Hunting Gems and Pamplona, Virginia, 2 poems by James Swansbrough

Photo of man and child climbing mountain
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
Hunting Gems
I don’t comprehend the chemistry of how geodes form
but their creation makes enough sense for my layman mind
to teach an abridged version to my daughter:
Some rocks may look dull, but many have secret
hollows inside. If water and minerals can creep in
and dry, over time they can grow
into the beautiful crystals they are now.
There’s a lesson in that for her, I’ll think.
Something about humility and patience
or about finding unexpected splendor on the inside.
But I won’t share the metaphor with her
no matter how inspiring the parental urge
because I know she just wants to hunt gems
like she’s seen kids do online. That’s why she’s
cajoled us to this rural Georgia open-pit mine
on a scorching cloudless day. We are here merely
to humor this girl full of unadulterated wonder
and maybe find a pretty rock or two.
I’m in awe of this precious gem we created,
spellbound by her rare and resolute heart—
but I’m terrified of her future among nameless men
who will strive to cleave her apart, mine her depths.
They’ll want to strip her of value and replace
her spangled core with their vulgar slag.
No—I share neither metaphor nor fears with this youth.
I leave them unspoken, a slurry eroding the pit of my stomach.
Instead, I tell her to gather the rocks she’s unearthed.
I teach her how to best grip the mallet
poise it low to maintain aim and control, then
drive a chisel straight through that dirty rock’s heart.
Pamplona, Virginia
I welcomed winter’s thaw with a run
that took me past neighboring pastures.
I found one large paddock occupied by livestock,
browns and blacks that raised their tote-bag heads
to eye me with bovine bemusement.
In prior passages by truck, I had never received acknowledgement
from the cattle, their eyes listless, jaws eternally chewing cud.
But on this day they moved, cantering with me to the end of their fenced keep
and watching me lope off beyond their borders.
Never a low or snort echoed from their number,
but they stood rooted, expectant of my bipedal return.
My homecoming received accompaniment
down the paddock’s length once more;
The steaks simply ambled alongside me,
flank astride flank—rippling ribeyes, trembling tenderloins—
moving meat in the process of going nowhere.
Pitying their stockade, I jumped the ditch and vaulted the fence into their world.
I stood there among them, in my own Pamplona, Virginia. And we ran.
I felt the heat from their hides, their throbbing hoofbeats with each step.
The ground quavered with movement, me a part of it—
Part of that tremor in the earth.
It reminded me of the races I once ran across country;
The tagging and grouping by team.
The corralling toward the starting line.
The gunshot into a stampede of elbows and legs,
tumbles and leapt foes, rolled ankles and jabbed ribs.
We were the wave that shook the dirt,
an eruption of pulsing blood, muscle, and breath.
All of us healthy and lean, thawed and fresh—
all of us in the process of going nowhere.

And all of us trying to get there first.


James Swansbrough
James Swansbrough lives in Signal Mountain, Tenn., with his wife and daughters. His work has appeared in Free State Review, Still: The Journal, Cagibi, Pittsburgh Poetry Journal, and others. He was named Honorable Mention for the 2019 Yeats Poetry Award by the WB Yeats Society of New York.

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