The Fellow in the Bright Nightgown

W.C. Fields called death “the fellow in the bright nightgown.”
– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

For years it hung inside out on the bathroom doorknob,
Empty sleeves a-droop, tight frilly collar,
That absurd songbird pattern.
Sometimes it lit up the house like a lamp.

No one confessed to buying it. That ugly thing?
And no wearing it: the repeated birds pressed on your eyes
Like anxious hands. A shame. It seemed made for no one.
We forgot about it over and over.

And then one night: that hairless naked stranger in the hall.
He pulled it on, inside out first. It seemed wrong to laugh.
He shook it down over himself,

We gazed up helpless at its billowing glow,
Descending like a parachute lit from within.
We felt the nothing of its perfect fit.

(First published in Crosswinds Poetry Journal Vol. 9, 2023. Thanks to the editors.)

Marvell, Arkansas

The way was measured in units of Haggard, Cash, and Campbell.
Time was gravel ticking underneath the car. Daddy told us,
For the hundredth time, to cut it out back there.
My sister kept crossing the imaginary line
I had traced across the back seat in a dare.
Mother left her smile at home,
Sat with road tar and pedal steel like a stone.

Daddy’s family wandered through their listing old house,
Staring out windows, big hands on bigger hips.
The train track cut straight through like a wound.
On one side the funeral home, their whole life.
Once I walked in on my uncle embalming a body,
“Ring of Fire” playing on his radio.
Mother claimed a chair in their living room, only moved
To eat or go to bed, only spoke when spoken to.
We rode in the funeral home ambulance to get soft serve.

Everyone got older, that’s all we knew about each other.
Mother made up her mind over years. We never went back.
Daddy, his eyes rimmed red, sat in our kitchen,
Eating ice cream out of the carton. “Granddaddy died,”
He said. I searched, felt only embarrassment. All that ice cream.
My uncle died over days in a Little Rock hospital.
I listened to Granny over and over,
The same story about Daddy’s dead sister.
Each time a different ending. A bare bulb burned above her.

There was nothing left, the lawyers said. The creditors took most,
My uncle’s girlfriend the rest. We were, as they say, poured out.
They loved their grandchildren like lost innocence
But saw the adults as mistakes to be endured,
History leveled as flat as the funeral home.
Bad things were imagined, the facts forgotten.
I don’t know where they are buried, where my cousins live.

(First published in slightly different form in Hiram Poetry Review Spring 2023. Thanks to the editors.)

Joni’s Going Through a Linear Cat Phase

“I’m going through a linear cat phase,”
I think I hear Joni sing
As she waters what must be blue hydrangeas –
She leans over my fence, eager to be noticed,
Cigarette dangling, French beret askew.
Such alien bohemian beauty
Is rare on our street.

I listen to her all day long sometimes,
I make up half of what she says.
Her voice floats above me like a halo,
I’m her footloose angel man.
I like to think she asked to borrow a cup of sugar:
I dreamed I saw it on her patio six months later,
A rose blooming in those tiny, sweet pearls.

But a linear cat phase, that’s just her conversation starter.
She tells me the same secrets she tells everyone else.
She tells them over and over, all those men who chased her,
All those men she chased, a bright carousel of sad desire
She’ll spin for whomever. It’s going round now
In my living room, her breath soft in my ear,
Baby, you’re my only one, but I just can’t stay.

(First published in slightly different form in Sheepshead Review Vol. 45 No. 2, Spring 2023. Thanks to the editors.)

Gardening for Dummies

Pot by pot across the patio,
I’m failing at this god thing.
The shriveled orange fists
Of marigolds, raised in protest.
I gave them a home, however cramped,
I water them when I’m not too busy.

Clearly it is not enough,
Not even for the stoic rosemary.
The brown stems, the shriveled leaves,
All drooped in prayerful mockery.
They are not impressed with me.
How to be the druid of my dreams
In a temple of blooming perfection?

Over my slumping shoulders,
The oak tree’s mistakes on proud display:
Look at me, it implores endlessly,
See how my branches never make sense.
Some of me giving birth, some of me dying,
All of me right now. What other way to be?

(First published in Last Leaves Magazine #6, Spring 2023. Thanks to the editors.)

Hagerman Refuge

A cloudy day to see things for the first time,
Stalking trails with you where marshes sneak
Into open ponds, firewheels glow
In grasses tall as men.

You always seem to spot the birds before me,
Silhouettes your binoculars slyly reveal:
Vultures, crows, gruff guardians of this demesne,
The pastel puff of a bluebird
Balanced on a trail sign.

Drifting into a spotting competition
(As we often seem to do),
A faint tremor in my eye’s rim:
First to score a ladybug and bee together,
Stem bending beneath their weight.

You grunt in grudging admiration,
Sharing our seeker’s pride and envy –
The struggle of their tiny lives
Eclipsed by our leering shadows.

Those Canadian geese, far from home,
The knotted riddle of a water snake.
Herons creep the shoreline, stabbing for minnows,
The silver-scalloped sky alarms for rain.

Beating the storm home with plundered memories,
Stolen shadows of the careful bee, the wary crow,
All this furtive bright-to-dark world
Ghosting from our greedy eyes.

(First published in different form in Backchannels Poetry Edition, Spring 2023 – thanks to the editors.)