Peter Weltner ~ Stone Altars


The black rocks are for where the images fail,
for where the living lie buried
with the drowned among uncarved
stones. Flags are unfurled on ships once they sail

far from harbor or appear over the horizon,
piratical like those
you saw as boys
when they came for you, dark as these rocks. The sun,

luminescent, fills the sky with promise of return, the ground
of the sea bright as a mountain’s
slope, the west sunset-lit like plains.
Beyond them, everything is silence, no sound

left in the world. Two gnarled rocks, a beachside cairn,
two fragments of one boulder fallen
into the sea, a common phenomenon,
though these mark old lovers who took care

of poor strangers, of whose devotion to the wayfarer
no more remains than two stones,
like relic holders enclosing bones,
that rise like the jagged back of a deep-sea creature.


Unsatisfied by the villagers in the valley below
the cliffside cottage, hungry, disguised as beggars,
two gods knock on their door. The couple, slow
to answer because of their age, the fear that mars
all late in years, invite them in despite
the rags they wear. The odor of their filthy skin
and hair is old like theirs. There’s something not right
about them, they can’t say what, like the pin
prick sensation they feel when, in winter, a cold
wind seeps through chinks in their walls. They feed
them boiled cabbage and bacon chunks, a stew
already cooking on their stove, and a wine that indeed
is most poor but much better when filled anew
each time they finish a glass. A miracle. They know,
at last, who the beggars are and ask if it’s so,

have they dined with gods? The two nod and give
them one wish. They reply, To die together, never
either to have to mourn for the other or to grieve.
Waves crash against the headlands. Light, water,
ocean are holy to them, sunset, the cry
of sea birds as they fly overhead. They’re unafraid
of dying, they agree, as the gods disappear, like a sigh
heard late at night that maybe one lover has made
and then rolled over to sleep more soundly. As quickly,
they become two rocks, apart but together, islands
in a becalmed Pacific, craggy, rough-hewn, the sea
lit by luminous clouds, by a light that stands
outside the world, as gods do who’ve turned them into
stone, black as magma, gradually, over centuries,
to erode, to wash away, yet two altars, two

rocks, two lovers arising out of misty water, souls,
not shades or shadows. Ask the sand they will
become how it is like the sea or a shell like a wave,
how the dead recall the life they had, the bell tolls
of their days, and they will answer, We are the still-
ness within rivers, tides, winds, a sea-carved cave,
a storm, breezes on a sunny day, rustling leaves.
A wolf, a fox cub thankful for the meat it gnaws,
a bird soaring in air, a meteor, a cat’s claws
teasing twine, a child on a swing, lovers lying side
by side, a father with his child on his back, a bride
awaiting her groom, a mother her baby, the crucified
one burning with desire, Ulysses re-sailing the ocean–
all will reply the same. Love moves without motion,
like stones in deep sea currents, altars to compassion.


from Stone Altars, BrickHouse Books, Baltimore, 2015

Peter Weltner has published six books of fiction, including The Risk of His Music and How the Body Prays, and, in 2017, The Return of What’s Been Lost, five poetry chapbooks, among them The One-Winged Body and Water’s Eye (both in collaboration with the artist Galen Garwood), and six full length collections of poetry, News from the World at My Birth: A History, The Outerlands, To the Final Cinder, Stone Altars, Late Summer Storm in Early Winter (with photographs and paintings by Galen Garwood), and most recently The Light of the Sun Become Sea. Peter is DM’s 2017 Artist-in-Residence. He and his husband live in San Francisco by the ocean.

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