J. Robert Shull


Variation on a text by Seamus Heaney

Dream field white resolving clear into a scene:
intersection of High and Perdue, two men
walking to me down each street:

on Perdue, my grandfather in denim overalls,
patches worn white, holding out his hands
caked in callous and bruised blue-black as coal;

from High, a parody of me as lawyer,
finger indented by the pen he grips too hard
pushing back the sliding spectacles.

Someone should say something.
The lawyer leafs through notebooks of words already said
like a Berlitz of his own language

and my grandfather shrugs,
counts the grains of dust
covering his workboots.

The lawyer looks up: "Res ipsa loquitur."
My grandfather parts his lips
and sighs a coal-gray ribbon.

Smell of tobacco, smell of mildew,
and from nowhere a third voice
not breaking through —

only the lawyer’s papers
like dried leaves scratching the sidewalk
and my grandfather wheezing.

Bruised hand pats my shoulder:
Don’t take black lung to smother to death.”
I’m ten steps down the lawyer’s way

and stop at another crossing, look back,
and though I don’t turn into salt
I’m just as still, waiting for some disembodied voice

to appoint me adept of dialects and dreams
that I might with that investiture
take the strange I’m in and make it plain.

Author's notes.
This poem is a variation on Heaney’s “Making Strange”
res ipsa loquitur: Latin; lit., “the thing speaks for itself.” Term of art in tort law.


We heard the train at night come close enough to jump;
we knew the state road rolls all the way
to the city. We dug in, built our homes
here where the houses go in a spiral down the hollow
like water the bath drain draws.
Work pulls us down
to a place so deep roots refuse to grow.
When the veins have given out
we’ll ask for more, and when it’s all worked out
we’ll move on. When there’s no place left to move
we’ll drop the shovel and pick, follow the track
first by feel, then by the thin glint
off its edge, then squint a bit and stumble
into the white. We’ll take a deep breath,
walk the dirt road home
in a confusion of dust and dandelion,
and say to our wives, “It’s done,
we’ll let the UMW provide.”
What days are left we might rock away
on the front porch, wait for grandchildren,
listen to the radio, and forget
until we cough
and it tastes like coal. Maybe, we’ll say,
turning our heads away to spit,
whoever preached the homily
didn’t know how true:
home is the land that becomes part of you.

A native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, J. Robert Shull works for a nonprofit children's advocacy center in New York City. He holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Stanford University. This publication is his first.