R.T. Castleberry’s chapbook Arriving at the Riverside (Finishing Line Press, 2010) sings the ballads of a wandering man, that uniquely American character who is by turns a prophet, a drifter, a lover, and a wounded warrior. As he writes in “An Arrangement of Necessities”: “Tomorrow I travel,/see my headlights on the car ahead, lay my pallet in the dust ruts by the road…Leaving is easy.”
Yet, although he may journey from Memphis to Santa Fe to Canberra with little more than a classic book and a brandy bottle, the speaker of these poems also carries the burden of wartime memories, the unwelcome knowledge of how we destroy ourselves. “A morning sun slices leaf-flooded lanes,/curves choked with sites/of church grounds, schoolyard, first house…I watch high-striking jets dissect the compass rose.” (“The Traveler at a Loss”)
In a time when free verse has become weakened by talky informality, Castleberry restores the muscular rhythms of poetry informed by what T.S. Eliot called “the ghost of meter”. The poems’ strong forward motion is balanced by a meditative attention to the landscape’s sights and sounds.
Castleberry kindly shares this poem from the book, which he says was inspired by the Michael Caine movie “Alfie“.
From a balcony above the Eastern Harbor
I treat the scene as photographs for a file:
horizon’s passive line of curving bay, anchored ship,
bathers splashing in the early surf,
a seaplane’s banking turn from the water.
I take Tom Stoppard’s plays, a Fodor’s guide, a map case
and place them beside the pistol in my pack.
Open on the bed is a letter.
“Tell me what was said,” is the only line.
I have wandered my history, to no good purpose—
every mistake I’ve made crowds me in my sleep.
I recall every grievance, each discourtesy,
rooms I’ve entered to win or wound someone softer.
I’ve loved 3 women
all married, and lonely in the world.
I never meet the children. I sometimes know their friends.
I enjoy their confidence, my detachment,
the skilled and hungry sex, a little drama.
There is a seasonal pleasure in waking with a lover—
the sleepy tangle of bedclothes and bodies,
a bath and brunch, a kiss to set another date.
There are other, private times I prefer
the challenge of a married woman’s mind.
A wife who’s known
the comforts and discomforts of a child,
long years, lingering moods beside her husband.
I lean to listen
for wise advice on healthcare and clothes,
business manners, the public polish.
I know the taste of her,
the rise of her mouth to mine.
As we walk the Montazah Palace Gardens
she tells me some snoop,
some over-eager officer has seen us at an inconvenient hour.
“My husband’s home. He’ll want to see you.
He’ll be cool. Calmer still, as you talk. Don’t trust it.
I don’t imagine that will happen. Can you handle him
when I leave for Lisbon later in the week?”
The serial life has stripped me. It poisons as it protects.
I bear no malice, as I can bear no bitterness.
A steamer leaves for Tunis in an hour.
When I land, I’ll make a choice for Marseilles or Montreal.
On my desk the jumble of a Cairo newspaper reads:
“Attempted Murder/Officer’s Suicide.”
The photo spread shows a body beside a car,
another wounded behind the wheel.
I have no faith in explanations, in truth told to pain.
Strangers before, we are strangers from now on.