Devotion: The Burnt-Over District

By Bruce Smith b. 1946 Bruce Smith
Late fall in the villages of Pompey, Preble, Oran, Delphi Falls,   
river and woods. In Homer and Ovid, the localities   
      and principalities
of central New York, the hollows and corners of the   
      burnt-over districts
visited by angels in the 1800's who led us to greatness: awakenings,
gold, portents and lies, heaven, women's suffrage, and bundling
with the other in the love beds while we waited for the lamb,   
the dove, the velvet of the ten-point buck grunting through   
      the underbrush
to rut. We learned in divine time a year's a day.   
      We learned obedience
and had charismatic children. And now the boy's an angelic
eighteen days or six thousand years, as he leaves to serve.
He did what we told him: blocked for punts—no one likes to   
      block for punts—
and when his friends crashed the truck in a ditch, he waited   
      for the cops
and took the rap, nice kid, because he did the act of deliverance   
      one does
in central New York and made the vows, pledged, testified,   
      and swore
and participated in the sport greater than the coming of the dead,
and escorted the exaggerated girl to the prom where he   
      was befuddled
with organza and tulle and he did not forget the corsage, an orchid
in a box he stared into: the white outer whorl and the inner whorl
and pouted purple lip. He butterflied the pollen with the lashes   
      of his eyes.
The flower was his terror. He was not meant to be the   
      indwelling beauty
of things and surely he was not meant to be the wind in Iraq   
      with three others
in his division and become the abstract shape of a god formed from a blood clot.
I've seen the pictures, the vague shapes that ripple in the heat
until I was terrified. It looked like he still moved. Remember fall
in Delphi? All ardent and catastrophic and counter, elbows flailing,
he ran in the flat places scraped from the gold hills and valleys.

Source: Poetry (January 2008).


This poem originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

January 2008
 Bruce  Smith


Originally from Philadelphia, Bruce Smith is the author of several books of poems, including The Other Lover (2000), a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Influenced by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Smith’s poetry moves like jazz, incorporating images and narratives into a startling, musically unified whole. In a 2007 interview, Smith explained his poetry’s aspiration to song: “When the language . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Living, Coming of Age, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, War & Conflict

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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