Richard Long

Jar of Fireflies

Boy ‘Anders pedals his bike to third grade.
In his knapsack of books and pencils—
a wasp he pinned to his homework,

a frog he slit open to the heartbeat.

And he thinks of the night his granny died,
of how he came out from under the house,
of how he carried into the death of her room

a jar of fireflies, a would be present

for how she loved him, for how
she always gave him a silver dime
to spend at the corner store. 

Atop the Sierra Nevada

In Nevada, the frame of ‘Anders bike hummed,
and later, in the high sierra of California,

the shifting-click of the gears sang to him
a French love song by Carla Bruni.

Now he’s summitting Donner Pass,
the brakes squealing stop, or crash. See him

letting go on the Lincoln Highway? The bike
disappearing around a deadman’s curve?

Almost a Ghost Biker

You don’t always die when a car
hits you. The driver stops,
police come,
the ambulance will ask you
Does it hurt to breathe?
Can you move
your neck?

At some point,
you’ll stop picking at the scabs
of road rash. Bone will summer.
You’ll start thinking what if
you had taken a stand
aside the road of Indiana.

you’ll return
to Lake Erie, to that ghost bike
for an unknown rider. From which
the apparition of your name will moan
Why are you here?
Go away,
you’re alive.

An Aside at the Theater of the Dead

Why would you trust the pity
of the audience? It doesn’t care

about your history
or the complication of your life.

These soliloquies about you,

without rhyme and reason, fall flat
into the measure of the pit orchestra

from which the score of the world
rises above the stage, humming

a harmony of ghost bike wheels.

Near Boone’s Grave on the Bottom Road

There’s a bench beneath the mercy of shade,
a broken barn, the tilt of a farmhouse

that listens to the river a mile away.
The only history is the wind in the ears of corn

and the train up in the bluffs on the other side
of the river clanks and blasts its horn at crossings.

What you would give for something cold!
Ice water, a popsicle, watermelon, tomato—

the price of summer and how it glitters
like coins of sunlight in the river.

All the overlook of a tombstone,
squatting there, stone cold, a prayer.

Author’s Note

On the Monday after Mother’s Day, I ride my bicycle for eight to ten weeks from home into the country. Life necessities are packed in bags strapped to the bike: almost fifty pounds to see me day and night through up to two thousand miles of roads.

I began these self-supported summer rides years ago upon the realization that a summer wouldn’t be enough time for me to walk from home in St. Louis, Missouri, to Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel, California. “Why don’t you ride your bike?” my wife said. Thus, on the day after Mother’s Day, I pedaled away from home, heading west, on an old red bike, a Jamis Dakar, pulling a B.O.B. trailer.

I remember my first sighting of someone touring self-supported on a bicycle. I was a boy walking along a southern road. It was an early summer morning; the ground fog shimmered with light. Emerging from the fog came a figure on a white bike who nodded at me while passing back into the fog. Did I think, then, as I do now, that this biker drifting by was a ghost?

You see ghost bikers standing on the shoulder of the road aside white bike memorials that mark where they were killed by traffic. They have lifted themselves up, straightened their bones—they have picked the gravel from their road rash. They look at you, they wave. They get back on their bikes; they renew their rides into the distance.

Such a ghost appears in these five Parhelion poems, all from a collection of ghost bike poems on the history of ‘Anders: ‘Anders as a boy who rides a bike with Marantha and Rāfe, his two friends who die tragically; Anders as an adult who rides his bike self-supported throughout the country in search of the ghosts of his friends; and ‘Anders as a ghost biker who finds that his afterlife is to ride forever on the meandering road Endless.

Whenever we write, we make rhetorical decisions about subject, persona, and point of view. A coffee buddy of mine writes fantastic poems in the first person about his life. The I in his poem is himself (he is narrator and subject) and his poems are the ghost stories of his life. My poems today, in contrast, are third person with an omniscient narrator. Because the purpose of these Parhelion poems, and of Ghost Bike overall, is to construct the history of ‘Anders, I imagine the voice to be an historian, who also happens to be a ghost biker.

And what of audience? To whom is my ghost-historian speaking? Of course, to you, dear readers, who stand outside the poem. But if you step into the world of the poem, who do you become? To whom, then, once you are inside, is the historian in these poems speaking?

You read a poem; you hear a voice. The voice stays with you, a pleasant earworm. You are now part of the poem. It is now part of you. You have merged into the white space of the poem’s world. You have joined the convocation of ghost bikers.

Richard Long is a Professor of English in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches first-year composition, creative writing, and poetry and plays; and where he edits 2River, quarterly publishing The 2River View and occasionally publishing individual authors in the 2River Chapbook Series.