Dead Man’s Curve

            for Chris LaTray

Back in the fifties we were afraid

of dying on Dead Man’s Curve

just east of town on Highway 10.

It was right above my house, so

I imagined some dark and rainy night

a speeding car would loose control

because of booze or snow or failed

brakes, poor judgment or plain stupidity,

and go flying through the guard rail,

land on my roof and crush me in my bed.

 

Of course it was all in my head,

coloring my dreams like the derailments

I feared (which came to be a daily reality

in twenty years). Back then, before

interstate highways, controlled access,

seat belts or air bags—any thoughts of safety

or restraint—we grew up standing, elbowed

over the front seat, staring at the road

ahead on no-shoulder two-lanes

driving too fast and too slow, often a six

pack conveniently nestled within reach

between the driver and the suicide seat,

all passengers wreathed in a cloud of

“mild” “satisfying” “Kool” blue smoke.

We were riding high on confidence,

building an empire, post World War II.

The sky couldn’t limit us (at least not

for a decade) till death caught us alone.

 

Usually that happened at night,

headlights sailing off Dead Man’s Curve,

that ninety-degree turn around a wall

of vertical stone, barely enough room

for two cars to pass mid-curve without

scraping the cut-face or shaving paint

off door panels or the wooden guard rail,

not to mention fallen rock continuously

littering the pavement: fist-size to

footballs to oil pan killers—anvils

of mid-turn surprise. A lot of folks died

in these legends fabricated in my mind,

their spirits trapped with rattlesnakes

in hay-bale-sized boulder scree

below the curve and above the railroad

just a stone’s throw from my house.

 

Ghosts of the dead were everywhere.

Little white crosses marked the spots

where someone not so long ago

was casually hurtling down the road

at one hundred feet per second

and came to an unexpected halt,

didn’t survive to tell the tale, left it

to us to reconstruct in recurring

nightmares: driving at night, two cones

of light catching the flash of white

guard rail before crashing through

and launching off Dead Man’s Curve

 

to float/drop two hundred feet

into a fiery explosion on

some unsuspecting house below

like a Hitchcock movie or

James Bond flick, an amazing Hollywood

special effect, where all the clueless,

fragile souls dreaming like me

spiraled up in a plume of black smoke,

wouldn’t be around to see the graphic photos

or read about the grisly scene,

unless this dream was like that old

Twilight Zone episode where

they’d find their names in the paper

the next day sipping coffee

while scanning the obituaries.

 

Mark Gibbons

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Family Plots

                   for Colin

Avoiding the work of weeding

is a habit handed down from my dad,

a piss-poor farmer who’d only raised

Hell and a few eyebrows.

Panicky days I wish I could be

the good gardeners my brothers are,

plant some burgandy lupine or painted pansies

neatly in short-clipped grass.

 

But I must find my own

headstone, discover my faith in earth

rich in blood. The sandy hole

we dug on Petty Creek holds the fired

remains of our father. Funny,

 

My Old Man liked reading

cemetery markers, wanted to be buried

in a gunny sack. We did it wrong:

left him bound in a strong plastic bag

sealed inside a cardboard box.

We dropped him square in the ground,

staged a silly B-movie conclusion.

Only Mother’s tears played right.

 

Weeks later, my brother and I

resurrected Dad, our final family plot

as outlaw sons. Afternoon grave-robbers

digging gold dust and whispering our need

to be good boys again, we cut his smothering

shroud, freed the flinty ash at last,

our skin and bones, to breathe deeply

the burlap—soil and stone. We put him back

in the dirt, sent him home.

 

Mark Gibbons

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Stars

You’ll have to excuse me

or I hope you’ll excuse me

actually I don’t really care

 

Well I do but I don’t know

how to tell you I’m sorry

you are so insecure or

 

Arrogant that you feel

it’s imperative to pose as

if you harbor some hidden

 

Knowledge or wisdom

we all should admire

and respect how important

 

You are in the hoo-haw

of wherever you exist

that story you’ve written

 

For yourself the game you

follow the role you play

the truth is you are not

 

More important than me

and of course I am not

more important than you

 

Or any other bug spewing

words or tobacco juice

aspen leaves flashing silver

 

In the breeze trout holding

green-golden in a stream

the child the dog the sharp

 

Crack of a rifle shot blood

on your plate we are here

and we don’t know shit

 

About anything so what is

the point of pretending

to be more than we ain’t

 

When all that really matters

is the ecstatic joy we are

breathing mysterious as stars

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Montana Bars

photo by David J. Spear

have always been full

of men and hearty women

slinging stories painting landscapes

those tools for nothing and possibility

places of escape to mind

one’s own mind business

rabbit holes to the looking glass

that back-bar gaze the aftermath

tomorrow’s dreams of yesterdays

our limbo of today

this hour-minute liquid ticket

the acknowledgment of this

and that imagination

time out to own

the clock dissolve

rebuild one story one thought

drinking in one big union

of the mind’s reset

regret celebrate this pause

reflect or project elbows

on the bar wrestle care

maybe stare-watch baseball

to a rock-n-roll beat

try to undo the stitches inside

holding you to programmed

death unglued scrub the data racket

tumbling through you

and stumbling you through

pursue the elusive gnawing

in your gut ass planted on a stool

and remember you are safe

all you know is meaningless now

so embrace this home of fools

 

Mark Gibbons

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THE FISHING KING

 

for Dick Hugo

 

You drove here to catch a Superior fish,

got snagged in The Montana Bar.

This bartender knows your word is good

for nothing, runs you a tab all cutthroat feel

is wrong as shadow ghosts on a stream

and cracked as your life—an honest need

to lie about sizes of fish you’ve caught

and women you’ve never had. Maybe

you’ll write her a poem some day you tell

the skirt two stools away who noses

your artsy Royal Wolf—cast like a spell

on a beaver pond, always dim as your opinion

or the mirror at closing time.

 

When you order two Turkeys and beer backs,

she asks where you plan on dipping your worm.

You curse her ancestors, her children and dog,

tell her you’re proud of your rhythm and fly,

don’t cotton to vulgar slugs or slime

that sully the graves of true fishermen

and swear you’ll piss on the bejesus bar

if she keeps talking trash or bait.

The brazen twitch steals your keys

when the bartender points to the door.

 

The air outside, stifling when you came

opens lilac in her hair. She suggests you try

her night crawler with a little taste of corn

and drives you fast to the mouth of Trout Creek,

points out her favorite hole. You cast,

retrieve, cast, retrieve, cast, then let it go.

Your fly rides the current slow, before a Rainbow

flashes and dances—tail fin arcing the sky.

The hook is set. You play it long, till it rolls

its heaving side. She opens her Busch

in cottonwood shade and sucks a Lucky Strike.

 

Her wink tells more than crippled words—

you know your rod and line. You finish

the beer and afternoon, drive her back to

the Four Aces Saloon where a run of jacks

could drown. You head for Chet’s in Alberton

on the frontage road you know for sure

will never lead you home.

 

When your tongue wakes gray at Forest Grove,

the moon is full and blue as your Buick

flirting with suicide, halfway down the boat ramp,

its grill in soothing tide. Your head throbs

like a knife wound as you search for the roll

of twenties gone and know you’ll never find.

You think her name was Brooke. No.

Wasn’t it Dolly Brown? A damn good catch

for a fat clown who calls all water pain.

 

You remember her skin, those golden spots—

pretty as they come, and admit your pole

could never again stand up to her spinning dare.

Your silly grimace begs a smile you want

to wear back to town. Forget this river,

your pride and youth you sold for cheap disdain.

You know reverse like hangovers

will take you back to war. Inside you’re still

the shriveled worm good booze won’t let you

ignore. She left you dry as rotting carp

pitched high into the weeds—rank air

you crave like your broken need

to snare this poem or that Superior girl

who claimed you both a Missoula sucker

and The Clark Fork Fishing King.

 

Mark Gibbons

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9/11/again

and: explosions, flames, smoke

 

sirens, moans, blood & tears

all buried in dust

infamy

 

or: strutting the night

 

the bowlegged wolverine

sniffs the air, disappears

and is gone

 

for: who holds the rights?

 

who knows the wrongs?

how many dead?

questions, years

 

so: table for two

 

honestly, I’m a coward

how about you?

are you like me?

 

rather: relieved not to be

 

in the schools today

watching how we “commemorate”

this solemn “remembrance”

 

if: the demolition of empire

 

fans nationalist, fear-based fires

grooming children to believe

their “ultimate service” to US

 

yet: this love of country

 

(maybe) involves killing

and/or dying for . . . it?

more sawed-off bullshit

 

but: still what? how? why?

 

i smile, will the lesson

give the benefit of doubt

tell tales of human pain, neither

 

nor: ignore dark beauty

 

our black cat staring

into the night sky, i see

three yellow moons

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Champagne Music

I watched The Lawrence Welk Show

on PBS last night half-drunk

on whiskey and was struck by

the blatantly overt whiteness of it,

like this was the model vision

for the reinvention of Making America

Great Again, a sea of well-off

church-going, content and polite whites,

smiling and swaying slowly in

“living-color” to the orchestra

following that white baton waving

hypnotically under glinting chandeliers,

nary an off-white complexion in the bunch,

nor anywhere on screen I frantically scanned

for a hint of that darker American story

of melting or melding pots. Nothing

but Anglo blood bobbed to the polka beat

till Arthur Duncan stepped out to dance

one of his pat “Mr. Welk” style taps

where he’d step-tap and fetch-flap

to a gangly-grinning unpassionate climax,

no smart-assed Sammy Davis, Jr. act,

more of a token appropriate Bo Jangles show

of kowtow and restraint. It Made White

America Feel Good, generous about creating

a space, a prominent (if small) place

on the program to feature a Colored man

exercising his physical agility, the prowess

of his race. Yes, it was mighty white of us,

we thought fifty years ago. We believed

the rhetorical American rainbow was just

a few miles down the road, but the further

we drove, the better we understood that

elusive pot of gold, brother/sisterhood,

wasn’t anymore tangible than Lawrence Welk

reruns—a satiric stroll down memory lane

when white men were forced to integrate.

Change is slow, painful, and that pot of gold

is a complicated metaphor. So before

I pour another glass of whiskey to toast

the luxury of my lower-class privilege,

go ahead and uncork a bottle of bubbly

to join me in celebrating Bohemian Rhapsody,

Roma, Blackkklansman, The Wife, and

let’s hope the hounds baying on the News

tonight are on the trail of a Hollywood ending.

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life

 

is a joke

but not

a cruel joke—

just a joke.

 

What’s cruel

is how we obsess

on something,

get so serious

about it—

that we fail

to laugh

and love,

live today,

 

enjoy all

the punchlines

and the pains,

those cream

pies and boards

in the face.

 

What else are you

going to do?

 

Roll your eyeballs

and wiggle your cigar,

make light of being

in the dark.

Futility grins

and humility

shakes its head.

 

Each moment

delivers . . .

bah-duh-boom!

 

And then you die.

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Swallows and Rain

Dark clouds burn yellow over Lolo Peak

heavy with rain now puddling dust.

That sweet earth smell recalls my youth

on hot summer days when I waltzed

hay fields and conjured thunder clouds.

 

Bucking twine bales, building golden temples,

was muscle art to us. We danced and whirled

around the rolling wagon, a clean and dip,

jump and push through sun and hum and sweat.

We sculpted tiers like puzzle kings, compressed

the loaves of cattle larder firm as a stonecutter’s touch,

each corner tied tight and square enough to pass

the niggling pharaoh’s eye. He weighed the threat

of darkening sky molding his crop on the ground.

 

I craved much more than chaff and wind or

blisters that proved my worth. Vole and tractor

puttered black dirt, Blue-Boy nipped their heels,

a pregnant doe on Butler Creek hung bloated

dead (its broken leg tangled in barbed wire)

and barn swallows dove to bomb our stack, then

fled from our apple-missile attacks, left their nests

(rafter targets) hearts of mud and straw.

 

The pump-house hose and lunch break swim

quenched our dry, sticky skin like afternoon thunder

pushing winds of promise like weekend pay.

Raindrops began a syncopated increase—like gunshots

on opening day, bombarding the tin-roofed barn.

The wagon crew cut the elevator engine, ran

for cover to wait it out. I collapsed flat on my back

atop the stack, grateful for rain, inhaled the cool-

damp air. I watched a swallow watching me,

both of us dry while the torrent raged on. She was

collared by her bulbous brown-pebbled nest,

calm and grave as a sick pet. I took in, released

alfalfa breath, fingered eggshells glistening in straw.

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I Think

therefore, I have made

myself a poet by insisting I am

a poet after years of insisting

I wasn’t a poet even though I did

know it back then when

I kept insisting I was just a guy

who wrote the shit that came to mind,

those thoughts and observations

we all have, but most don’t

take the time to write down.

 

So I became a poet by virtue

of putting words on paper

and publishing them in books,

reading them aloud and

acknowledging the proclamations

of others calling me a poet.

I guess a poet is someone who

is determined to be a poet,

wants it enough to read and study

those deemed or claiming to be

 

poets—a mysteriously undefinable

club begging absolute freedom

for contradiction—that uneasy comfort

of nonconformity—constantly seeking

the safety of distance to confess

ignorance, fear, ecstasy, and suspicion.

 

Poetry—the delirious diary of existence—

those fragmented lingo-bits gathered

and strewn—a display intoning

straight-on-honest spews or veering

into-through the elliptical, surreal,

ba-jibbity voodoo of language

voiced and heard—our scribbled

account of dreams whispered.

 

I have made myself a poet

because I claim I am. Therefore,

just ask me, and I will tell you

I am a poet (I think).

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