Summer Solstice

The hedge pods, lime green, hang

in clusters like beans six

to twelve feet above ground. Spindly

shoots swoop-up off gnarled,

woody stocks thick as my forearms.

Insects, unseen, buzz-ring

in my ears unperturbed by the lonely

hound barking nonstop, fenced

a block away. The sun warms

 

my hands, this page, and the shadow

of my dancing pen knows

it will find no solace

on this longest of days.

I don’t believe there’s any significance

to this moment, this necessary

elegy finding its voice in a turning

point of mine, this calibration of

space and time climbing beyond our reach,

but since we are painfully aware

that we are mostly in the dark,

it doesn’t seem fair to bury or bemoan

anyone or anything

on a blue-sky, wispy-cloud day,

cool-breezy, leaf-rattling,

and brimmed-full of birdsong,

the cat squinting then napping

on the lawn as spring passes

the baton to summer. I don’t wonder

 

why the nervous animal paces

in my gut, and I understand the date’s

obvious foreshadowing of what’s ahead,

having nodded off in mid-poem.

I assume it will be alright,

take care of itself in the winter

of our goodnight, that we’ll slip away

easy as sleep, but still, today

is no time to let go of those

we’ve escorted down this spinning

road for as long as we can remember.

At least in December the mood,

the light and temperature are right

for leave taking. This time of year

 

there’s too much to lose. Summer

elegies belong to the ants

carting dried carcasses of honey

bees underground, hauling sticks

or corn chips, whatever they find,

busily catering to the queen,

working and dying in droves to increase

the size of the pile, support

the colony, the empire:

go forth and multiply,

make it pay every trip, every load,

every minute, every day.

Isn’t that the way we do it

under the sun, keep running,

keep going until we’re gone?

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DILLON GHOSTS REVISITED

connie & butch

I walk this rutted alley from The Club to Skeet’s Cafe

with my son, dogging my grandpa’s hill-climbing heel,

my old man’s voice in my head talking about my long

dead punch-happy uncle whose clothes I still wear.

 

I imagine nighttime excursions of raucous Irish brothers

chasing moonlight blood and lust. Now silent to my son

in sunlit afternoon, heard faintly as barroom whispers,

echoes choked by the scuffing gravel beneath my feet.

 

Feeling nameless now as drunks who crawled here blind

with hope, searching money, a misplaced pint or reason

not to lay back down. They realized their blood in broken

Highlander bottles, found the strength to make last call.

 

The ice man told secrets of these sagging back porches,

the angry early-morning brogues of immigrant women

laid on suits and hay hands dancing lightly downstairs

from Dirty Jean’s whorehouse. She always tipped in trade.

 

I come searching for my family, Gaelic ghosts, fast fighters,

sure friends, who sip whiskey on a wood box in the lunch-

break shade, lilt Celtic ditties, bring tears to your eyes

telling heroic lies in the resonant voice of St. Patrick, himself.

 

This back door playground of hard working men, dirt and stone

more honest than the clean swept curbs out front, knows

the pleasures and pains of the flesh, the soul – the grunts

and bruises, lost faith and aches of spent life and hunger.

 

Where after years in these thrown-away shadows, toothless

grins and vacant eyes broadcast the degree of hangover

acquired on a fixed tab. These guys who financed Phillip

Morris’s Early Times, Old Crow’s who made Jim Beam.

 

A stark, gray world of weeds and dust; chinkless bricks

and weather-faded wood; torn, yellow blinds and cardboard

window panes; all exposed to the raised leg of a mongrel

Blue Heeler marking the stoops of dead and unsung kings.

 

I came to discover Eros in the mirror of the back bar,

betraying reflections of buzzing neon coded riddles to be

ciphered on the journey always out the back door. But ghosts

tell less than dead men know, and more than I want to hear.

 

Don’t we all suffer ironic deaths from exposure? A sad

heritage of no regrets? These ghosts of sheepherders

and miners, ranch hands and railroaders embrace me.

They claimed this wasteland mirage, an oasis of spirit.

 

I smile at coughing laughs from open doors, smell booze

breath sweet as dying lilacs, feel a rough hand squeeze

the back of my neck, and taste the warm vanilla froth

of unrefrigerated ice cream politely offered in a dirty bowl.

 

Behind Skeet’s, gone now, his strawberry pie not forgotten,

my son is ready to move on. The Cabbage Patch and cemetery

will have to wait. He’ll exhume those ghosts soon enough. We’ll

gas up, buy Coke and Bud, and drive to Wisdom tomorrow.

 

for Connie

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Down and Out

Chris LaTray photo

at the crossroads again

begging the bosses for work,

some way to make it, easily,

 

a monthly grub-steak, a few

bucks in exchange for me,

my aging-marketable abilities,

 

whatever they may be, since

I need money, shelter, time,

that tick-clocking and increasing

 

chill-risk factor, whatever

jobs-to-be-got, whatever shit

needs shoveling, cold palms

 

to be squeezed—I’m your man,

I know I can get it done, keep

my songs buried, be a good

 

employee till this hollow shell,

my chest cavity, retires to pretend

the black hole is really this blue

 

heart aching, circling the dying

fire (and our silly, repetitive games)

oh-so briefly before the light fades.

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406-401K-2018

this is it,

that sweet (enough)

amerikan dream

of disability,

social security,

unemployment,

or the lottery,

some desperate

way to stop

punching a clock,

give you a chance

to stand outside

under the stars,

collect your thoughts,

observe,

come to grips

with the obvious,

your profound

ignorance,

and embrace

the wonder

and chaos

of this wild-ass

dream trip,

the mother-fucking

sideshow of

crazy shit—you,

yes, you—

that miracle—

consciousness.

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The Red Line

He begged, pleaded to the packed

“L” train for anything anyone

could give to help him buy

the antibiotics he needed

for an infected leg he pulled

up his pants to reveal, but no one

looked at him or the wound

save me. All seemed steeled,

numbed by his humble confession

and grotesquely swollen limb,

like it was just another ruse or

plea they couldn’t afford or decode.

Twenty-two bucks was all he needed.

His posture, the exhausted expression

in his voice and eyes apologized

for having to ask this way,

play the beggar to others barely

paying their fares, but he didn’t know

where else to turn or what to do.

 

He dropped his head and said

he understood why they couldn’t,

wouldn’t help or acknowledge him.

He knew they were conned for cash

every day, but still he had to ask

because he had nothing to lose

but his leg—his pride gone

miles ago. The commuters

were used to this scene

I hadn’t witnessed before,

a street theater performance surely

worthy of a fifty dollar seat

in some balcony of fine art uptown.

A country bumpkin, I was sold—

but warned off by my sons

and the silence of those around me.

 

The beggar finally moved on

to the next car, left us suffering

another crisis of conscience,

a daily practice navigating this sea

of humanity, adrift in one’s own

devices, bodies floating by

face down. We keep on moving,

working, scrolling along @

#livingtheAmericanDream.

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Pissed at Potter’s Funeral

That frosty November day,
Tom stood at the edge of the grave
we’d dug the night before.
The preacher, stern, Bible in hand,
prayed God have mercy on Potter’s soul.
Guilty as Potter of too much fun, the rest of us
bowed our heads, bit our tongues,
but Tom never played by the rules.

He whistled, barked out a staccato laugh,
then poured Budweiser on the casket.
His cackle yanked and lashed
every sorry neck erect.
B.W. and Rastus both sprung for him,
grabbed his arms and shook him hard,
hissed he’d better knock it off
or they were going to kick his ass,
but Tom was drunk, beyond, and crazy-strong.
He threatened to piss in the grave.

Only Potter could handle him well,
speaking those low, gentle tones
he’d used to calm horses and dogs.
I watched the pine box in the bottom
of the hole, knew easy was over
for good. Tom struggled to open his zipper.
The three of them almost went down.
Potter’s mother let go of the minister’s
arm, crossed to Tom and sheltered
his hands with her hands.

She smiled. Her thumbs rubbed
the ridges of his knuckles,
and he melted, bent forward and cried.
She whispered in his ear, slipped her arm
through his arm. The two of them
shuffled away. The wind swayed tall pines
that banked the plot. I looked west,
and two ravens hovered motionless
in currents above the river, then peeled off
and disappeared downstream. There was snow
up Whiskey Gulch. I didn’t know what to do,

so I scooped the first shovel of dirt in the grave.
It covered the inlaid cross on the coffin lid
and interred the gifts Tom left
for Potter’s journey: a pipe
and beaded medicine pouch —
beside the empty beer can.

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MOVING ON: THE LAST POEMS OF ED LAHEY

Available from Drumlummon  Institute, Helena, MT

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Driven

The Old Man smiled
at the precocious three year old
serving him a beer
in the backyard gathering
after the funeral.

She worked the group
like a skilled barmaid,
knew her cans and brands,
remembering faces and orders
without a hitch.

He leaned toward me
and whispered, “She’s been here before.”
Of course it was a joke
but also a metaphor—he was Irish
for Fuck’s sake—

though it was obvious
she literally knew a Hamms
from a Budweiser, had done this
before, he played up the ghostly
myth that she was an old soul

inhabiting a child’s body.
And I doubt he believed in
reincarnation anymore than
he detested resurrection,
but I loved the idea, the mystery.

It made me think, imagine
where she’d been, and what
I remember from being a kid
exposed to adults struggling
and losing it, the pains

and pleasures of surviving shit,
plus death, that ultimate trip,
the exclamation point—all of
it—signifying nothing. Those
boys and girls who get that

early edjukashun, grow older
than their years, getting a jump on
the jaded journey. Many have
turned to art to manage bouts
of obsession and depression.

Maybe she will. I know I began
talking to myself at an early age.
I started out addressing God
but got no response, so I became
my own best listener. My friends

are driven to chase music and movement,
shape language and form, create
images, sounds, rattle bones to
ashes, dust the cosmic storm, and follow
their dreams into the unknown.

—for Melissa Stephenson

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ON THE 4TH OF JULY

Listen to the trees. Give them
your eyes and skin. Let the wind be
your interpreter, and though you won’t
understand exactly what they’re saying,
you will know they’re voices
do not lie as they move like beasts
breathing, cat tails waving,
beckoning you to join the dance.

Let the backyard opera commence:
clouds, a cyclorama pushed by wind,
spruce cones dropping, plopping
as the boughs begin tossing . . .
Vaporous jelly fish swim at the darkening
edges, cling to the deep and dissolve
in the distant rumbling
that sends every trunk and limb
swaying and playing in the gusty
winds. Aspen leaves quake,
the maples sing: shhhhhhhh . . .

Let your ringing ears succumb
to the rushing surges blowing this
thunderstorm in . . . The air moves
the hair on your arms, your head.
Can you smell the raindrops?
Just be here in the breeze? A part of this
weather and chlorophyl? It may be
as close to peace as you’ll ever get . . .

Until a jet flies in low stealing the thunder,
interrupting the show, followed
by childrens’ voices, popping fireworks,
the fluttering flag on a neighbor’s porch.
Pomp and patriotic platitudes blow in
the banquets, banners, and brass bands
tooting the Old Glory horns of God—
those white stars floating a navy-
blue sea streaked with blood-
stained tepees, and Africans hanging
limp in trees . . . trees like these
that do no harm nor declare bullshit
like “freedom isn’t free” or
“make America great!” Again,
close the door, and turn the key.

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hopelessly hopeful

are all of us drawn
to heartbreaking
stories? do we all love
to empathize
with others’ pains
struggles, anxieties?

stories of loss
injustice and death
strangely satisfy me
black comfort
food for my soul

tortured? no, haunted?
maybe, clinical?
if you’d like, but
i don’t really know
for sure so i wonder

if others feel soothed
and addicted to
feeling lost
think of it as love
this shared disappointment
and sorrow

a hopelessly hopeful
agreement to hold onto
each other pounded
and pummeled day in
day out laugh-crying
while we lose again

we swing through
tragedy and comedy
back and forth
distracting ourselves
in the play about
the location of the trap door

and knowing that
the curtain will fall
we act away clamoring
to be the hero
smell the roses unsent
take our silent bow

so if we’re lucky enough
to make it to the fifth act
do we celebrate this
losing looking back
and will anyone care to read
the script of another life
merely loved to its end?

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