Premature Death as Albums Sales Strategy and other poems

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Premature Death as Album Sales Strategy

When Maury opens his manila envelope
and says, “You are NOT the father,”
I’m going to do the Christ-like thing
and refrain from dancing atop the fresh
grave of my former lover with a mouth
full of fuck all y’alls.  In the falsetto glow
of newfound sainthood, I stroll down
to Red’s IGA and kiss all the black-eyed
bagboys back to life.  My mother has
discovered the most humane method
for snapping a finch’s neck on the cover
of this month’s Better Homes & Gardens:
It helps to hum, fellow betterment-seekers.
It helps to think of oneself as the sole survivor
of an airline crash over the Peruvian
rainforest and the bird as a glowstick.
I say the true mark of humanity lies not
in that simple act of destruction, but in
the ability to maintain a quiet dignity
as one’s own neck is slowly broken
by the inevitable wreath of finches.
I invite the inevitable wreath of finches,
I say, like a three-week coma, a vacation.
On the shelves, the blood sings
to the ceiling from jars more than eager
to crack. But I’m as still as a lake,
face down on a gurney as the hooks
are removed from its back.

First Sonnet for Colin Jewell

Despite the patient’s passing we declared
the surgery a success so graceful
was its performance with the lesions
scrubbed we read aloud the account of a piano
hacked and reduced to firewood as a reminder
of our own comparative fortune there was
affection in the way the kite string strangled
the power line a perfection in the deaf child
napping at the foot of the turntable we welcomed
a lethargy thick enough to bury our rhetoric in
and let the room gut itself for a change
let the sun burn down the heirlooms like it did
our mother when she stood on the shore
and hurled a handful of pills into the ocean

Second Sonnet for Colin Jewell

Decade of everything thrown from the balcony
decade of everything spelled like it sounds
the divide between the number of bad post-apocalyptic
films and actual apocalypses grows wider by the day
mid-August and we’ve shown up to our court-mandated
singing lessons drunk again no surprise the new disease
is easier to cure than pronounce the air is pregnant
with birdsong the sun is wrapped in gauze but everyone’s
inside circled around the radio collecting the static
in Mason jars and charting the myriad uses of muteness
until someone looks up from their notebook
and says tell me again what’s the word
for when you throw open a medicine cabinet to reveal
a window overlooking a village in flames

The West

 I stumble into the saloon,
an arrow jutting from my chest.

Ah! exclaims the sheriff,
hanging his coat on it.

Poem for Pyotr Verzilov

Any young anarchist collective worth its salt
can find some cause for staging a public orgy,
though history teaches us that maintaining
an erection in the presence of amateur photographers
and men with clubs is substantially more difficult
than feigning a minor knee injury under similar
circumstances.  Still, the determined penises resist
complete deflation, climbing slowly from their trenches
bearing the age-old wisdom of waiting room
inspirational posters and high school football coaches:
No one ever said you couldn’t be afraid.
You just can’t let that stop you.  And I am afraid,
with the sky like a faulty attic hatch threatening
to dump its dead right here in the living room
as we watch the wind prepare for its next big stunt
on the six o’clock news.  Tell me, Pop, if I let them
nail me up there like some bare, seasonless wreath,
will it really get everyone clean for good?  Mark,
with his missing E string and shop-at-home knives?
Matthew, with his bottomless closet of paint fumes
and erotic visions of Jamie Lee Curtis, circa 1978?
They can doctor anything now.  In tomorrow’s
retrospective, the fire is painted onto the couches
and our melting answering machine prayers
are looped through the PA. The program refers
to it as a routine, the way we crouch behind
headstones in drug store masks, waiting
for the sound of approaching wagons (our cue).
But there’s no mention of nodding off in the idle
hours only to wake mumbling and dew-soaked,
the sun a kick sincere as blood.  The faint buzz
of a push mower lies just out of frame,
and it too is a song in praise of singing.

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Riding with the Ghost

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Are you prepared? my mother says,
shelving canned beans in our fallout shelter. ​​

The racks are full of toilet paper and gunpowder,
one to wipe our asses before ascending into heaven,

the other to blow the head off whatever else crawls out
from the grave. I could’ve gone out with friends

and drunk whiskey in a field, gotten laid,
but I helped my father board up the windows

to the storage shed. We spray painted the doorjambs red
in case the Holy Ghost couldn’t find us. I’d rather see Christ

pick his teeth with a sword than watch him pass judgment
on this computer glitch. My mother flips through her testament,

looking for a secret to keep us safe in these last seconds.
The midnight hour comes upon us with an explosion

of fireworks that tears across the curtain of sky.
My father snores in the easy chair with a pistol in his lap.

I slip out the back door into a world
changed by snowfall, yard like a new promise.

Long Before You Know What Love Means

You sleep under bridges for the hell of it
and drink with the vets at the river,
who got kicked out of the Jesus house.

Warmed by the fire from a burning trash can,
you pretend to be broken-down, think it good
to learn from that company of misfit men.

You ward off the news of your brother, who traded
freedom for a jumpsuit at the county jail. You spend
long nights busking in the rain for money.

Before sleep will come, you hear the frightened
mumbling of the men with ticking dreams
that keep riddling them into the nightmare sun.

You can’t make out what any of the graffiti say,
splayed up code on concrete. If only a secret
rested in the writing on the wall for kings such as these.

Riding with the Ghost

-for Jason Molina

I did whatever it told me, I drank
that wine down like sweet poison.
I walked the empty park all night
and tried to weep the Lord into being.
The only answer I receive—a call
from a wife left at home who says
The pills, I know it’s just the pills.

But I didn’t want to sleep on the floor.
When I heard the slam, the lock click,
I pissed beneath a stairwell, turned
my collar up to the cold damp wind.
Dodging the cop’s lights, I huddled
in shadow underneath the oaks, mud
on the sole of my slick dress shoes.

Tonight, I see a road brushed in starlight
that leads to a home I won’t return to.
I hang my necktie on a branch. Rain shifts
across the asphalt like new fallen ash.
Oh, ghost on high in the great dark trees,
come down, scrub my coward heart clean.

I’ve searched for so many ways to die.

Blackout, Late Summer

It’s midnight, the heat
of Mississippi just now
bowing low near the bed.

I light a candle, listen
to dirt daubers scratch
the woodwork, imagine

their thin, small bodies
patching pipe organ nests.
What a small symphony

these insects pull down
from the rafters like black
violins to hum the veiled dark.

I’ve seen the work they’ve laid
out while I slept, knocked down
the dirt pocked high with a broom

or a hose. I hold the candle
up, watch them dart and let ​​​
the wick burn down low.

I think of my wife in bed,
her body laced in moonlight.
She twists the cigarette, blows

a plume of smoke that blooms
in the ceiling fan. How swift
the procession at night. Here,

the language of lying down,
every hand left wanting,
a bed, a spirit, a home.

Moon Over Sonoma County

The woman you love
waits in the orchard.

She says, Pour another
glass of wine for me.

You look to the sky,
thick as the bright sea

can only think to ask:
why has the rain left?

Moon, you are not mine
to have but to behold.

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Three Prose Poems

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What I Am Paying For Now Is What I Lost Then

She bows her head at the memorial wall, trying not to cry and crying. A pale yellow handkerchief in hand. She still sort of expects him home. Her man. I miss you more than you know, she whispers. This is her first time at the memorial, and it crushes me like it does her under the terrible weight of time and love, and everything feels broken and witnessed.

Days later back at home she’s putting on coffee. Out the kitchen window it’s field and blizzard all the way to Alberta. Out there in the nothing there, a small Indian crew works the pipeline. She can just barely make them out. In time they will bring oil through here and pay her more. An old company man named Johnny shows up at the door, his long hair perfect silver and black, pulled back.

I know she hates she wants him. As he says hello some snow shoots in and he watches it melt

on the floor. Then looks at her and frowns, an unsaid apology. The envelopes have been light, he knows, but winter in Saskatchewan has slowed work. It’ll be longer still now that the politicians are involved. For her lease on the land and minerals, he wants her full bounty to come. Apologizes, out loud this time.

He drives out to where the Indians are digging, wrenching, and digging more. They see him and take a break, all huddled against the wind and smoking. He shouts something then his ponytail breaks loose and his hair goes up into the wind like horsetail on fire. He’s no oil man, mother says. He only runs the line. She goes to the sink, empties the coffee and rinses her mug. Outside the storm blows bigger, growing the windrows, striking north where there is no work to be done, nothing at all to be improved on. Johnnie and his Indians disappear in it.  I’ve been here since he died, she says. What’s changed?

Older now. More worry. More lying.

About stupid things—health, eating, money. Worry forever when you’re young, she says. You don’t want it lingering when you’re old. She stands at the window and searches the dark spot in the snow where the Indians were.

There’s nothing to bring him back, poor soul, I know that! she promises. Then silence for a moment. You’re a fine woman, she says and doesn’t explain. A fine girl. He’ll come back to you soon. For a long time, I sit there and wonder about after I lost Scottie, before I told mother he was lost, before I told anyone, when I was pretending he was gone off with his father for the weekend, before we searched for three weeks, three days and two and a half hours, finding nothing but quick-burning prairie, and above us, floating, embers and ash pushed by some unclear, stewarded pressure, maybe from above.

I wonder about how, after all the time I missed, I could ever be something other than a daughter for her. I know the answer because I know my heart is the laziest thing about me, and I know she will love me like this until the earth at last has her. And I’ll always, in some way, be saying goodbye.

And My Good Son Tends To His Fables, As Does His Father

We should be helping each other out, you know? No more of this my father’s a drunk, and yours hasn’t touched you in a meaningful way in years. Our mothers are coincidentally blind, and we are siblingless. And all the lousy family stuff. We can ask perverse questions on end and shoot nonmetaphorical holes entirely through each other. Can try, like our first year, to bring a child, yet the cosmos presses on, unpermitting.

So like cabbies on Halstead at night hustling under the rain, or any of our tit-surgeon friends throwing dark parties up in the room where Farley died, we are no different, no better. Trying and failing to help ourselves. And this is the problem: the Hideout is open in Chicago, quiet, but we don’t like hearing each other talk.

But there is still love here. When I stumble into you, the understood other, and you inch a toe forward, nudging your way, I am solid, sold by your movement and stung to death with fear. Fear of what the burnt white carpet or broken travertine in the bathroom might provoke in the mind. Of how neither of us is guilty, so no one can blame us. We can’t even blame ourselves.

On another night we go back to Pilsen, melt our cellphones stovetop, TIG the doors, and paint shut windows forever, have the whole apartment done up in white, because it’s the color of silence. Though black might be more appropriate, denying sight and suggesting the absence of things like it does.

And we really try reading for a change, smart books making you talk (brag) about your knowledge of the human heart as a place full of courage, where the strange and the most singular

and most inexplicable that Rilke talked about lives. To say nothing of God. Then we’re on to the manuals. Ones on woodworking, beginning masonry, circuitry, and thermonuclear dynamics, just in case the world, the real one, not the one of this poem, goes to shit for real.

And oh how we both love aeronautics! Enough to watch the 8911 British Airways from Manchester to O’Hare explode all over the Near West Side. It’ll be on TV, stunning all the Brooklyn young made such easy talc by spectacle, when a passenger, not an official one, a baby, falls on a bit of gas tank and goes right through the top four floors of your building, landing in the living room, in your already cradled arms.

And of course we keep it! And he, the baby, being ours, is a quick learner and toys for hours on end with our gunshot knees and hearts. Little tyke gets blood and bits of denim everywhere, under his fingernails, inside ears, on the soft curve of his eyelid, deep in his ass crack, and it will not go away until we put him on the counter like a man and put a bullet through his head.

Because we love this baby. Because we teach him this carnival time and pillowy humanity we have only just begun to revel in ourselves. And because he’s not even a real baby, only a cheap way to get inside each other.

Something Profound In My Throat Forcing The Maudlin Hydraulics Of The Heart

It could have been in this bar that Dylan’s whole heart fell under his best friend’s hammer, all called out as he was, his enemy stilted and with their heads stout in the same cloud as us a hundred years on, reciting everything we know about juniper berries and indie rock and roll. Nothing about us, nothing beyond us, only your accidental hair in the sun like gossamer bunting, the heart inside of you hidden in the sand between the Mumbles and the Bay. You, you there with the sterling eyes and the Cullian Diamond for breasts, entire enough to fill fine china platters. It’s hard to imagine a baby girl suckling them, or under a Florida moon, my red-mouthed boy having them. Drinking you in is like wading out deep with the cod hopping in the laverbread, the current cloudy green and feathered warm, the stroke of diesel and sex in the water, the old fishermen watching with zazen plaintiveness and hard won winter money. Like the Ibis, you’re out there, moving surely in and out of the illusion of light, down and out of the dark waters, certain that no harm can come up on you. Next morning as you clean the jets in the tub, I go through your phone, some letters, the condoms and hairpins in your drawer, all the time thinking how easy it is, after a decade spent losing, to make you love me, how easy it’s become to say every word just right. To call you an Ibis. You went outside to play with your little black cat, which I’d forgotten on the way back to the killing yards. By this time (and we should really try this again sometime) you’re talking but still not speaking to me, so I go out for you, bold with some great, Western truths to tell you. Listen and remember how awful it was before I came to you, nearly as fucked as it is with me now. We, as if this is the first time, shoot up on your doorstep, two in the morning and your father holding the needle and the flame. All is forever present and forever known. Even my cancer eating you, if it has to be, is perfectly in place. And all day I will weep because I can’t help from laughing. We have such bad coins in our sockets, making it easy to say you don’t want children until you think about (remember) not having them.

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Christ in the Back of the Van and other poems

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Christ in the Back of the Van

Pete says if Jesus were alive today
in America he’d drive a Greyhound Bus

and I won’t attempt to argue his theory because he’s much smarter than me.
But sometimes I do think maybe he’d be the same as us­

riding across this country in the back of a van
with a sleeping bag and something to prove,

speaking to anyone who will listen and staying clear of bad pussy.
But what do I know? I am not self­aware.

When someone says, I Am that I Am
I reply, I know you are but what Am I?
Because fuck it. I’m drunk.

In A Motel-­6 In Jersey

wide awake and tired as shit
in a Motel-­6 in Jersey

I am lying flat of my back
staring up at the white ceiling stars

and listening to this woman in the room above me
repeating the lines I don’t even know these people

and Why don’t you love me anymore?
it’s like the chorus of a song

and the beat is her footsteps moving
from the bed to the bathroom and crying.

and this song goes on and on like this
and I think maybe it’s because I’ve been off liquor

but maybe it’s something much simpler
like sleep isn’t what I really needed tonight.

maybe I only needed to hear this song
over and over so I wouldn’t forget

how glad I am that I love you
and that I know the people around me.


Shivering with a cigarette & coffee
I witness a squirrel fall
from a tree

It’s one of those things you forget
happens until it happens
in front of you

Like this morning when I made you cry
You were holding our baby
& crying

It’s like the sounds a tree makes when it’s falling
the way my heart breaks
it’s hard

violent & mean and no one I don’t care
how strong they are
can hang on

The Median

I am driving hundreds of miles today
in the snow
and the hawks are landing on the median
with their claws out.
And I can’t help thinking about my first time
out on the road.
I was so green bums could see me coming
from miles away.
I bet I lost fifty dollars to them then.
But not anymore.
And that’s what I hate most about time­
how it makes us hard.
Just last night I told this woman to fuck off.
What am I? Made of money? I have a family to feed.
See what I mean?
That’s why I don’t blame the hawk or the hunger or the weakness.
I blame the line.

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Midnight Karaoke at the Donors Ball and other poems

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Midnight Karaoke at the Donors Ball

Excuse me, Madam President, but did you say
violence or violins?  I’m afraid
I’ve contracted that disease that makes you walk
around Wal-Mart hugging every stranger you meet
like someone beautiful has just died.
They tell me after our deaths turn 50
they become public domain and anyone is free
to knit a lovely joke from them, and this
submerges me in a tank of radical comfort.
This drags the teenage werewolf from my chest
and shaves it on the sidewalk.  Your opponent’s
fond of saying, I’ve been protecting this village
from cannibals so long, I get my pie and coffee
for free in the mornings
, but his boasts
are like price tags pasted over knife wounds.
When he declares, To publically dismiss
the banjo is to publically dismiss God
it’s a bumper sticker philosophy at best.
Madam President, we’ve been out here beyond
the camera’s gaze, anticipating a rainstorm,
draping Hefty bags over headstones.  While
the others were naming their children
after honky-tonk martyrs and searching
for the real-world equivalent of cutting down
the nets, we were authoring a practical solution
involving people disguised as monsters
disguised as people.  I know it’s been said,
but I’ll say it again: We are Americans,
not American’ts, so zip up the back
of my costume and I’ll zip up yours.

Grieving River Love Song

Then we drove over to the weekend workshop
on the lawn behind the Bible College
where a man with a newborn phoenix tattooed on his calf
taught us to construct a little kayak from our grief.
I painted my bereft craft navy with a constellation
of canary yellow stars.  I named it Marsha
after a girl whose bare-knuckle bout with bulimia
I’d fallen in love with the night before in a made-for-TV movie.
J.T. played Bobby Vinton on the drive over to the river.
The way the violin wailed into the pillow pulled over its face
made me feel like a homesick infantryman carted
through the smoke between two bunkers in a wheelbarrow.
Our guide’s lecture on the river’s tendency to speak
of itself in the third person threw a new gravity
over our kayak-launching.  Each booming revelation
was punctuated by the click of a disposable camera.
We paddled with the nervous purpose of virgin
getaway drivers for the better part of the day.
The sun cursed through chipped teeth and our bare shoulders
burned like the gas-soaked rafters of a Norwegian chapel.
We were within sight of the island when J.T. went under,
his lack of thrashing fooling even the veterans.  An old sweatshirt
took the place of his body at the campfire eulogy where our guide
stood with his cap in one hand and a bottle in the other.
He said that all things were sinking, but at a uniform rate
that prevented anyone from truly noticing the sinking.
Even we were sinking, riding the very earth we stood upon
ever downward, but this should not resign us to gracelessness.
Take this man, for instance, he said, hoisting the sweatshirt
like a lantern above our heads.  Take this brave, brave soul.
Can you think of anything more beautiful than a man
who would rather drown than admit he can’t swim?

Parachute Stitched from Discarded Hospital Gowns

Fuck if I know.  Maybe Jacob was right
and we’re just children, cross-legged and slack-jawed
before a television set, convinced that the villains
in those old westerns never bled after being shot
because blood hadn’t been invented yet.
Or maybe I misheard completely and we’re really
a gathering of reunited bandmates on a stage full
of plastic flowers, tethered to IV poles,
lip-syncing the hits of a sun-bleached yesteryear.
It’s so hard to tell.  The televangelist faces
the camera to say that each step out the door
is a little defenestration, that the body is 60% water
and 40% elevator music.  I turn the channel
and the news team has managed to snake a mic
into a collapsed mine shaft, capturing the way
the lone survivor sings to himself, his voice wavering
as if held at gunpoint beneath the earth’s surface.
Listening to it feels like being locked in a coat closet,
reading a stranger’s mail by flashlight.  Progress
has been slow, like digging a grave on the moon
begins one letter.  It is clear now that the lake froze
around me some time ago and the only swimming
I have done since has been in my head
ends another.
I am reminded of the classic belief that words
are nothing more than plastic fowl drifting about
a murky pond, and I think of the kids who gather
on the bank to hurl stones at them, connecting
with thuds like idiot prayers.  When the time comes,
I want my bed wheeled out to the hill above the pond.
I want to look out over the saints scooping rocks
from the muck and say, “Tell the actor playing me
to improvise something worth remembering here.”

Flyover Country

Watching the DVD extras to Steve McQueen’s Shame
at Alex’s house –
the part where Fassbender refers to his character,
a New York City advertising executive
with an immaculate upscale apartment
and nagging sweet tooth for high-end call girls,
as “middle class” –
I couldn’t help feeling like a 15th century serf
dumbstruck at his plough
by the sudden appearance of a Learjet
puncturing the English sky.

Traveling Poem for Brandon Petty

This morning the landlord’s outstretched corpse
was a sled that I climbed atop, gripping the loose arms
as I descended into the valley of the yarn-spinners.
The way they improvised new words for optimism
as they dug with their hands for children in the snow banks
was just like in the documentary.  Feral youths
were hoisted from the white by their scrawny limbs
and assigned roles in the play.  One boy with hair
like speaker wire was the token troubadour, perched
in the top of a pine for most of the production.
Another was appointed village exorcist and ordered
to knock him from the tree with a gilded rod
in the fourth act.  I was Florence Nightingale.
I dressed each new wound with a strip of my t-shirt
and strummed songs of healing on my ukulele.
I returned from the liquor store with benevolence
like a small mammal burrowed in my chest
and a paper bag tucked under each arm.  They broke
into a song about the spontaneous replacement
of cemeteries with vegetable gardens across America
as I rested in the light that spilled from their faces,
writing a letter to my sister in Kentucky.  I still
had no idea what war it was they were fighting,
but I knew they were winning because of me.

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It could've been worse

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Christ Behind the Wheel


If Christ was alive today

he would drive a Greyhound bus

If you have ever taken that ride

you will know that I am on

to something with this


He would be hardly pressed

to find a more densely packed

sick and desperate collection

of humanity outside

of a favela in Rio

which god knows is

where he really ought to be.


But Jesus and America belong together

we have always will always must always

believe in the elusive

undeserved second chance

and inevitable final destiny

written in stars whose names we don’t know

and always awaiting our arrival

in the next state


We must believe the destination

will have made the journey

worth the ticket’s price


Soft Spot


If you find the soft spot in yourself

what do you do with it?

I mean the spot where you believe.


Do you forget it like the call you would

make to your mother?

Ignore it like a student loan bill

or your aching wisdom teeth?


Or maybe do you care for it

as some would an adopted child

Not your own blood

but close enough

to where it doesn’t seem to matter?

Sing Then Dance Then


I want to hear your voice

like a scratchy 78

low and strange

the first recording

of a doghouse bass



without time

waking me in the morning

like bacon frying


Years of revolution

and for what–

a slow dance when the weather

is warm at last

Something to wash

the dishes to

night after night


Moments passing

in 4/4 time

but occasionally there is another

unsettling beat–snaketime

is what Moondog called it


Someone has said this before

and better

but still I cannot help myself

and the record keeps spinning

as though it was not I who

dropped the needle

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