Mountain Road at Night

People say it’s best to avoid the news these days,
But when I’m driving alone at night
Even voices repeating catastrophe
Are still voices, still something comforting
In the disembodied voice of a stranger,
Saying terrible things.

I’m moving through a country
Where people feel differently about deer –
On many a night someone driving like me
Then a furred flash on asphalt, leap and a bound,
Car swerve screaming,
Death as no clever conspiracy,
Just confusion with a hammering heart.

The tribe of trees my car lights cannot see beyond –
Under rolling tires a network of gnarled nerves
Reaching under the asphalt, sharing
Food, water, warnings, dark intelligence
Serving the deer in secret.

The familiar madness flows through my speakers,
No deciphered code from the roots beneath.
Fear, born of the hope I’ll know the next bend
But I don’t, yet the hope continues, is necessary
For the fear to break surface, stretch in bloom –
Hope and the killing of hope, over and over,
Compost turning itself in shadows,
All my phobias sharpening like claws,
Beyond this human lullaby
Into the wild-eyed snorting, leaping into night.

(First published in Bowery Gothic No. 8, Summer 2023 – thanks to the editors)

The Bittersweet Incense of Their Shadowed Evenings

All is not well, is never well
At Twicetold Abbey.

The wind, a lost child on the moor.
The moon, a patriarch’s death mask.

There seems to be
A wolf howling competition.

Lady Abernathy writhes in her sheets
In a bedroom dark with foreshadows.

She long ago decided
On a sort of permanent hysteria.

Her husband tears out his hair again
At his bloodstained desk.

Each person’s dialogue hangs in the air,
Awaiting the fated punctuation.

A handsome stranger keeps arriving,
Vowing to rescue them all.

He disappears over and over
In the same nightly hailstorm.

And yet, repeatedly trapped in their rooms,
Each smiles in secret.

To know exactly why they are here to happen,
How they will be allowed to end.

(First published in Bowery Gothic No. 8, Summer 2023 – thanks to the editors)

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.)