James Engelhardt is originally from southern Appalachia. The landscapes and environmental concerns of that region have led him to his current study of ecopoetics. His other passions include games and art. His poems have appeared in Natural Bridge, Touchstone, Petroglyph, Oxford Magazine, Poem, and Cold Mountain Review, among others. He is a selector of the American Life in Poetry newspaper series and is the Prairie Schooner Book Prize coordinator. He is a PhD student in poetry at the University of Nebraska.
James Engelhardt's blog: River of Play
The Art of Narrative in Painting
You can easily imagine them hanging out, really,
the one boy with the horse’s head, the other
has the whole trunk, ears and small tusks
of an elephant. What’s most alive is not the finding,
no, the world bursts into color when
they’ve opened the box of Dad’s hidden videos
and flipped through the glossy magazines.
Who could do these things?
Everything goes back into the box,
back onto the shelf before the elephant boy’s folks
come back from their vague errand. Horse boy
steals one of the videos a week later.
He doesn’t tell his friend, and the dad has so many
it’s never missed. Another week or so
and elephant boy is alone without his friend.
How could anyone not watch?
There’s a scene in one, a woman with a bird’s head
chats with a honey-bear headed man. They sip martinis,
talk awkwardly. She doesn’t seem to wear a bra,
but later, after the important scene, she’s fitting one on
as the bear man lounges, hands under head, sated.
Proud. Her face is away from the camera
and elephant boy is uneasy even as he continues to watch.
What does the moment mean?
You never ask yourself these questions,
and neither does he. I remember asking once,
when Beth and I found her dad’s Playboys,
and I felt my heartbeat shift, my hips displace,
but the world remained itself. Horse boy must wait
for his simple future: the world of fathers, the practice
of shared domesticity, the search for hiding places.
I. In the Café
Two young women sip blender drinks,
line up extra cash with an Avon Consultant,
her helmet of blonde, her free starter gifts,
her tang of success. One girl’s shirt rides up
revealing pale skin, electric pink underwear.
The Consultant lives in a navy suit and pearls.
I want to say: Beware the oily slick surface
of the pyramid’s dungeon. Roll higher
than your intelligence to disbelieve
the presentation. One, with a thick nose,
gets close, rolls well, but the enchantress pulls
the velvet cloth around, makes her own save.
She will collect these two, the age of college students
around us, but these women wear shabbier clothes,
their hair needs time and private bathrooms to construct.
These adventurers will search for friends, family
to spend gold pieces on magic that never works.
Dragon Dew alienates husbands. Powdered Lich Phylacteries
don’t keep the girls safe at bars. Items touched
by the goddess Mystra don’t sell. But the blonde helmet
requires sacrifices. Her lipstick becomes increasingly grim.
My first seventh-grade friend was Andy Gunderson. We met at YMCA soccer, but mostly we played the game of geek boys cusping puberty: Dungeons & Dragons. His room, pressed into a dark basement corner, was where we rolled and schemed. I was subversive, listened to rock music like Rafferty’s “Baker Street”, played the game my parents knew recruited Satanists.
Gundy and I learned that hellcats emerge as lumps of glowing coal, that wasps use the same tactics as bats. We wanted so much to have the Luck Medallion of Tymora during tests, Arrow Swarms to unleash on older boys, a Sash of Spells for the bus. We wanted to be two of the many mages making magical items rechargeable with Phlogiston.
After my friends could drive, I learned a lot more about the Magic in My Hand to be used after hot dates, then The Magic of Movement if she became a long-term girlfriend. More fun than gaming was the occasional Dimensional Thrust, and then the first Waethra’s Warm Welcome after my junior prom. Girls, I found, practiced the Magic of the Person, and would share. The magic of polyhedral dice faded as the bonus of touch surpassed the bonus of armor.
III. Current Campaign
At my fifth decade, I have come to see
that Wandering Symbols stay at specified surfaces
until triggered to move at random, like signatures
on a marriage license. There are no fires of absolute purity,
any magical item to be immolated simply remains itself.
Information gained after adulthood applies only
to items not enchanted—tools, furniture, garments.
We are in a Ritual of Transference whose sphere
is all creation, but the rolls are hidden by the mud
that moves the hands of clocks. Divination is useless,
even after Obar’s Lesser Purification. I want
Holy Vesting for retirement, Holy Might
for confronting the Random Element of my insurance.
Like the Avon Acolytes and their Priestess Helmet,
I am looking for modifiers and enhancements,
every moment a fight against the Effects of Overenchantment,
the Wondrous Web of grey hair, cat litter and wine stains.
The Goddess of Games Weighs the Odds
Move your pieces on my board, my table
inside the slick bright borders. Open your chance,
let go and gamble. Rub my foot if you think it’ll help.
Rock the knuckles, my sons and daughters,
forget your loosening skin, bones. Roll these dice:
the carved man eternal, priapic, his partner
ivory breasted, ass solid and spread.
Imagine the numbers those two will roll.
Take up the cup and pray, rattle your plain cubes,
chase the fox, the geese, red and white
pegs in the hole. Candles shine
on my planchette, my major arcana.
Fortunetelling lights up the labyrinths,
worship turns aesthetic. Travel to death and back
with the games I give you: paddles and pucks,
empty hands and rolling balls. But once
you bounced the heads I demanded
before you had names. Here’s my dry clay form, hips
marked off by blocks and squares.
I have a taste for blood and probability. Open
your big box: so many rules you get nothing.
Are you better than your brother? Pick a card,
keep your eye on it. Look, the dagger sunk
into leviathan’s skull, and here’s the Card King, a stink
of beer in his beard. I recognize no kings, loss
rips birthrights from every hand. Better than taxes.
Men sitting under trees smoking, drinking, losing
again and again, calling out for blood and tits.
Predator. Prey. Roll again. Maybe this time the other guy
will buy the round. Open the box. Take out the pieces.
Leave the head attached, but bring me the heart.
Winter put down its hard white sheet a month after solstice
and we were damn near freezing even with the brandy and fire
when Richard called to tell us of his sleighing party long delayed.
We slid down the driveway to meet him on sleds I’d repaired myself.
As Southerners we didn’t dare to drive in eight inch snow
and watched him fishtail up to us over the dirt and gravel road.
Lord of the castle or gentleman farmer, Richard’s hard to define
with his house half antique, half new and neither half finished,
but he knows how to make an eight foot inner tube stay solid
even when we piled nine people on it and took it down the back
pasture to pack the run for the sleds. The snow kept coming down.
We moved in a pack from the house to the field, past the cows
steaming and stamping, past the fences and equipment and tilled,
dormant garden. We had lanterns and a safety light over the barn.
Richard and some guys poured kerosene over a couple of bales
of hay, stacked deadfall wood on top and lit it as we aimed
our sleds downhill. You could drink hot chocolate—some
with bourbon until that ran out—or beer stashed in the snow.
We raced downhill, screaming at darkness and flaked light.
Others came, brought their all-wheel drives to the edge of the run,
let their dogs chase us down and we all struggled back up
to run down toward the stream at the bottom. We never found it.
Late that night, Richard skidded us home. I could barely remember
the ride and dragging the sleds up to the house almost killed me.
I could drive in snow after that wild night of riding,
and nothing else was the same. Richard stopped at my studio
before picking his kids up from school. The librarians smiled,
asked me about the turkey and deer in my yard. After that night,
I could stop to buy beer, hear the history of my low hill,
and get invited into the small rooms between the store and home.