a Blacksmith
The right arm drawn back and over his head,
the left holding the tongs that bite
the metal rod, the fire-tinged thing,
waiting for the strike.
The focus of the eyes,
the set of the bicep,
the flat stance of the legs
and the solid, immutable grip of desire.
There should be a word
for the imagining of an echo,
for when that hammer hits,
when the need for shape is sent through an arm,
for when the hammer calls
and the hot metal answers,
and the clang and shimmers
go through the anvil into the boots.
This is the painting I want you
to dream of me at night:
the breathless gasp right before
the arm swings around,
the knowing that you need only touch me
and I will be hungry with fire,
that you need only call me
and I will ring red and sparking and true.