Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning by Jude NutterPoems by Jude Nutter

Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2021
Finalist, 34th annual Minnesota Book Awards

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selections from this collection

Dead Drift

Water shelving off into darkness and the mind,
which accepts the river’s depth, is perplexed
by the eyes’ denial.  Flat as shadow

on grass you lie, watching the mouth
of the net held close to the bank, waiting
for a wide-open, astonished eye, for a wedge
of head to cohere out of silt and present
itself, as all beings born into time
do, with defiance and out of matter
both moving and held
motionless in suspension.  Then the quick

veer, the glint-thrill, the solid, flexed silm
of a body at the surface as it turns.  After that,
the backwash, a sluggish roil, the vane of a tail

receding.  Where was I, you think, before I
was suddenly here—cleaved cell, a gyre 

 of code unlocked?  In the net’s uneasy
alchemy each brown trout
rests, finning in place, nose to the current,
until your father, who caught each fish and slipped
each hook and holds the net, submerges

its rim and decants each life back
into the flow of the river—not a fish, not a trout, no
nameable shape—just a finned smear, a flare
of copper.  Then nothing but your own reflection
restored to the water’s surface as the water
restores its mirror.  Early evening, a sudden

coolness filming the skin and, as if
some marvelous army has placed its shield wall
to rest, canted sunlight falling

in blazons on the water.  Here, for a while, before
humping north to face the tribes
of Caledonia, a small and weary detachment
from the Ninth Legion of Rome did
place their shields and their weapons down,
right here, on the banks of the Wharfe,
and named their settlement Calcaria, meaning
lime.  The pale blocks of empire quarried, right here,
by slaves, on territory stolen from the Celtic tribes,
on the great north road to Eboracum.
But before all this—before the Brigantes

and Romans and Vikings and French, before flints
and axes and spear-blades; before the age
of long barrows and dolmens; before the first
brattle of war and occupation and every
advance and obliteration of history, there was stone
and the stone’s own story of molluscs and forams
and corals.  Evidence of oceans, of time’s
crushing indifference.  Out in that river,

in chest-high waders, your father is loading
his rod for the cast; the loop of the line unfurls
and the fly—a Pale Evening Dun—settles
on a seam where two currents meet and

dead drifts to where eddies mark a trout
sipping mayfly from the surface.  Not once
have you asked your father why, when he crimps
the barbs flat against the shank of every hook and files
them smooth and then releases
every fish he fights and fatigues and plays

into the net, he even fishes at all.  Perhaps
it has something to do with how the fly
presents itself perfectly on the water; or the line,

a filament of sky come loose, unfurling.  No, not the fly,
or the line, but his arm casting.  No, not that: not

the casting, but the arm lifting, suddenly,
to set the hook.  No not even the arm,
but the whole body reacting.  A river
is a closed door that opens everywhere
and always and only into itself and in the long,
continuous lick of its current is a man
standing motionless, braced

for the strike.  And before there was pigment,
before the first flute, before fire; and until all the hands
silhouetted in ochre, until the aurochs and ibex
and spotted horses walked out of the mind as the mind
unhooked itself from darkness,
there was this: the whole body reacting—animal,
instinctive.  And after?  Not the reaction,

but the seconds it took—not many, but one; no,
not even one, not the seconds at all,
but that fraction of unmeasurable time in which

whatever was about to be done
remained undone.

by Jude Nutter

Copyright Jude Nutter. All rights reserved. First published in The Moth, Issue 36 Spring 2019.

Ianua: My Father’s Rhythm Strip

                To you, line unforeseen or always known.
                                    Rafael Alberti

To Lórien Knoll from Rockall Bank
and on, then, to Isengard Ridge, to Thulean Rise,
to Orphan Basin and the Flemish Cap:

the route you’d plot, when asked,
to Newfoundland from the coast of Éire
on profile maps of the Atlantic

floor, those maps you’d loved—all ridges
and valleys and abyssal plains.
Running all through my life, this chain

of names.  The longest range
of mountains in the world, you’d said, right
there beneath the ocean’s indifferent preening;

guyots and seamounts, and trenches
five miles deep.  A darkness, you’d said, that is
not simply an absence

of light, but an element even older perhaps
than light—the black vice of matter
before time.  But the beauty of those names:

who could fail to fall in love with darkness
when it held such sounds.

Imagine a man
strolling through the smell of smoke
and horses and the loose gutted bodies

of the morning catch to board a ship
that departs with the ebb under a chorus
of sails; a man who climbs the ladder to ride

the yaw in the crow’s nest.  How long,
on observing some small change
coming over the curve of the Earth—land

scrolling towards him, needle of a mast, hand
of a sail—would that man
have remained silent, unwilling to relinquish

his uniqueness; secluded and alone
in his discovery?  Even after
your death something kept coming into being

along the paper.  But it was only a machine
revealing that your blood had fallen finally
quiet inside the walls of its prison.

It was after all, then, a single moment—
your death: not a place
of continual arrival; not

the apparent juncture of sky and water.

Think of that flare deep in the gut—love’s
visceral engine—when our lines match up
with the shapes of our longing.

Because love exists
before logic or language.  Why else
would the painters of the caves, aware perhaps

of the mind’s growing sharpness, hide
their animals in darkness.
Think of the lines we have drawn between stars

so the emptiness they outline
might be, for a while, diminished; so the darkness
we inherit is familiar.  And what of the daughter

of Butades the potter, in love
with a boy from Corinth, a boy who would vanish
into the extremis of war; how she traced

on the wall his shadow’s outline as he
lay sleeping on the slender catafalque
of her bed.  There are several versions:

that his shadow was cast
by a candle, by a lantern, by moonlight
reflecting off the Gulf of Corinth.  It makes no difference.

Every boundary, every outline, even
when given its name, contains
its emptiness to the end: auroch, lion,

bison, deer; The Net, The Archer,
the beloved’s body.  As a child
I drew nothing but horses—in outline,

in profile; on test papers, in notebooks,
in a novel’s margins: chin groove, throat latch
and the mass of the gaskin, the slope

of a hoof’s front wall for which there is
still no name.  I drew them life-size
in dirt, in mud; I wanted an open solitude, another life,

a body I could step into and inhabit.
Which I did.                    I have eighteen feet of paper—
a narrow strip.  I choose a circle.  I join

each end with tape.  A corral
large enough to enter.  Which I will.  I could even
lie down and sleep and safely

dream inside the final moments
of your life.  And I will.  Yet what
are dreams if not memory at work

inside the body, which is flesh
and knows only the moment.  When I wake
there will be nothing but the mouth

of each empty doorway; each empty
doorway’s line of threshold.  And the flimsy
paper circle of your absence.

And what is emptiness in the end
if not a form of waiting: think of all
the words there must be, even now,

waiting for a language; of a lake’s mirror
ready for birds and cloud; of how
we empty ourselves of ourselves

in the hope that our dead
will enter and discover evidence
of their own existence.  Of the solid quiet

of a field in summer
emptied of cattle, who have followed each other
into the cool stillness of the milk barn: the lure

of a pasture, briefly abandoned, light
still burning in its one green window; the temptation

of a gate standing fully open.

by Jude Nutter

Copyright Jude Nutter. All rights reserved. First Published in The Crab Orchard Review, Vol 22 No 1, 2018.