The Poetry of James Engelhardt

Claire Bateman Banner 2023

The game was simple:/get to the city center, harass the other boy’s soldiers./Like my brother and cousins, it was always boys,/but on this box a yellow chick, harried, flees,/and a young rabbit looks back, startled/as if the bird has said something/that can’t be forgiven—that the city/has fallen, that mother is not a safe place,/that father can be surrounded. I imagine/I see them stop and remind each other/they never saw the Grand Canyon, never/went to a Triple-A ball game, or hosted/a backyard barbecue. I hear them say/that leaving a family means/you have to find family on your own,/but you never know when that will happen.”James Engelhardt 

Speculative Friction

By Claire Bateman

Poet James Engelhardt. (Photo: Laura Leigh Morris.)
Poet James Engelhardt. (Photo: Laura Leigh Morris.)

“Ecopoetry does share a space with science. One of the concerns of ecopoetry is non-human nature (it shares this concern with the critical apparatus it borrows from, ecocriticism). It certainly shares that concern with most of the world’s history of poetry: How can we connect with non-human nature that seems so much more, so much larger than ourselves? How can we understand it?James Engelhardt, from “The Language Habitat: An Ecopoetry Manifesto”

Claire Bateman

GREENVILLE South Carolina—(Hubris)—March 2024—James Engelhardt’s poems have appeared in the North American ReviewSheila-Na-GigChange SevenTerrain.orgBlack FoxFourth River, and many other places. His ecopoetry manifesto is titled “The Language Habitat,” and his book, Bone Willows, is available from Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press.

The poems here are part of a project, “Never Just a Game,” in which Engelhardt responds to table-top/board games from the 19th century through the present, using them to explore a variety of forms and issues: the domestic sphere and how place intersects with it; the nature of gameplay and the choices at the heart of that play; and the connections of both to the concerns of the larger culture. Some of the poems are inspired directly by the art form and gameplay, while others are only very loosely associated with games. The poet includes the names of the games and other information in epigraphs to acknowledge their influence and complicate the relationship of the source material to the poems, themselves.

Engelhardt currently lives in the South Carolina Upstate and is a lecturer in the English Department at Furman University. Read further about Engelhardt at the poet’s website.

More Stories About Boys
Advance and Retreat: A Game of Skill, part of the Playtime Series
McLoughlin Brothers, 1900

In my twenties I wandered alone in the summer fields
around my low house, stood on its brick-height porch,
watched the sun slant down at dusk to bask the unmown hay
and sharpen goldfinches as they flocked
across the mist-like boundary of seedhead and sky.
The tumble of grasses, bees, and flowers felt ancient
older even then a game my silent grandmother had
tucked under the clean, soap-scented linens
neatly stacked in a back closet. The game was simple:
get to the city center, harass the other boy’s soldiers.
Like my brother and cousins, it was always boys,
but on this box a yellow chick, harried, flees,
and a young rabbit looks back, startled
as if the bird has said something
that can’t be forgiven—that the city
has fallen, that mother is not a safe place,
that father can be surrounded. I imagine
I see them stop and remind each other
they never saw the Grand Canyon, never
went to a Triple-A ball game, or hosted
a backyard barbecue. I hear them say
that leaving a family means
you have to find family on your own,
but you never know when that will happen.
As for those summer days,
I had no strategy then and lack any strategy now.
Days turn into other days. Has another war started?
Another war is always starting.
A pawn gets moved here, another goes there.
Was that low house a haven? My parents
continued to drift. A new year, a different house.
Scars advance and retreat
as scars do when the light lands a certain way
until silver comes and fields disappear
and paths dissolve into blue.

As Above, So Below
Acquire: High Adventure in High Finance, Sid Sackson
3M, 1963

On the thrift-store blanket on our lawn,
Laura and I watch our baby grasp—fingers spread,
an eager reach toward bright things—a rattle,
a block, a small beach ball the size of his head.
A wind rises and rolls the ball away sending me
chasing through our yard, a reflection of other yards
in the grid of the neighborhood, the houses
rising in mirror-images of houses across the street
where my neighbor says he wants to plough his fescue under
and build a garden he can use to feed his family,
to give himself a reason to stand outside under the rain
and smile up into the gray clouds because he can’t now.
There’s no reason to look to the sky now
as cars roll past to the elementary school to collect
children as they grow toward suburban lawns,
an empty sky, the ghost of a garden behind the house.

Never Just Game Time

We sit down at the table.
A new board, a deck of cards,
three dice. And we know
that we need to begin—
cities need to be built,
fields tended, beer brewed.
Each story starts somewhere.
We’ve known each other
years, now, but before that
days. Hours. A first meeting.
We remember when the kids began—
squalling and insistent.
Outside, the shadows spill
from forests that once were fields
and now are fields again.
Ancient trees pulled by a hurricane’s remains—
a rough and unrelenting tempest
that pulled until the trees succumbed
their limbs a lacing over ground
that ages later sent green messages up
between the dried tatting.
And before that was ice.
And before that was ocean.
Now, our hands are still.
The rule book sprawls along the board.
One blue house goes here.
One green cottage goes there.
A red basket rests between the two.
We know the story has to start.

But the game’s a loop.
The points go up the track
and down again and overlap.
When are the pieces lifted off?
When does it end?
The game goes on until it can’t.
The baby stirs unsettled in his sleep
and, sleepy, says that dinosaurs roar—
his only sentence before he calms
back to his stuffed animal bed.
Our evening stretches into stars.
The pieces move and we
move with them. We bend forward.
But even time will have an end.
And we will put the box away,
and then the boy will wake.
And the girl will stir midmorning.
We will not mark the scores,
but we will watch the sun rise
as it did once for the first time
and will again for the last.

To order copies of Claire Bateman’s books, Wonders of the Invisible World, Scape, or Coronology from Amazon, click on the book covers below.

Bateman’s Wonders of The Invisible World.


Bateman Scape


Bateman 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.)