Eric Smith

Sky Valley Rider

Same place, same auto-da-fé
—Charles Wright

Slipping among abandoned pines, a fox
noses the air. Smoke, that semaphore
of urgent burning, columnar and pale
against the blue-black bruise of night,
obscures the flicker of far-off fire.
A hot wind murmurs through a skull.

Even stripped, what is there this skull
can’t see? Its emptiness eyes the fox
loping across the kindled field like fire
unraveling, those flames a semaphore
of memory in this owl-haunted night,
fingernail moon newly waned and pale.

What the dead wouldn’t give for the pale
red of ember, a tongue’s return to the skull
to utter, even if only to fill the night
with senseless chatter. For the fox,
what was grass or brush is a semaphore,
inscrutable shadow now slashed by fire.

Perhaps they’re scriptures, scrawled by fire
on a field left dryer than paper, pale
and undisturbed. If so, wind’s semaphore,
a whistle low and toothless as a skull,
becomes its most holy vowel. The fox
is a frail clutch of yelps. Night is night.

Or night is a mirror in which night
reflects the sky’s mute turning, and fire
shatters it into song. Listen for the fox,
its needling laughter stitching pale
notes to the chorus inside the skull—
warning no one hears, a semaphore

unheeded by ships of cloud. Semaphores
of starlight guide them across night.
Lithe fingers of grass caress the skull.
The grass, in turn, is consumed by fire.
What remains? Nocturnal and defiant, pale
flicker barking into darkness, is the fox,

no longer a semaphore. In the skull,
there is only night, where even the fox
is nothing: pale reminder of a dying fire.

Eric Smith’s poems appear most recently in Indiana Review, Smartish Pace, and Southwest Review. He teaches at Marshall University and edits cellpoems, a text-message poetry journal.
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