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Old 06-19-2017, 10:13 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 3,422
Default Hidden Silver

A Hundred Thousand Rivers

He went to sleep in a dream
seventy years from The War
sleep walked like a stranger into the swamp
dead he swelters
behind the rusted screen door
watching the dunes change shape
in the half-light before the storm
disorders them and tomorrow
arrives with nothing to persuade
no arguments to make
sweet bourbon the only solace
cold water showers and palmetto bugs
leaving eggs in his mouth
The Atlantic Ocean had not been decisive
bouncing over the waves in transport
last girl's squeeze a song
hidden from the water thinking
of where his mother hid the silver
the solid gold chain she wore
entertaining guests with their lifeless murmurings
good times will return for us good people
she said preparing him for war
he wants that silver now he'll
turn his back on the prancing ocean
walk the soft sun-battered road to the city
trading salutes with the dinghy captains
the trumpet player the chronicler
wearing the new white shoes
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Old 06-19-2017, 11:23 AM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 2,247

Hi John

As usual, this is very well written and I find lots to like here. It may be that I come back again following a Eureka moment. I'll focus on what I understand, and what confuses me, since that's the sort of feedback I always find useful. There are also a couple of places where the lack of punctuation adds to my confusion, but mostly I think the absence of it works well, and adds to the experience of the poem.

Here's a man who's been to war, and the experience has not transformed him (or not given him the purpose it might have). We open 70 years from the war, so I imagine him very old. On first read I'd imagined his death to be metaphorical, showing the absence of his life, his non-life: drinking, watching the world go by. In that context, I particularly liked "tomorrow / arrives with nothing to persuade / no arguments to make". But rereading, I'm less sure. Perhaps, given his age and the flies laying eggs, and being described as "dead" means that he is. I'd taken "he went to sleep in a dream" literally: in his dream he dreamt he went to sleep, but "he went to sleep" can of course mean he died. But if the description is of his corpse rather than him, I don't know why bourbon would still be a solace. So I'm still reading this that he's alive, but I'm less sure of it than I was.

In L3, is the ambiguity intended? Do you intend that sleep walked into a swamp. Or that he sleepwalked into a swamp (in which case, I'd go with "sleepwalked"). Or do you want both?

So next we move the war, the experience not being transformative ("decisive"). I initially read it that his departure is being described -- "last girl's hug" implying he has (had) more than one, but not serious relationships. That he's still holding the hug makes me think he's setting off. But the close (I think) makes it clear that he's coming back. So maybe it's a European girl from post-liberation/end of war celebrations.

Would "The Atlantic Ocean was not decisive" work as well? The "had not been" construction seems to take us slightly out of the voice that precedes.

His family is old money but in decline ("good times will return for us good people"). He comes back wanting what's left of it. "lifeless murmurings" echoes the death of the first half, which again I want to to tie into the idea that he's alive but lifeless, and not caring about / despising his mother.

I couldn't work out whether to read: "he wants that silver now | he'll" or "he wants that silver | now he'll" though perhaps it doesn't make much difference. Either way, the use of the present tense and "now" makes me wonder if this is the poem's final turn and "now" brings us back to the present of the opening. The present tense "he wants the silver now" does make me wonder. Is the ending the younger version of him deciding to walk from the ocean to the city? Or the older version from the opening? I guess the people he'll meet make it likely that this is post-war him still in uniform, but it's not definitive. Finally, in the last line line,.who's wearing the new shoes? I read it as the chronicler, but it could be our guy instead.

Hope this ramble though your poem is helpful in some way.


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Old 06-19-2017, 02:26 PM
David Callin David Callin is offline
Join Date: Jun 2014
Location: Ellan Vannin
Posts: 1,524

Wow. An excellent set of comments from Matt there, John. I found them quite helpful in reading the poem myself.

My own take is that he's come back from the war to a life quite different from what he expected or what his mother wanted for him. But even that doesn't seem quite right.

Perhaps the best thing is not to look for definitive meaning - which is what I usually do - but just float downstream with the poem. It's a pleasant experience.


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Old 06-19-2017, 04:37 PM
Mark McDonnell Mark McDonnell is offline
Join Date: May 2016
Location: England
Posts: 1,434

Hi John,

It's an intoxicating poem which announces its dream-logic from the first line: not 'He went to sleep and dreamed' but, counterintuitively, 'He went to sleep in a dream'. It immediately made me think of the lyrics to Tom Waits' song 'Swordfishtrombone', another woozy veteran's fever-dream.

'Well, he came home from the war
With a party in his head
And modified Brougham DeVille
And a pair of legs that opened up like butterfly wings
And a mad dog that wouldn't sit still
He went and took up with a Salvation Army band girl
Who played dirty water on a swordfishtrombone
He went to sleep at the bottom of Tenkiller lake
And he said "gee, but it's great to be home"
Well, he came home from the war with a party in his head
And an idea for a fireworks display
And he knew that he'd be ready with a stainless steel machete
And a half a pint of Ballentine's each day
And he holed up in room above a hardware store
Cryin' nothing there but Hollywood tears
He put a spell on some poor little Crutchfield girl
And stayed like that for twenty-seven years
He packed up all his expectations, he lit out for California
With a flyswatter banjo on his knee
With a lucky tiger in his angel hair and Benzedrine for getting there
They found him in a eucalyptus tree
Lieutenant got him a canary bird and skanked her head with every word
Chesterfielded moonbeams in a song
He got twenty years for lovin' her from some Oklahoma governor
Said "everything this Doughboy does is wrong"
Now some say he's doing the obituary mambo
Now some say that he's hanging on the wall
Perhaps this yarn's the only thing that holds this man together
Some say he was never here at all
And some say they saw him down in Birmingham
Sleeping in a boxcar going by
And if you think that you can tell a bigger tale
I swear to God you'd have to tell a lie'

I have no idea if you know this song, but your poem breathes the same air for me, like a sadder free-verse version with the wise-assery taken out (which is a compliment in my book!)

No nits. I don't want to work out the 'meaning', it's a poem to be felt and experienced and wondered at.

(edit: not that I begrudge Matt's attempt at divining narrative/meaning. He made a valiant effort!)

Last edited by Mark McDonnell; 06-19-2017 at 06:00 PM.
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Old 06-19-2017, 06:22 PM
Matt Q Matt Q is offline
Join Date: May 2013
Location: England, UK
Posts: 2,247

Ha, yes, I was thinking Tom Waits too when I read this too. Can't remember which song, but quite possibly this one.
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Old 06-19-2017, 11:17 PM
Katie Hoerth's Avatar
Katie Hoerth Katie Hoerth is offline
Join Date: May 2011
Location: Beaumont, Texas
Posts: 566

Hi John,
This is quite exquisite. It does have a certain dreamlike quality, which I admire. Lots of strong images here, too, add to that: the shifting dunes, the sweet taste of bourbon, and the cloudy memories.
The poem becomes more concrete towards the end with the descriptions of the objects from the past, particularly the silver and what it represents.
This line, though, took me out of the dream:
he wants that silver now he'll
I think it's that enjambment. Why end the line on he'll? We have a tense shift, too, so maybe you're wanting to emphasize that.
The only other minor thing I can mention is some of the inversions elevate the tone, which I'm not sure you want. For example, "dead he swelters" vs. "he swelters dead." Though that's incredibly minor.
Anyway, I enjoyed this.
Thanks for posting.
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Old 06-21-2017, 10:19 PM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 3,422

I can't say what this poem is about. I know what set it up and off but I think Mark is correct to read it without looking too hard for meaning. I've been trying to do that more recently. To write without being concerned with meaning. Since Tom Waits was brought up I think I can say to jam on the chords of my life and memories and such. I lived in an island beach town outside of Charleston when I was a young adult and rented an apartment in the basement of a retired army colonel. I guess you can say this is about that.

Matt, your comments are thorough and much appreciated. Katie also mentioned the change of tense. It is a return to the present. I'm not sure how to make it less jarring but will think on it as well as your other questions although I can't say I'll ever get them answered.

Thanks David. You've hit on the best way to read it.

Mark, thanks so much. It's been years since I listened to Waits. Now I want to dig it out. I think I had "Swordfishtrombone." It was the name of an album too, right? I wasn't thinking of the song but am sure years of him and Dylan and poets such as Frank Sanford and others influenced this.

Good to hear from you Katie. I'm thrilled you like the poem. You point out what Matt has mentioned. It's something for me to think about.

Thanks again to each of you. I'm glad you enjoyed reading this.

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Old 06-22-2017, 06:37 AM
James Brancheau James Brancheau is offline
Join Date: Mar 2009
Location: *
Posts: 1,215

This is good, John. I read it as only the dream itself to be 70 years later, not so much that he's an old man now. But I like that the poem is open to interpretation. From how it was written, the lack of punctuation, etc., it seems that's how the poem wants to be approached. And it works very well. My take is that this is a soldier killed in combat and he (his spirit) is finally making it home.

The only thing I might change or get rid of is "the only solace." My favorite moment is "in transport/last girl's squeeze a song." It's also a fine example of how the lack of punctuation makes the poem richer. I'm also very fond of the "prancing ocean" and the white shoes (perhaps part of his afterlife uniform, too).

Very much enjoyed,


Last edited by James Brancheau; 06-22-2017 at 08:05 AM.
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Old 06-23-2017, 09:39 AM
John Riley John Riley is offline
Join Date: Aug 2007
Location: North Carolina
Posts: 3,422

Thank you James. I'm glad you like it. It should be "his only solace" if I keep the bourbon line. That is one that was brought up before I think. I appreciate what you say about the lack of punctuation. I only do it in poems in which I think the pacing and other rhythms are better off without it.

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