Three Poems by Matthew Nickel


A Good Clean Village—War Monument

Gorge du Tarn, France

To have gone off and left the gorge
Deeply cut with river flowing,
To have gone off and watched them die
One by one, into the trenches

Friends, cousins, the man who gave you
A wooden cross for Noël, the cousin
Who taught you to swim, Uncle Jacques
Who held stained hands around yours,

Holding the taut line jerked by trout
Fighting in the green swollen river
Icy around shivering thighs,
Satisfactory holding in the current,

To have gone off to watch your brother
Bleed to death in the mud beside you
Your father caught by Germans, witness to
His execution, one pistol to the head

One shot you did not hear for the screaming
Breath dry in your mouth as you ran
Toward them caught by your mother’s brother
Thrown down to save you from yourself,

To have gone off and to walk back, alone
To the gorge wind and moving stream, to the
High pass and cliff clutch, to the nothing
That crumbles from the limestone edges

To have gone off and to come back
Arched shoulders burdened
All for a German tourist loud with camera
Taking your picture unaware

As you wash your lettuce in the branch
That cuts the village, where you used to
Wash your feet before dinner so that
Mother would be happy,

Mother, now dead who had gray tears
When you came home alone, lines
Around the mouth darkened when she knew
No one else was coming back.

But you let him take your picture
Because your lettuce is clean now
It has come from a good walled garden
On the edge of the cliff in a good clean village

You shake your lettuce cage dry in the sun
Wave to the men playing boules by the stream
And you think of leeks fat for dinner, potatoes
Dirt groveled chthonic and waiting,

And trout caught in early dawn,
All for your family coming soon, where
Laughter loud from grandchildren will
Surround your table, satisfy a deep longing

In the day’s last light, while the sun drops
Behind the wall of gorge, where you can hear
The stream from the village
Fall down into the river endlessly flowing.


Coda—Le Pèlerinage: Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer

I hold her hand as waves wash over our feet
singing loud Salut, salut, O Saintes Maries
her eyes sing aloud the depths of the sea

dark gypsy hands reach up the boat is high
gray eyes chant—Vive Les Saintes Maries
Vive La Sainte Sara—waves lift us to sky

she dances in water weaving light
we reach for the boat and touch fingers
her voice edges the sky around the saints

we look at each other say nothing waves
lap our bodies and sand is in our hair away
bishop robes over dunes gardians trot out the day

procession vanishes into carnival a man ratchets
a hurdy gurdy you picked a fine time to leave me
suddenly we are not alone we see familiar faces

though we do not name them gliding beside
compound of sea and sand eyes like a friend
or some long lost mother for whom we cried

we step infinite and slow until a fish leaps
into the chaos of sun windless over a wide sea;
we sing harmony on forgotten beaches

with voices out of the irredeemable past present
only in hymns over water and the steady vibration
of hearts together mounting wind over sand.


Not Just La Patria—For RPW

For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach. –Robert Penn Warren

Walking out of Notre Dame there beyond
The pigeons Charlemagne, Roland, and Olivier
Face the west lingering like ghosts brackened
Green on the edge above that aged bronzed river:
This will be my final night in Paris alone
Before I move south for the winter.

I look across to the Left Bank, Shakespeare & Co.
Remembering the nights reading Warren’s
A Place to Come To upstairs on a sagging bed
Dusty beside a window facing Notre Dame;
Warren brought the earth, la terra, into focus
Made the past edge fiercely over tomorrow;

I had fled to France, to escape the maelstrom
The vision-curse of American western solitude
“Go west, my son,” and lose yourself into sublime
Emptiness, a delight in mere survival, selfhood,
Thinking this, I was startled when overhead
I heard cathedral bells rolling time into clouds;

Charlemagne, that legend of the Western World,
Hovered with staff ready to strike down
The enemies of the West: where was Roland’s
Horn, where were the pine trees and the breath
That long blew our past into forgetfulness
Ah que ce cor, he said long ago, but the battle

Is never won and the soul contends for amnesty
In the epic of our ancestry: do we return to
Roncevaux and find, as if for the first time,
The immutability of stone rising from earth
Do we sing lost songs in crowded brasseries
Over a mug of Mutzig and cassoulet because

We are unable to resign ourselves to the end
Of what we love, because we, like the stone,
Will not fall down to the terror of the times—
We inherit from the dead more than a history:
The direction of a hand gesture dripping water,
The discovery of self in the gloom of landscape

In the doom of a strange land; we inherit voices
The dead speak if we listen, but how do we hear
Them in the cackling of the modern world—
At dawn, the train departs Paris, land unfolds southward
The sea shimmers soon beyond Avignon, ruins
Thinking, nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost.


A Mid-Hudson Valley native, Matthew Nickel is the author of the poetry collections The Route to Cacharel (Five Oaks Press, 2016) and The Leek Soup Songbook (Des Hymnagistes Press, 2015), and he is the editor of numerous anthologies of poetry, including Kentucky Writers: The Deus Loci and the Lyrical Landscape, Des Hymnagistes: An Anthology, and many others. He has written critical essays on American and British writers such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Ernest Hemingway, Richard Aldington, and his book, Hemingway’s Dark Night: Catholic Influences and Intertextualities in the Work of Ernest Hemingway, was published by New Street Communications in 2013. He is currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in Northeastern Pennsylvania.