Bystanders


When it snowed hard, cars failed
at the hairpin turn above the house.
They'd slur off line and drift
to a ditch–or creep back down,
the driver squinting out from a half-
open door, his hindsight glazed
by snow on the rear window
and cold breath on the mirrors.
Soon he'd be at the house to use
the phone and peer a few feet out
the kitchen window at the black
night and insulating snow.
Those were the uphill cars. One night
a clump of them had gathered
at the turn and I'd gone out
to make my usual remark–
something smug about pride disguised
as something about machines and snow–
and to be in a clump myself. Then
over the hillbrow one mile up the road
came two pale headlights and the whine
of a car doing fifty downhill through
four tufted inches of snow atop a thin
sheet of new ice. That shut us up,
and we turned in thrall, like grass
in wind, to watch the car and all
its people die. Their only chance
would be never to brake, but to let
the force of their folly carry them, as if
it were a law of physics, where it would,
and since the hill was straight until
the hairpin turn, they might make it
that far, and so we unclumped fast
from the turn and its scatter of abandoned cars;
and down the hill it came, the accident.
How beautifully shaped it was, like an arrow,
this violent privation and story
I would have, and it was only beginning.
It must have been going seventy when it
somehow insinuated through the cars
we'd got as far away as we could,
and it left the road where the road left
a straight downhill line. Halfway
down the Morgans' boulder- and stump-
strewn meadow it clanged and yawed,
one door flew open like a wing, and then
it rolled and tossed in the surf of its last
momentum, and there was no noise from it.
The many I'd imagined in the car were only one.
A woman wiped blood from his crushed
face with a Tampax, though he was dead,
and we stood in the field and stuttered.
Back at the turn two collies barked
at the snowplow with its blue light
turning mildly, at the wrecker, at the police
to whom we told our names and what we saw.
So we began to ravel from the stunned
calm single thing we had become
by not dying, and the county cleared
the turn and everyone went home, and, while
the plow dragged up the slick hill the staunch
clank of its chains, the county cleared the field.


William Matthews, Selected Poems and Translations: 1969-1991, Mariner Books, 1992.