The Sweet Purple Scent of Wild Grapes
Swimming in the Scantic River
in the hot swarms of gnats and sweet
purple scent of wild grapes: boys and girls
splashing naked together,
school looming a few weeks ahead.
As the afternoon wanes we leap
dripping and pink from the lukewarm
fish-smelling current and dress
and run off in creepy little gangs,
boys sneering and girls aloof
as if we didn’t know each other,
going home to hot dogs and beans.
The thick mauve fragrance lingers
no matter how far I walk,
the goldenrod and aster burning
in the eye, the hawk centered
in pale, unattainable distance.
Wild grapes, too sweet for eating,
express in muddled tones a sense
of vegetable ripening brisk
as speech, the corrugated vines
dandling their glib sexual fruit
in fistfuls. In the woods near Concord
I breathe the same fragrance Thoreau
found so melodious, but I lack
his context, tending toward seed.
In the big stagnant marsh-pools
turtles sun and stretch their necks,
frogs dangle from the slick,
and geese drift with their fledglings,
musing upon the long flight south.
The smell of grapes reminds me
of a busted old barn in tall grass,
farm machinery rusting,
field flowers rustling as someone
lies down in love with someone else,
two bodies gently bruising.
The summer distance focuses
at the point where the hawk pauses
in tall warm air and the sins
of my childhood bask forgotten
in the dust. I should taste the grapes,
but they’re both too bitter and too sweet,
and their violet skins feel cold
as the eyes of the dead when in bad
dreams I lean over and shut them
with my clammy shuddering hands.
Tractor-drawn tobacco rigs swagger
down Maple Street, stalling traffic.
They drop a few limp rubber leaves
like clues to entropy. Parking
on the shoulder, I snag one
and press it to my face like
a surgeon’s mask. The green ripe smell,
fatal when processed and smoked,
tastes fresh and sweet as kisses
on a first date. How often
I parked my ’55 Chevy
in tobacco lots in autumn,
the stubble gleaming in moonlight,
the sheds bulging with half-dry leaf.
How often the girl beside me
sighed with some grave sentiment
feigned in moments of drama—
a hand on a bare thigh, windshield
misty with sour breath, the famous
amputee madman clawing the door.
The tobacco rigs clatter away
down a dirt road, traffic resumes
its bland imperative. The fields
lilt like windblown pages torn
from a score and I toss the leaf
into the dust. Already it’s limp
and dirty, a wasted effort.
When I pull back onto the highway
I leave my moonstruck expression
stuck in another dimension
where the stiff black line of forest
is gloomy and opaque, and propane
hisses in the tobacco sheds
like the little voice of conscience
everyone learns to ignore.
Tower of the Forty Martyrs
Near Ramleh, this Moorish-Gothic
tower lurches from the rubble
of a dozen savaged cultures.
Nothing in my guidebook explains
who was martyred: Christians, Muslims,
leftover pagans, Jews. Hedges
of enormous cactus line the road,
plumy eucalyptus, mulberries,
figs. Toyota pickups roar past,
heading for Jaffa with produce.
Flowers embroider the fields:
narcissus, rose of Sharon, pink
and saffron mallows, cyclamen
in white and violet, gold genesta,
orange-red pimpernel, scarlet
of a thousand sweet anemones.
Acres of wheat and barley ripple
as wind-waves shuck through silken blades.
I enter the ruined tower
and smell the dry old flesh
mummified as much by
history as dry desert air.
Of course I’ve always understood
I’m among the martyrs honored here,
but I can’t understand why we died
instead of renouncing our cause
or why the windswept grain fields
recline like classical sex acts
or why the dazzling anemones
don’t at all resemble our wounds.
Church of the Holy Sepulcher
Buying and selling, bickering,
chaffing, chattering, the crowd
in the paved quadrangle before
the double-arched doorway
looks unafraid of terrorists,
orthodox rabbis, atheists.
Inside, the Stone of Unction lies
in geological dignity,
indifferent to the thousands
of kisses pilgrims have planted
on its simple limestone surface.
Latin, Greek, Armenian,
and Coptic lamps burn overhead,
strung on silver chains. A priest
sheds an honest-looking tear
as I move along to the Chapel
of the Crucifixion, which features
a silver star where the cross stood
and a rock-cleft, a souvenir
of the fatal earthquake, a scar
of reddish marble a foot deep.
I explore many chapels before
I find the Sepulcher itself.
Carved and gilded adamantine walls
flatter the Holy Ghost. I ignite
a taper and enter the tomb,
a six-foot square lit by dangling
gold lamps and a thousand
here, I’m sure of it. The dry
desert atmosphere reeks of incense,
but despite pilgrims crowding past
to kiss, caress, or merely touch
the laminated stone I suffer
the greatest absence possible and
snuff my taper, evoking
a gasp from a Russian woman
The dead burnt smell
is honest as a curse, but the gleam
of so many small flames against
the bedrock’s too crude to reflect
even the homeliest peasant face,
even one as offhand as mine,
without Satanic distortion.
—About the Author—
William Doreski’s work has appeared in various e and print journals and in several collections, most recently A Black River, A Dark Fall (2019).