Ways to Read the Compass
Poems by J.P. White

Author’s Note: “I am always looking for intimate ways to map out the human experience. Portals, tunnels, channels, trails, rivers, trees, boats are a necessity so they often turn up in my work. Said another way, I am keen on finding ways that the little world of the self merges or collides with the larger world, looking for how, in Emerson’s universalist terms, the There and Then is also the Here and Now. The farthest point back in the human story is already linked to the most distant point in the future and between those coordinates, there is much to consider from the bottom of the heart. Like every other time in history, this time is of great peril and promise and there is no shortage of ways to read the compass or get completely lost. I can’t quite imagine being in the world without this intimate search at my disposal.”   — J.P. White

The Butternut Tree

On and on, the tongue keeps a lookout for the jagged tooth
and the bright axe of the world speeds
through the yellow light thinking this time it won’t be late
and now little is heard from the crested honeykeeper.
But what if the broken wing of some old story
had no authority to carry me back,
what if the river was the only voice in the kingdom?
My questions went on and on like that
until I entered the old curl of sleep (if you can call it that)
and I woke again in a spill of light
that had made out of our bed a softness,
an invitation, a boat facing a new day,
and you said, the butternut tree has never looked better.

The House Without a Guitar

Some say Noah’s grandfather built the first guitar 
after pulling down the body of his dead son 
from a tree. Can’t you see him now shaping
the waist, the neck, the headstock of the guitar?
Spend any time with a guitar and you enter
a dark wood where everything goes wrong 
and still the blue bird returns. The guitar 
I know will travel anywhere. Stay up all night.  
Unafraid of any room holding its breath.
I have lived in houses without dogs, 
or the promise of next month’s rent,
but never in a house without a guitar.
The guitar doesn’t mind standing in a corner, 
sleeping under a bed, living in a closet,
the lightbulb unresponsive to the chain.
The house without a guitar feels lost with all
that happens here, all the big and little weeping,
You could do worse than put a guitar in a poem.

Two Fathers

It’s a good thing to live long.
To say I am all of this: a thumbnail of paper,
a wisp of smoke, a wave from the ocean.
I keep these two photos of my father side by side.
In one he smiles on a sailing trip with his father.
In the other he is standing next to my mother
with that hollowed out stare men come to.
Youth and age holding hands.
Two different names for the same bones,
gone now for almost twenty years.
I am still pleased he lived long enough for me 
to sit down with two fathers.
One who brought home his misery from work
and one who walked away from whiskey
and found a second childhood.
On some mornings, I hold both fathers
and we tell stories on the other.
Dark, glowing storms, dragging anchors, sails torn away.

White Nights

How I hated those nights unhinged from the day.
All those lovers out walking along the canals
stopping anywhere for more than a kiss.
Nothing in my marriage making me want 
to find more tangle with a sun that would not descend.
But that’s not even what I wanted to tell you.
You see we were there with our adopted daughter
on a tour of a country she never warmed to
and she could not sleep with the light
snaking through the hotel curtains
and she wanted to leave, right then,
in the middle of the night with its pink penetrating glow.
She thought her birth country, a mistake.
Everywhere, monuments to the war dead.
So many millions our guide said,
No one could ever count them all.
She saw a picture of Putin,
the one where he enters a hot spring in winter.
She saw women dressed to the nines.
Everything confused her.  The women.  
The men huddled around cigarettes and shiny cars,
grumbling about women.  
The night of the never-ending day.
How in every village, chickens and goats in a brawl
and bread lines held by the old unsmiling ones,
and here in St. Petersburg, the northern jewel,
lovers pawing each other, the cafes open all night, 
and water everywhere in a sparkle with no hint of the dark days to come.

Essay on the Terror of Poetry

When he called me I knew he was calling to say goodbye. 
To thank me for helping him enter the terror of poetry. (His words.) 
I didn’t say much on the call but I did thank him for thanking me 
and afterwards with his book on my lap, I sat there waiting 
in the sanctuary of what comes next, hoping to hear again 
the great pipe organ that blasts you in the pew, waiting there
for the thrum of wind, and please again, for the twitch 
of light to return to the bones, what else can we ever know?
The light that’s only found at the dark burst of everything.

J.P. White has published essays, articles, fiction, reviews, interviews and poetry in many places including The Nation, The New Republic, The Gettysburg Review, Agni Review, Catamaran, APR, Salamander, Catamaran, North American Review, Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, Southern Review, The Massachusetts Review, Water-Stone, The New York Times, Willow Springs, Crazyhorse, Peripheries, and Poetry (Chicago). White is the author of five previous books of poems, and a novel, Every Boat Turns South. His sixth book, A Tree Becomes a Room, was the recent winner of the White Pine Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from White Pine Press in 2023. Norah Bow, a second novel, is forthcoming in 2024 from Regal House Publishing. He is the editor-at-large for Plant-Human Quarterly.

Website: jpwhitebooks.net.

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