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Robert Chute
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Heat Wave in Concord

Dancing and laughing along the beach
       came the twenty-ninth bather. . .

Farmers working the fields quit early,
         as much for ox or horse as for men
                 one old man had already died; exhausted
                         by heat, wrung out, wrinkled
                                 like dried fruit.

Their women, buttoned, laced, strapped
         under petticoats, skirts, sleeves,
                 sit and work, work and sit
                         in the dim, dead heat
                                 of parlor, kitchen, and shed.

But one, an exceptional one, in
         a windowless storage room, stands,
                 naked and white in a wash tub's cold ring.
                         Her cast off clothes spilled
                                 like dried discarded flowers.

The tinned dipper lifts water, still cool
         from the well, again and again. The water
                 passing over her body like
                         unseen fingers and back
                                 to the tub again.

Perhaps one of them also dreams of the river,
         of young men who float there,
                 pale bellies tempting the sun.

From houses on opposite sides
         of the elm-roofed main street Henry
                 and Ellery, leaving dishes and scraps
                         of cold dinner behind,
                                 meet, retreat to the river.

A man stands in a barn door, his shirt
         stained with sweat, hat hanging slack
                 in his hand. A woman in the shed's
                         dark cave churns the morning's milk
                                 the heat would soon sour.

They shake their heads. What beside envy
         do they feel as these renegades slip away?
                 Do they imagine how it feels to peel
                         close, sweaty clothes away,
                                 let the waters have their play?

At the river Henry explains that banks have
         a gender; this one, for example, being
                 convex, alluvial, gradual, and
                         feminine; the opposite, concave,
                                 undercut, and masculine.

Ellery makes some comments that
         Henry's Journal will never repeat.
                 They strip and wade in.

Soon, by the opposite, masculine, shore, up
         to their chins, they face the current.
                 The heat of the day is carried
                         down, away. They wade upstream,
                                 wearing their hats against the sun.

They hold their bundled clothing high.
         From deep holes to shallows
                 the water falls, rises again.
                         Chest, ankle, knee, belly,
                                 chest, and down again.

Rounding a bend they see the plank bridge.
         Boys, their work done, race and strip
                 and plunge. Boys breaching
                         and splashing; marble boys riding
                                 imaginary dolphins.

On the bank one boy sits, lifting a foot
         to examine some bruise, fixed
                 in an instant as an engraving in
                         an antiquities book; but subtly
                                 colored, sunburned, bare.

The two men put on shirts now, feeling the sting
         of the sun. Bridge rails bleed pitch,
                 the planks shrink.

The drying tails of their shins stick
         to their buttocks and thighs. Perhaps
                 because of the shirts they feel undressed,
                         retreat to the water. The water, like
                                 unseen fingers, passes over them.

They wade on into a shaded, shallower reach
         of late afternoon, hear the clang
                 of a distant bell. Some farmer's wife
                         signaling an early supper. They climb out
                                 on the feminine side.

They wait for the air to dry them. How long
         this single mile of fluvial walk
                 has seemed, passing from present
                         to pastoral to classical,
                                 back to the present again.

They dress, turn toward the world of women
         where mother, sister, or wife waits. The day
                 slides toward evening and the moon.

N.B.: Thoreau records his "fluvial walks" in the Journal for 1852.
He read Whitman's Leaves Of Grass, including, we assume,
the song of the "29th bather" in 1856. His comment: "As
for the sensuality in Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass,' I do not
so much wish it was not written, as that men and women
were so pure that they could read it without harm."


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