Patrick Donnelly
Read the Signs

When I rinsed my spectacles under the tap and wiped them with my undershirt,

When every night the striped spider rebuilt her web, triangulating with a car 
    aerial that every morning pulled the work apart,

When a man, and then a woman, with orange flags flapping from their 
    motorchairs rolled under the kitchen windows, he with one leg, she with 

When the poor streets bore names like Gold, Paris, and Temple,

When from the Second Baptist Church came a song of dissatisfaction with the city of 
    men, in which one tenor predominated, especially when he paused to breathe,

When a sign told how at this mission migrants  prayed pardonne-nous nos offences,     
    fed on franks and beans, were handed a few dollars to tide them till they 
    disappeared into the mills lit all night,

(mills long shut, town folded for years at dusk),

Here the brightness that caught the eye by the river was only a marble in the 
    grass, a wish-fulfilling jewel I put in my pocket,

Here someone mowed grass in circles around a black stone and a white stone, 
    which married the black stone to the white stone,

Here the Kennebec was too wide fast and deep to swim, though gulls stood safe on 
    a strange middle shallow,

Here my name inside the rusty box where mail comes, and under that a bed of 
    Solomon’s Seal,

Here the little dirt playground taught with signs the animals of my Neighborhood! 
    moose, deer and fawn, coyote, red fox, beaver, fisher, sea otter, skunk, raccoon, 
    snakes (won’t hurt you), ground hog, ospre, Great Blue heron, STORKS, OWL, 
    squirles, muskrat. We live in the right place, 

Taught if you were NOT there, don’t use your voice to spread rumors. FINI – END – 
    Adios – Aloha – hasta la vista, Baby, 

Taught if you can’t make a decision right now, tell the other person you will get back to 
    them later. Take your time and make the Right Choice. No Sadness, 

Taught A Hundred Years Go By Quick (not knowing then all this would be gone by 

And a Museum of the Streets sign remembered this is the way the trolley went, 
    how “riding in the wood-sided cars, listening to the bell clanging, was a 
    pleasure … convenient, economical and pollution-free,”

And a sign taped to that sign said Maggy a longhaired grey aged one and a 
    half years is missing,

And a window warned “Never Mind the Dog Beware the Owner,”

Where some person entirely without irony let pink petunias overflow the
    windowboxes of a white cottage with blue shutters,

Where roses set their autumn hips again, and bittersweet its feral fruit,

Where there was water and the sound of water,

Where a urinous wall inside the former token-booth of the Two-Cent Bridge 
    (since 1973 on the National Register of Historic Places) announced I give 
    Good Head and have a Nice Dick 
followed by a number and Ask for Travis,

Where a polished stone explained THIS TREE IS A SYMBOL OF THE 
    WATERVILLE, MAINE, an idea of Natalia Kempers who before she passed 
    was “translator of the many correspondences that arose through the 

And a man in black, maybe Travis, stepped onto the bridge as I stepped off,

And the tent-moth hid its young in silken bags,

And according to the landlady, Ivan the three-legged cat dodged death at the 
    shelter by virtue of passionate leanings, wreathings and rubbings,

And there was porn for straights but none for gays in the back room of the local 
    video mart, where a sign requested please be courteous and put your choice into 
    the small black bags provided before you bring it to the counter,

When work carried me far beyond, Stephen my little wood dove,

When a pickup parked under CAUTION CHANGING RIVER BOTTOM at the 
    absolute lonesome bottom of an early Sunday morning boat ramp might 
    have been looking for a sign of love, 
                                                                       but started his engine and drove away 
    after I gave him my back for half an hour, didn’t turn even once to meet his 

When I washed my door with a rag, 
    and thought myself the first, the only, the one, the solitary, the unique.

Then filled the soul with doubt, with every kind of not-knowing, 
    and made a song of the cloud of unknowing, which sang

the terrible, deep modesty of creatures, every poor trickling momentary thing

Found In Volume 38, No. 05
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  • Patrick Donnelly
Patrick Donnelly
About the Author

Patrick Donnelly is the author of The Charge (published in 2003 by Ausable Press, now part of Copper Canyon Press) and Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin, forthcoming from Four Way Books. An Associate Editor of the literary journal Poetry International, he has taught writing at Colby College, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and elsewhere. With Stephen D. Miller he translates classical Japanese drama and poetry.