DaVinci Heard the Sound of Stars

BY Brandon Courtney

          Scientists log the signature of stars by their music
in ledgers; coda marks like crosshairs inked

          into sheet music: a leap from beginning to end
back to beginning; paper folded in half. The light

          we see: tumult of stars, detonations spun so taut
they glow, singing to each other in different pitches,

          the sound they mistake for implosion: half-life
of helium decay. Scientists log the signature of stars

          in ledgers, not by lumens or location, but by the noise
they hear through headphones: a series of clicks,

          static, and hiss. The light we see: tumult of stars,
detonations spun so tight they glow, singing

          to each other. DaVinci studied stars on the surface
of Lake Garda until winter—a crust of ice floes: scabs

          mean the wound is healing he wrote, below
a charcoal sketch of an Italian sailor riddled

          with scurvy, recently returned from the Arctic Sea.
DaVinci knew writing backwards returned the bodies

          of the dead— those who craved them—those whose
voices he heard, singing from stars.


The Problem of Describing the Sea

          —after Robert Haas

If I said—remembering in November, the sudden
          punch of greater flamingo wing’s beating through

slate-gray clouds, a whole ocean, roan and rolling—
          If I said, black fillet of tongue spooning water

from shore, beak tipped like fountain pens pulled
          from the mouths of inkwells, the pink bellies of mud-

prawns.  If I said speckled flamingo tongue with lemon
          wedge, if I meant delicacy. If I said sea, if I said

anaphora of waves—or cankers chewed into flesh
          from salt sailing the jet-stream over Bahrain—

If I said, pallid sea-foam knocked against the boat
          cavity: cherry blossoms kicked through a threshold,

littering the entranceway—blue notes, reveille
          (Boatswain’s bugle smeared in a thin film of Vaseline

to keep from tarnishing.) Sea, I said. Rows of waves:
          field of headstones.


White Calf

He tells again of the miraculous birth, how the sable Hereford—
          bred for skin to salt-cure and tan, the marbled meat

behind its fortressed bones for blade-steaks—birthed an albino
          calf in November’s only downpour, after the dust-

bowl town prayed for rain, some celestial sign; the parishioners’
          salvation sprained hoof first from the vault

of the bovine’s hijacked womb. Rumors spread through the heart
          of the rustbelt, across state lines: a gaunt farmer,

starving, spared her flesh during the drought. At the miracle’s
          fever pitch, dozens of believers piled into truck

beds, packed hard rolls and bell-tents to camp in. They drove
          a hundred miles for the chance to touch the calf’s

rare flesh, offer amens, blessings, fresh raspberries fed through
          the ribs of the split-rail fence. Women, gowned

in their Sunday best, wept at the base of the calf’s hoof-heavy
          approach, at the slick ribbon of its tongue wetting

their palms. Alabaster, Bone, Conch Pearl, Wedding Dress, Snow
: Visitors clustered for months

with their own histories of white, pages of names. Now, dust
          rooster-tails behind pick-ups on the gravel road

that cuts in front of the farmer’s house. Nobody stops. The sign
          that hung at the farm’s entrance, the red lettering:

Midwestern Miracle, now bleached, unreadable. He yokes
          its neck to the skinny tree, and pulls a yarn

of milk from its mother’s teat, wondering if one day hunger
          will outweigh this divine obligation.


Controlled Burn

          How little I know of fire, watching flames
raze the neighboring farmhouse, deserted

          for decades, to a cinder pit; how the fire
shivered from blue sparks into black

          ringlets of soot, the way smoke accordioned
in dark columns above the conifers, fissured

          the charred roof in two—like the high school
girl, muscled into the house’s humid storm

          cellar, her wrists pinned, how liquored
college boys rifled themselves inside

          her and moaned. After, my brother and I
considered burning down the ramshackle

          house ourselves, but the county volunteers
had scattered it to wind. Firemen sowed a deliberate

          blaze, touched match-tips to fuel, and watched
fire walk its slow course through the clap-

          board’s hallways. A crowd formed a crescent
in the horsefield’s clover, but the throng hardly

          noticed the laddermen energizing their hoses,
whipping ropes of water against our windows

          with enough force to spider-web glass, shatter
heat from our shingles. I scoured the crowd

          until I found the only girl crying and we stood,
thunderstruck, watching its distant glow, red

          curls undoing October’s sky.

Cradling Wheat

          —Thomas Hart Benton, lithograph, 1939.

Because the hillside is belled and scorched in crosshatched
          shadows, because filigree clouds weather summit stones;

because the child in the foreground fights to hoist two
          pillars of red winter wheat and heave the honeyed bundle

like a noose of mooring rope; because the man scything
          the field’s blonde mane to chaff, slopes so low his wide-

brim hat grazes the barbs of spikelets. Because the men's
          postures echo the crippled curve of the chestnut tree,

their bleached white work shirts shouldering the full fever
          of sun, their hearts like anchors sinking their bodies to soil,

I nearly miss the artless field-hat bruised with light
          lying next to the wash bucket rimmed with muddy water.

I imagine the abandoned hat belongs to a child maimed
          by a windrower, bands of flesh slipped from his knuckles

in rings, skin fingered off like a glove, now his only task:
          to knot twine around the shocks of wheat, work the pump

handle until water runs clean; then no, he is here among
          the men, in another un-sketched field, felling rye as tall

as himself, watching a skein of snow-geese tower over the fresh
          mauled wheat, standing in the spoor of their honking. 

The Woodpile

          —Thomas Hart Benton, lithograph, 1939.

          How easily we pity the old man wilted
over wood blocks in the dead

          of winter, wearing only a sheep-
wool jacket and billed ushanka,

          his ungloved hands swinging an eight-
pound splitting-maul with such

          thoroughness, with such feeble arcs,
we forget the beauty and necessity

          in his labor: the bite of the maul’s
iron tongue into softwood, the dumb

          shatter of a cherry tree’s thick trunk,
snow’s white fire. There must be ten

          inches of powder, an armor of ice
to blister the fence-posts, chicken-wire,

          and naked branches. Sunless clouds
hold the promise of sleet or something

          older: rain to cannibalize drifting snow.
Still, he’s careful with his swing, landing

          the wedge square into the cord of cedar
like a man who’s seen the splitter’s

          blade glance the ledge of bark and cut
to the soles of a leather boot,

          seen toes burnt black inside a nest
of melting snow.


Ghost Ocean
8 & 9

Listen to poems from our National Poetry Month "30/30" combo issue! 

Brandon Courtney was born and raised in Adel, Iowa. He served four years in the United States Navy. His poetry and flash fiction is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets 2009, Linebreak, BOXCAR Poetry Review, The Journal, The Raleigh Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Tar River Review, Gargoyle, and The Los Angeles Review, among many others, and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He was also recently nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology, and is a finalist for the Oboh Poetry Prize. He attends the MFA program at Hollins University.