Noon sun was a white hole in the sky,
and I was the lovely
killer on the bridge. The river
nearly dry, smell of dirt
and sage, chokecherries stinking
on the branch. Childhood
is always too much,
or not enough. The old horror
that comes to nothing: dark
circle of grass beneath a cottonwood,
green bean casserole,
mother weeping in the barn. Anyway,
I drew a bead on a fat one,
tail swinging wildly in a splash
of mud and sunlight. We must
remember. To be forgiven
we must fill our lungs with cordite
and iron, see the waters
roll with blood.
How to Bring Down Rain
First, listen to the old men, watch
their dry lips flap. Throw sheep
bones in the river, ribs and unlinked
wings of spine. See the water wet them.
It’s possible. Shoulder the sun
and walk the fence line west. Wipe
an oily head of sweat on your t-shirt.
Now come in for lunch—tomato
sandwich, ice water, the easy chair
in the cellar where you open all
your father’s books, breathe their inky
dust. Then dream him an old man,
dream him dead again, years later,
when fathers should die. Chase your
sister with a broken mouse, tell your
brother lies about the neighbor girl.
Though there’s no water anymore,
crack off the ram’s skull, toss it
in the river too. See the gravel smooth
as skin, and your mother’s face—
like gravel. Look at her. Know God
does not hate you, that nine years
of drought is child’s play. Now come
back to the old men, see them rise
from wooden chairs, hear their bones
sift the dust of yesterday’s rain.
The Log Works Near Midnight
I’ve left the house of the famous poet,
where we ate moose and salmon, mused
of coyote snares, welding, and the sad
death of small towns—and now,
near midnight, wreaths of fog round
the meadows, hills soaked in strange
pools of moonlight, I’m just drunk
and tired of pretending I live life timed
to the curve of the sun, pulse hot
for spare dollars. My barrel-chested father
is dead these fifteen years, I sit and write,
and those four men, gliding through
the gloom light of the log works,
turn to leave the long day. Overhead,
the beautiful and useless stars wheel.
The Land to the North
After he died he got up and went north,
to the hills that curve with wind
before the land breaks
into tangles of rock near the Missouri.
This was a long way the frame house near town,
his children grown tall and grim,
his wife’s trembling hands, but he had been there
too long and was anxious to leave.
The land to the north was open wide as sky,
the wind blew in curves and circles.
These things were as he remembered.
And the sun, white as bone, reaching out, touching
everything. But many things were not
as he remembered.
Where were the trails he rode?
The creeks playing their stone and water songs?
Why these gray boards, falling?
He turned and went back. He found his bed empty,
his old wife curled on the couch with only
a thin blanket. Though he knew,
he lay down beside her as best he could.
Letter to Paul from Sunflower
It’s hot here. The air is heavy.
August has been a long scream of cicadas.
The Big Sunflower River runs swollen
and brown. In a whisper of wet fog, blackbirds
spray from my pickup, and off old Highway 49
rice and cotton give way to strangles of trees
along the bayous. They say the topsoil is hundreds
of feet thick—the rot of a continent washed over
and over again. Even the sun, just a gray ring
in grayer sky, is choked in it all. And yesterday
I saw a thousand white cranes smother
a stand of dying cypress like snow.
I stay in a small brick house on the white
side of Sunflower. My neighbors smile,
bring me big plates of okra casserole
and invitations to drink sweet tea on their porch.
I smile back, thank them for their hospitality,
and walk across the tracks, to the school
where I teach. My students are kids like any others,
but they’re also poor and black and beaten
down everyday by the blows of the dead,
and of the living. I like to think I’m doing
something about this, but then I cash my check
and make my way home, again across the tracks.
You can buy a watermelon at Lewis’s Grocery
for a dollar. The big woman says, Now, you pick
you a sweet one. If it ain’t sweet, you bring it back
and get you a sweet one, you hear? I pick
a sweet one. Children clatter across the slumped
porches of shotgun shacks. The men down
King Avenue hold paper bags close to their hearts
and stare. There’s a grandmother with one eye
who talks to stray dogs—this place is deep
with ghosts. Do you remember that Sunday,
driving Montana? Just the two of us, tall grass
and sky? Brother, you are far away,
and America is so suddenly old.
Joe Wilkins is the author of Killing the Murnion Dogs (Black Lawrence Press) and Ragged Point Road (Main Street Rag), and his work appears in the Georgia Review, The Southern Review, The Sun, Orion, Slate, and Best American Magazine Writing 2010. He lives with his wife and son in north Iowa, where he teaches writing at Waldorf College.