The Poetry of James Cervantes

Claire Bateman Banner 2023

“’There is no/such thing as/piano accompaniment’/becomes difficult/for him to say in/his mellifluous voice/of thick, dark oatmeal/However, if/‘There is no/such thing as/piano on the streets/of New York/at 9 a.m. this day/in the year of pandemic,’/then the voice tunnels/into the ear of one/whose hearing aid/batteries are dying/At this point,/he and I (author of poem)/are lost in trenches/and meander in countryside/so blasted it is blank. Piano/reappears because/soundtrack for the blank/white map . . .—James Cervantes

Speculative Friction

By Claire Bateman

The poet James Cervantes. (Photo: Sam Rhodes.)
The poet James Cervantes. (Photo: Sam Rhodes.)

Claire Bateman

GREENVILLE South Carolina—(Hubris)—September/October 2023—Thanks to the pandemic, in 2020, poet James Cervantes found himself repatriated to the US after having lived in Mexico for the better part of 15 years. His latest book, From Mr. Bondo’s Unshared Life, comprises a series of closely related persona poems. Sleepwalker’s Songs: New & Selected Poems includes 32 new poems as well as others selected from six previous collections. Cervantes has served as editor of PorchThe Salt River Review, and In Like Company: The Porch & Salt River Review Anthology (Mad Hat Press, 2015). In recent years, he has become a regular visitor to Greece, primarily to Athens and the island of Hydra, whose quiet he finds addictive (no cars are permitted on Hydra). Two of the poems here, “Mockingbird Bouts” and “A Case for My Life,” first appeared in Temporary Meaning, and Sleepwalker’s Songs, respectively. “Riffs on an Absent Piano” appeared in Nine Mile, Fall 2021, as part of a colloquy by several editors in response to “Songs Of Pianos In Rich Neighborhoods” by Jules LaForgue. Writes Cervantes, “Riffs are brief improvisations in jazz, embellishing, extending, or transforming elements of the primary melody, so it seemed natural to use the idea of a riff for commenting on the imagined music of ‘rich neighborhoods,’ while acknowledging the possibility of the violence that is always in the shadows of contemporary life.” He adds, “’Mockingbird Bouts’ took its shape from the daily recitations of the mockingbirds around a home I once owned in Arizona. I would imagine words in the place of the mockingbirds’ notes and phrases. The model for ‘A Case for My Life’ is, quite obviously, that of a pseudo legal brief, though we really have no need to justify our existence!”

A Case for My Life

Whereas James is physically continuous with Jimmy
(inclusive of, but not dependent upon baby footprint)

and whereas Jimmy was declared most likely dead
(James hovering above white-clad Jimmy in hospital bed)

and inasmuch as certain memory connections between
Jimmy and James were lost in a chronic naiveté

(thirty different names for thirty women
in addition to two that stood out, four forgotten)

and in consideration of witness statement
(Pamela) that “You don’t know who you are.”

and further consideration of the detritus
of a dozen years (curator unknown)

hash-marked and herein named as bad debt
repossession, abandonment, and various

arrangements and partnerships classified here
as “severed,” but not limited to such

in acknowledgement of “the butterfly effect”
and in continuation of a life hereafter referred to

as “James,” first-born of the first-born “Jimmy”
latter name having currency among, but not limited to

individuals of the same genetic lineage, individuals
related through marriage, acquaintances claiming intimacy

and others listed in Schedule A, and pertaining
to the 25,892 days of “Jimmy”/James existence

affected by this claim, with the understanding
that any future days are also subject to the claim

regardless of geographical place, such as
City-of-non-indigenous-palms, or Marketville

ghostly Jimmy and substantive James submit
the opinion that hazy identity formation

is no more a criminal act than nibbling the toes
of one’s sweetheart, and do hereby enter a request

that cup of seawater known as “James” be poured
back into the sea, no longer distinguishable from it

from a day to be determined and thereafter.

Mockingbird Bouts

The highly variable singing of the northern mockingbird
(Mimus polyglottus) is distinguishable from that of other
sympatric mimids by its organization into bouts: the bird’s
tendency to repeat an element several times before proceeding
to another.—Nicholas S. Thompson, et al


A monk, a monk
on the mountain
through the rain.  Beneath
a white cloud, a flame
in the evergreens.


A paper and rag man
floats a boat, waves a flag,
picks his teeth with a mast.


See how that cloud tapers and curls
at the end.  It has a belly, it has
a waist, so why not a tongue?


A butterfly tattoo, the glint
of a ring in a navel, and young
white breasts focusing the sun.
Shadows of umbrellas rush toward her.


Three ways of drowning:
the great wave, repetitions
of the wave, a father curled
around his lungs.


You see through your eyes
and he sees through his—as obvious
as heads and tails, left thumb, right thumb.


A slender hand in a dream
moves like a fish in waters
of desire which slip
through her fingers,
rise from her toes,
and wear her like a sheen.


For a moment, every leaf
on a tree has a face
but then it is fall, then winter.


A pink daisy the size of a saucer
is clipped to straight black hair.
Her profile descends library stairs
and is gone when they turn
on themselves and also disappear.


Something about edges—of a page, a screen,
the curb, a cliff, but not a blade—
all together when one fails to meet a friend.


The emerald was
a shard of thick, green glass,
the coin a washer, the bird a leaf
in the echo of her singing.


An olive tree is centered in its shadow,
a lizard freezes on a cinderblock wall,
a woman in a wheelchair rolls into the sun.


The little toes like dew claws now—
footprint of a four-toed human
coming down a mountain, second or third thought
still not of himself.


Day moon started as paper
and for a moment was no different
from everything around it
before it became a hole in blue sky.


Mother’s gown is made of blue paper,
as are her slippers, but her hair
is suddenly white at the end of a hallway.


Guards wake from dreams of rain
to ruffles and flourishes from boiling clouds,
rifles and cannon in the crash of a band.


A place named Deadman’s Crossing
could be anywhere among these rocks and trees.


At night, every night
in the middle of the night: sounds
the animals couldn’t have made.


Yellow glow, post with lampshade
next to the tracks, in front of a house,
window full of darkness.


A yucca’s white blossoms fall
impaled on the yucca’s leaves.
A jacaranda’s violet blooms
lie whole on the lawn, crushed on the walk.


Hair brushes against hair,
storm comes but doesn’t storm,
yet there’s joy walking into it.


Ruts in the grass,
lakeside trash,
meat smoke rising,
steel drum with grill.


At the daily opera, the baritone
emits a chunk of funnel smoke
below a tenor’s hefty toot. Soprano
sharpens high C and rides its rail.


Gunmetal mountains against the dawn,
the mind an umbrella turned inside out.


He looks every which way in the wild wind
that turns downside up every leaf on the trees
and picks up dust and scatters it as if it had
four hands the size of those naked hills.

Riffs on an Absent Piano

“There is no
such thing as
piano accompaniment”
becomes difficult
for him to say in
his mellifluous voice
of thick, dark oatmeal.


However, if
“There is no
such thing as
piano on the streets
of New York
at 9 a.m. this day
in the year of pandemic,”
then the voice tunnels
into the ear of one
whose hearing aid
batteries are dying . . .


At this point,
he and I (author of poem)
are lost in trenches
and meander in countryside
so blasted it is blank. Piano
reappears because
soundtrack for the blank
white map is just
the last upper C
playing dink
dink dink dink.


The torture
of the organ grinder
grinding down
sets in
because inevitable
demise is everyone
clearing tables of drinks,
purses, phones, corners
of tablecloth caught
as in a movie, because
even luxury walls
will not accelerate
the grinder’s hand or
un-puzzle the monkey.


A rescue poem
is plastered on a wall.
With first rain, it is
tears and mascara,
its accompaniment
white and black keys.
The player is invisible,
as is the piano. Nearby,
a couple on a bench
silently agree they must
squeeze each other’s hands,
for bullets have learned
to sing and hate is harmony.

To order copies of Claire Bateman’s books Scape orCoronology from Amazon, click on the book covers below.Bateman ScapeBateman Coronology

Claire Bateman’s books include Scape (New Issues Poetry & Prose); Locals (Serving House Books), The Bicycle Slow Race (Wesleyan University Press), Friction (Eighth Mountain Poetry Prize), At The Funeral Of The Ether (Ninety-Six Press, Furman University), Clumsy (New Issues Poetry & Prose), Leap (New Issues), and Coronology (Etruscan Press). She has been awarded Individual Artist Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Surdna Foundation, as well as two Pushcart Prizes and the New Millennium Writings 40th Anniversary Poetry Prize. She has taught at Clemson University, the Greenville Fine Arts Center, and various workshops and conferences such as Bread Loaf and Mount Holyoke. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina. (Please see Bateman’s Author’s Page for links to all her publications, and go here for further information about the poet and her work.) (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)