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The Retreat, Rhythm of the Soul

6 Seconds at the I40 / I35 Interchange Outside Oklahoma City


“The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

If God resides in the stars, he resides in a truck’s sparkplugs


there are no atheists in foxholes
and none on the LA freeways in morning rush hour
three years of therapy so I could drive in SoCal
I flee in a U-Haul 15-foot box truck
my niece’s 2000 Ducati Sport Touring 944 in the cargo
a subdued beast imprisoned upright
bound by ribbon ratchet straps
tight enough to play a violin on
stretching from its frame to hooks on both sides
and from wheels fore and aft

she is forced off the 91 in Riverside
by several young Latinos in small Japanese pickups
who straddle her bike at 10 feet 60 mph
a death challenge
she escapes suddenly turning up a ramp
into a neighborhood dense with cottages on narrow streets
where they surprised could not follow

“Bear” my female Black Labrador
sired by the 1998 national breed champion
rides beside me head resting on my lap
a rescue
abandoned in a wire cage
in the region’s last orange groves
with only an open can of cat food no water
victim of a bitter divorce fight
an aggrieved wife sought to inflict an ultimate wound
horse riding friends hear her distant suffering whine
offer her to us

after several hours on the road
concerned for her safety
in a state highway rest stop
I buckle a harness on her tied to the seat safety belt
her face falls at our separation
for 12 years we have been companions
she is uncomfortable in the region’s heat
old now I promise her snow in West Virginia

outside Oklahoma City
as I decide against going north to Tulsa to visit my sister
a computerized voice on my iPhone tells me to take a detour
no explanation just the upcoming right ramp south
I ignore it
a quarter mile later I get another vocal detour instruction
I ignore it
then I get a third voice detour message
again no explanation
I ignore it
staying on I40 is the fastest route

at the top of a rising banked curve I notice
a car parked off the right shoulder
to the northeast in the distance a golf course
I see with clarity of someone dying a last image of the sky

ahead is a partial cloverleaf interchange with the I35
creating a Y split in the highway
exit lanes to the left for the 35 and 40
exit lanes to the right also – confusedly - for the 40
in the middle 500 feet ahead
impaled on the blunt point of the barrier splitting the highway
a small foreign car, crushed, and three other autos stopped
scattered auto debris right and left
around the crotch of the interchange
a man’s body bloody not moving on the concrete
persons running to aid
in another crashed vehicle door ripped open
driver draped motionless over the steering wheel
persons trying to remove him

no rescue vehicles no firetrucks no police cars no ambulances
no circling helicopter
no sirens distant or near no horns
no shouts no shrieks no cries
to warn
The world’s sound track is shut off

I am closing at 60 mph to the scene
I do not have time to brake to a stop
without overturning or crashing another vehicle
I see a space between a truck in north exit lane 3
and the 3-foot-high concrete barrier along the shoulder
through which I might squeeze

is God in the brakes
Jesus in the seat belts
does the rattling cargo
sound like prayer
in a travelling chapel

I steer the truck sharply left
tires screech

I steer the truck sharply right
I look to the left 6 inches to the barrier
to the right 6 inches to the delivery truck
I careen
the right wheels lift slightly off pavement
Bear is flung into the air
against the dashboard and front window
jerked back to the seat by her harness
she is dazed
I am smashed against the door
as quickly we are through the gap
without a scratch

as emergency vehicles now converge on the accident scene
I drive a few miles arms and legs shaking
fear catching up with me
I park at the first state rest area
I have blood on my forehead bruises throb
I walk and check my dog
she is okay
the Ducati 944 is still restrained
amid tossed boxes.

was God through my iPhone speaking to me
I didn’t have time to pray
if God guides the stars in their celestial sphere
could he not guide my hands tho’ I believe
t’is I who steer





Uncle Calvin sings most hymns from memory, note by note,
matching his voice to Ellen Ewing’s playing of the small organ,
compensates for hesitant parishioners mumbling from the hymnals
beside him in a pew or in the choir
I am embarrassed by the congregation’s attention to me
hide my boy’s voice below his confident baritone,
thankful for his unquestioning complicity.
He flourishes in the little Episcopal church, a spinster man,
caring for mischievous nephews.

He pulls the thin rope burns his ungloved hands
our fleet of Flexible Flyer sleds
hiking along old farm roads
Sugar Hill, Campton Bog, Stagecoach, Rumney,
after winter Sunday services with our gang of cousins,
ignores cold challenge to his patience.

We travel to Portland to visit an elderly woman,
a great aunt, he explains, living alone in an old hotel
converted for long term Social Security residents
each in a single room with drab views from small locked windows
overlook a worn out cityscape of old three and four story buildings
one mirror with worn scratched silver backing
dingy curtains, unmade bed, small rugs on the wood floor
stale aromas not masked by lavish employment of “Evening in Paris”
she looks ancient to me, frail, thin white hair, fallen face,
asks him, how will it happen, will I be thrown up to Heaven
who will throw me who will catch me
he assures her angels will be at the door
her last will and testament to his suppressed surprise
assigns her modest estate
to a distant relative of whom he has never heard. 

In Jefferson summer evenings at Christmas Cottage
we walk across the cow fields to the woods
smear large gobs of food paste onto tree trunks
to attract night moths where we can capture them
he collects and mounts them in display cases
teaches us names that I never remember and Tink does
he photographs and makes slides of the summer flowers
and landscapes of Jefferson Intervale
he shows to guests at the Inn while we fidget mystified
nights my cousins and I sleep in the unfinished attic
a sheet tacked to roof rafters to catch bat droppings
a small table with bottles of fireflies we catch evenings
in the surrounding fields grazed by cows
who wreck the white picket fence around the small front lawn
our favorite past time is to dam the creek
that runs a narrow channel beside the Cottage
down from the Waumbek
Priscilla Brook
I learn later the best trout stream in New Hampshire
he walks us along it’s gathering waters
to where we watch the beavers work
the state game department will dynamite their dam.

His friends nickname him, “J C”, his initials
in scornful reference to his devout Christian worship
and whisper insults he is effeminate
for his love of singing and art
I never think so an intuition of my 12-year-old mind
when I discover his copy of Peyton Place
in the reception desk at the Inn

Those years clothes are expensive, wardrobes limited,
office workers own only one or two suits
Calvin wears jacket and tie at his parents’ Plymouth Inn,
though when he changes bath laundry sheets
makes up guest beds stuffs pillows in fresh cases
he takes off his jacket
rolls his shirt sleeves up his arms
which look to my child’s view muscular. 

We have a long conversation when I am studying the catechism
about the Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston
many distinguished persons are lying there if not in state
yet saved in their reputations and rich he thinks
he wants to be interred there, too, in a nice burial suit.

His minister complains to me in a letter
it’s not his job to care for my uncle in his last years.

I appear unannounced in his small single suite
he sits quietly, blind, delusional,
in the nursing home set in woods outside Littleton.
“Tobo,” he weeps softly, hearing my voice,
“Is that you? Have you come to visit me?”
He remembers when I live with my mother, his sister, during the war
fifty-five years earlier when I am two and three years old
at the Inn, regales any visitors with stories of my mischief
exploring lobby artifacts a Civil War sword over the fireplace
a cribbage board on a table, a sales case with boxed cigars
I am a cat perambulating a garden
amusing guests sitting in the stuffed leather chairs.
He is confident that his deceased dog
sits on his lap and the Cottage’s front door
is hinged on the Formica cabinet of his room
swings open now for him to view the Presidential Mountains
across the first hard frost on north country pastures.

I think the Ancient Greeks had the better of the argument
I realize after my disagreement with God over transubstantiation
and with the Church over the mass
life itself is Hell the unsettled state
of emotional warfare immortal gods wage
against humans to impress us
our fate is mortality
what we think of as Heaven
is an accident a moment of peace
a distracted glance by the gods away from us
something children mostly experience
as poets document.

I am in California when my uncle is tossed into the sky
perhaps he knows at the end Heaven is
summers in Jefferson for his nephews
for him also.
Family closes Christmas Cottage for its last winter.

Waiting for New Year in West Virginia


we leave on our Christmas tree lights
and outdoor strings as well
hung in a swinging rhythm
along the porch railing
blinking colors write notes to passers-by
in rattling old trucks on the hollow road below
across the notation lines of a musical score
to define the stillness in the night’s dark
around our hillside cabin of a cathedral close
give praise to soundless songs
subaltern murmurings of unknown languages
rustlings and flitterings of the smallest creatures on the forest floor 

we pretend in southern California
at Kilt Lifter bar and burger joint
a gas log fire in the corner always in flame
a plastic Christmas tree with lights never doused
window air conditioner the illusion maintains
promising brief pleasures away from jobs and children
refuge of thin beef patties and cheap beer
this island of make-believe on land of little rain
while reality endlessly sounds of auto horns
and century railroad freight trains on nearby tracks

over dinner Kevin Starr mentions
raising his two daughters in Catholicism
they should experience the historic communion of prayer
that embraces all humanity
that rises above us all

rises even out of decrepit churches
near abandoned deep coal mines

miners pray before they descend by lift into the shafts
ride on empty rail carts to the mining face
black as outer space before that is how we would describe
this universe obviously filled with light to all eyes
lighted only by tiny lamps on miners’ hats
water through coal seams seeps
to the drips
coal ripped away low ceilings of rock exposed
held in place by ½ inch steel plates bolted to steel posts
drilled two feet into the ten-thousands of tons of earth’s mass above
pressing down upon wood beam bulwarks and braces
to draw out fuel for some humble family meal
of venison, pickled ramps, and beans
or perhaps for furnaces in Pittsburgh
to burn impurity from steel
of huge ventilator fans
create meaningless noise where empty is

through the portal of our Christmas lights
New Year’s first sun pauses its flight
the vacant sky holds its breath / geese linger in flooded fields
hawks ride vectors not / nor crows feast in their brazen disregard
white-tailed deer rest on winter beds thick of mast
gray rabbits venture not from brush piles in deepest woods 

smoke from our cabin rises into cold plein air
as lyrics semaphoric from ancient alphabets of praise
fill the moment’s empty chalice
with silences of possibility


Ron Tobey grew up in north New Hampshire, USA, and attended the University of New Hampshire, Durham. He and his wife live in West Virginia, where they raise cattle and keep goats and horses. He is an imagist poet, expressing experiences and moods in concrete descriptions in haiku, storytelling, recorded poetry, and in filmic interpretation. He occasionally uses the pseudonym, Turin Shroudedindoubt, for literary and artistic work. He has published in over 40 different digital and print literary magazines.

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