George Murray has recently relocated from Toronto to New York City. His latest book is The Cottage Builder's Letter (McClelland and Stewart, 2001). His poetry is appearing or forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Mid-American Review, The Ontario Review, and Pequod.

The Encampment

Seconds after it takes root in the tinder mix
of scrub and new brush,
your fire releases a breath of smoke

that lifts up as though it is an elderly man
rising from an age-old crouch.
What you found in the woods near the lake

so suits your needs -
a tree in which to store your goods, a brook
with clear water to wash wounds, fresh grass,

an overhung knoll in which to sleep.
You have been busy with the life
of a hunter -

the watching, the gathering, the stalking,
killing, carving, the emptying of meat
from skin, the removal of heads.

A thought shoots across the red and blue
mist of your mind,
mimicking a star streaking across

the banded twilight -
a particular omen in the length of its tail.
There will pass in childbirth a woman,

you've seen the vision -
the grey water of the drowned falling from
her mouth, running down her neck and breasts

as though she is the source of a spring.
On the lake where the moon has turned
the water to milk,

a lone man in a canoe drifts by,
and you cannot tell whether
he is looking at you or the dying fire

or the dark ring of trees. Nothing will
ever be perfect again, you
think, falling back into sleep -

your encampment's bed will forever
be made with sheets of stone,
the love made under the damp covers

breeding only darkness and cold silence.

The Steampipe

In the abandoned yard a steampipe stands
from the ground, belching -
the locals have drawn markings in charcoal

around the lip and down the western side.
What still works below the fallow
dirt, what mechanism goes unchecked?

Can it be a surprise in this remaining world
when any seemingly causeless system
produces an effect? Twenty miles away

a man who once played the flute by holding
its mouth to the pipe's flow of wet air
is taking his last sighs in the skin of some animal -

two years ago he took a bullet to the head
while hunting with a brother,
but only now is dying of lead poisoning.

Somewhere below the very ground
on which the funerary wood is being erected
as he dies, a deep boiler huffs away,

forgotten and long past its due -
its emphysemic breath mimicking the smoke
rising from the base of the pyre,

turning gears in a machine
too big to be seen. What still feeds it? What fuel
propels its invisible inferno? What a laugh,

he thinks, slipping away
by the fire he watched his family build -
and the rings of stone glow for long hours

after the embers blacken to charcoal.

The Marquee

Well, here we are - only late for the show
by moments or years, yet just in time

for the story to begin - and the marquee
that hangs over the empty square in the rain

is as black as the wall behind it. Though the glass
is still there, there remains not a single bulb

with filament intact - yet by the buzz
in the mist one might suspect power still flows

through some of the copper wiring -
the intermittent current of marching ants

that once lit up the night and signaled the start
of something big, something beyond the everyday,

something to escape to - this. Just outside
the city limits the fish have returned to a lake

once so polluted even the weeds died - in fact,
the water is so plentiful it looks as though

one might simply reach in and close
a fist around any flash of silver and come away

with a catch - all escape routes guarded
by their own bodies - red herrings - each chance

for survival now based on lottery odds better
than those offered by an earlier time. This is

a species at its most raw - throwing itself
against the locked door of population

and starvation as though, given a proper pounding,
the hinges might fly off to reveal what lies

beyond. There is a pulse somewhere in the wet
darkness surrounding the theatre, a spark

that builds upon itself in a pleasurable world
of reverse physics - but of course an electric hum

could come from anything in these parts,
these days - and the show ended some time ago

to bad reviews and an empty house.
Looking out from within a darkened room,

one sees a heavy figure standing in the door,
and when the arch suddenly lightens

one could be excused for asking - has someone
stepped out of the room or in? Really

the only way to tell what's truly going on under
the surface of water and glass is to remove

one of the black bulbs and slip a willing finger inside.

The Valley

So far. We are so far out from everything
the mules cannot go on, the camels
are landing chin first in the dust -

so far the ship's stores are reduced
to rinds and crumbs,
so far our meagerly-dressed guide

has long since turned back
to the thick air of her jungle cave.
Who could have guessed

we would be the hardy ones,
who would have thought
it would be us cresting

the rocky hills, parting the underbrush
with long knives,
sluicing over the final waterfalls -

our bodies falling headlong
into an undiscovered country
where the only things

familiar that awaited our arrival
were the stars, disease,
roaches and the bones of our guide.

The Minefield

Brush holly on this mess, brush oak,
treat the land with a poultice
of holy water and wort,
heal the holes in the ground with salves

made of moss and earth -
use fireweed, use morphine, use hemlock,
stuff the craters with dark soil
and the seeds of wildflowers -

replace your divots! the sign reads
at the mouth of the minefield.
One day we will decorate
with beehives and razor blades -

one day we will coat the walls
with various combinations of excreta -
one day water will refuse to blast
from the mouths of canons

and protestors will run wild,
and the buildings so calculatingly cleaned
of nuclear shadows will accumulate
the Bacchanal silhouettes of a riot.

The helmet on this head is a pea,
has stopped a bullet,
but the head rests on a spike
instead of a neck!

Dear Lord, they removed the chain
from his tongue and replaced it
with a ball of surgical steel -
he now speaks twice as often,

but only half as well. Each gulf, each pit,
each cavity and its accompanying stain,
each ghostly limb of a passerby -
partial absences that beg us to question

whether there will ever be another Rome,
another Sumer, Xanadu, Bethlehem -
whether there has ever been
a presence with our best interests in mind.