Valais

A working river, a working valley,
The gray-green Rhône
Lined with workings, heaps of dust, gravel, cement,
And log jams waiting for transport,
Like the island exporting itself to its neighbors one barge at a time.

The river, the road, and the railway,
A plait, a tangle, a place of through.
The river not navigable, the boggy valley floor not walkable,
The locals came down from the mountains a little way
To site castles on moraine and regulate trade.

Hannibal marched his elephants through here, dynamited rocks with vinegar.
Poplars were planted en passant by Napoleon’s Grande Armée
Two-hundred-some years ago.
Goethe came to visit.
The shade endures.

Rilke was reminded of Spain.
He lived among apricots at Muzot,
Just the other side of the language barrier,
And fixed to be buried with a view of France.
No one knows who I am, were his dying words.

Smells of hay and dung, the murmurs of subtle conversation
Next door are tax-efficient sheep
The underground chicken palace like CERN
Or a discreet gun emplacement.
The lights come on when we appear, and go off after we’re gone.

Larchwood and rye bread, chocolate and slate,
Dried beef and stone
All one striated substance,
The staff of life breaking explosively, crumblingly,
If it breaks at all,

A stash of daunting verticals,
A washing machine delivered by helicopter
Winched down into the Renaissance casbah.
Time was a man had to carry his donkey across his shoulders up a cliff;
Now everything is tunnel fodder.

Electricity and water come piped through the mountains,
The vineyards get a sousing under great rainbow arcs,
Who wouldn’t want to die in a thirteenth-century tower
With light sensors and cold running water
Off the hills and a chill in the sunny air of the contemporary archaic.

More Poems by Michael Hofmann