All the Livelong Days


The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul

& Pacific had nothin’ and everything to lose

that summer in Missoula. Our job—the Catlin Street

crossing replacement—four men, water and tools:

spike malls and pullers, shovels and picks,

rail jacks, tie tongs and wrenches.


Shirtless under August sun, we dug and pried

at broken ties exposed below the rails, weathered

in creosote, sand and cinders. We scanned for tacks

to tell us the date a tie was spiked and tamped.

Like fingerprints or DNA, those tags were metal proof.

Drenched in sweat, we baptized the roadbed—


Track pranksters burned black as tunnels. Our hands

blistered and bled and cramped. Back on our feet,

bent at the knees, we begged for Christ or the lions

to be merciful if tongs didn’t bite. Our spines burned

till tail bones went numb. Half-done and lightheaded,

we broke for a drink. No one ever had to pee.


An old gandy dancer shuffled up in suspenders,

leaned on his cane. “You boys’re lucky!

When I was your age… didn’t have no goddamn machines!

That was back in 1929. Those days

you earned your pay! Snaked those ties out

full length! An’ guys standin’ in line to do it!”


Eyes down, we dug for Copenhagen cans

and wondered, “Was the old bastard blind?”

“You got the wrong railroad,” Billy said,

stuck a scoop under the Old Timer’s nose,

“they ain’t bought a new shovel since the day you quit!

Next year we’re goin’ back to steam!”


He squinted and glared, spit in the dirt,

stared us down one by one. We went back to cussin’

hardwood and steel, didn’t watch when he limped

away. I felt beaten and sore as this wounded

railroad, hoardin’ tie tacks cached in my pocket.

One, a 1929, would have made that old guy’s day.


Mark Gibbons

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The Golden Years

Fresh out of his bath,

steam rising from the wet-peaked

hair atop his shoulders,

the old man stared

between his legs, his bald head

bowed as he sat on the edge

of his bed. “You son-of-a-bitch,”

he said. “I’ve lived my whole

life for you, and now . . .

look at you! You’ve gone

and let me down.”


Mark Gibbons

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The Thing About You

you always say the same thing

which is nothing

and everything

until things get changed

and rearranged because the thing is one

thing leads to another breath

and the next until death pulls you into

the black unless we move through

into something we can’t comprehend

a transition where anything is possible

like a poem or place or something

with feathers the pure beauty

of no walls the nothing

that is there and isn’t

where all things matter and

nothing matters at all

that safety zone you can always go to

when the shit-hits-the-fan

those times you feel

nobody gives-a-fuck about you

when you think time’s finally run out

of luck (’cause you absolutely believe in

shit-house-luck—and jockeying for position)

even then it’s the same thing

with you writing us back to this spot

another silly-assed rhyme some

looping linguistic lullaby like

show me the way to go home

or make it one more for my baby

or i’ll see you in my dreams

dancing and doodling on the lip of

the grave you’ve been raving about

all your cheery days rattling on

like a drinking song at three a.m.

that’s the thing i love about you


Mark Gibbons

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At eighteen we decided to seal the deal

with a license, stifle the gossip

about living in sin, and cohabit

conventionally. I remember my dad’s

terse reaction, pause and expression . . .

which I understand better today.

He knew I’d made up my mind, but

had to say, “You know you’re promising

the rest of your life to that girl?”


I knew the rest of my life was now.

It still is. I guess we both believed

we could keep that promise . . .

maybe that’s what love is

because I don’t really know

what love is, but then I don’t think

I really know anything, really,

except what I think I know. And

I’m willing to let go of all of it,

every-one-thing I think I know,

except those I tell myself I love.


Yes, I believe we are lucky, but

I’m the first to proclaim

good luck is the result of hard work . . .

though everyone knows life isn’t

always a matter of luck or choice,

choice is all we can control . . . because

sometimes love flies out the window.

We both chose to live dawn to dusk,

this carnal dream of each other

together close to the ground

each day, our youthful lust

bound to a primitive survival-trust,

base as the behavior of wolves.


for Sam and Cache

October 14, 2017

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A Million Ways to Go


My first summer out of high school,

five hundred miles from home,

I moved into a basement apartment

with a new roommate from Hardin


who dug rock and roll and marijuana,

indulged my photography and poems.

We pooled our money and bought a lid

of Rez weed. Well, I took the ride


with the dealers, two guys he knew,

sampled a joint in the back seat as they

cruised, no headlights, across the prairie

in moonlight sucking on a pint of Jim Beam


while my pal, Dal, got a hand-job from his

girl. We spent the night at his parents’ house

where they both cooked dinner, then his dad

washed the dishes—that was a first for me.


Happy-go-lucky, we knew how to succeed

in school and work at the mental hospital,

how to get along and have fun. We had to

go to the park to smoke with the gargoyle


because the old landlords upstairs were

eagle-eyed and owl-eared. For ten weeks

we were best of friends. Then we went on

the journey of our lives. I was married a year


later. We lost touch over the decades, wrote

a few letters, but life, time, took over. Forty

years later Dal came for a visit on a return trip

to the homeland, Montana. It was the same,


easy, like Harold and Maude and Cat Stevens’

songs we’d spun on the stereo that summer

after watching the film for the first time. So,

last night to celebrate Dal heading west,


I rented the movie and watched it again

for the umpteenth time. It was all I could do

not to bawl like a baby out of sheer joy for

first loves and the dark comedy of prank


suicides, his Jaguar flattened upside down

on the beach, seagulls squawking, the camera

slow-panning up the cliff where I knew Dal

would be standing, smiling, gazing out to sea


before turning to stroll and tune his banjo, hop-

skipping into the fade. There are a million

ways to be. We know that there are. So live!

Do what you want. Be free. Sing out! It’s easy.


Mark Gibbons

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I cough into my hand a palm-full

of maggots, blow my nose

and flying ants fill the room. My white

handkerchief is a nest of trouble.

I’m sweating. I know something

is wrong with me.


my army is putting bullets

into the backs of civilians’

heads—Chilean, Panamanian,

Nicaraguan citizens—their hands bound

behind them. My army is driving

over soupy Iraqi children

in my tanks. Our soldiers

are testing fire, cutting-edge

laser weaponry, on brown skin

because they can, and they need to

prove it will work on flesh (just because

it cuts cars in half doesn’t show

what it will do to a man). Can-do, my army

follows orders, entertains the detained

press corps uptown with Bloody

Marys at the Marriott Hotel.

The barrio makes a better testing ground.

My country ‘tis of thee and the rockets

red glare. Our land of the free,

this home of the brave, houses the greatest

terrorists in the world today.


That’s why we’re winning

the War on Terror. We call it collateral

damage: if you get your ducks in line,

there will be minimal collateral damage.

Don’t worry, my army will

root out all the evil-doers

with bunker busters and cruise

missiles. My army’s smart bombs

know their way. They will get every last

one of the buggers, the vermin;

every brown-skinned socialist, banana-republic-

pest; every rag-headed, twin-

towered, Koran-spoutin’ tempest;

and every reinvigorated Pinko-

Rooskie added to the script. Orwell

would be proud . . . and so ashamed.

Interventions and preemptive strikes

are a matter of national (and global)

security. My army will establish

and insure for generations (this

brand of corporate) democracy

and freedom for the world.


I sneeze and the flying ants

turn into flying monkeys.

I cough and the maggots hatch

into high school boys ready to serve,

ready to follow, ready to win one

for the team, and ready to prove

above all they’re men. Maybe

these maggots weren’t the kids

who staked cats to railroad tracks.

Maybe these maggots didn’t

throw a pig in the river

just to watch it die, watch it

try to swim and cut its own throat.

But before they’re through

taking orders from those fucking

monkeys, they’ll wire Toto’s

testicles to a car battery

and take a pair of dykes to the Tin Man’s

chest—determined to add

his ticking heart to their collection

of shriveled ears. What you don’t want

to hear, what you fear more than

death, is that by the time they finish

with Dorothy, none of us will

ever find our way . . . back home.

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How to answer or better yet

Ask the question . . . and

What question you might ask

When really why may be

Where you want to go


Which is a valid inquiry

And the one you think you know

Is at the root of who (another

Perfectly good question) you are

When you open your eyes


Truths and lies both

Clarify and disguise

From one another what they want

And why—teasing and pleasing

We try to satisfy the puzzler


Once our backs are covered

Our bellies full and we’ve milked

Ourselves into reverie

A time to ponder . . . a time

To ask . . . to wonder


What tasks a poet might perform

If any save talking to oneself

The rhythmic beat of music

Pounding the ear . . . the heart

Thump lapping at the shore


In the dark singing the sun

To rise—that time to appreciate

Being alive and giving something

The only thing we have

To give the only thing


We truly own . . . our voices

Singing the beauty of life in death

The sun’s kaleidoscopic dance

As it sets—the long sleep—the dream

Of music or sweet peaches kissed

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she rode the Greyhound

from L.A.

to Montana

every year

holding her rosary

her water

the bus tires to the road

and watched

the moon glow

out her window

the same moon

she’d wished on

in Connemara

before she followed

her husband

from Galway to Butte

and raised her children

in Beaverhead County

where she scrubbed

floors and folded

other people’s clothes

to buy eggs and potatoes

she fed her kids

the church

her boys abandoned

for the bottle

their father embraced

to escape his Hell

of digging ditches

celebrate a wee bit

of Heaven early

just in case

the meek didn’t

make out so good

so she lost them

the way

all mothers lose

though she didn’t

give up

she never let go

always made the trip

prayed for our

everlasting souls

in her thick Irish brogue

that still echoes

inside of me


mark gibbons

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For the Life of Me

it’s all a mystery

what makes us tick


what matters

the whys


how we deal with each other

how we handle ourselves


one man cries

one woman hits


one billion-plus will never quit

two billion more don’t give a shit


what they say when they don’t

know what to do


so we work

we play


we busy ourselves

we poke and provoke


we make up stories

to entertain and explain


to teach our children the system

navigating the terrain


give them reasons to believe

they have a stake in this


and help them continue

walking through


what we don’t understand

solving the puzzle


one piece at a time

is the main motivation


for opening our eyes

once we become bored


with our distractions

and toys


with practicing



our place

in what we define


as this

space/time continuum


wrestling the messy

animal inside


that heart-pounding

Poe pendulum


swing of love

to fear


the roller-coaster ride

where art resides


gripping the load bar

blind enough to see


the possibility

beyond the trees


that molecular forest

where eventually


maybe there will be

some good reason


an explanation

for the life of me


Mark Gibbons

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The Ninemile House

The Ninemile House

was renowned for

its T-bones and prime rib.

Max Huff’s recipes,


Roquefort dressing,

spaghetti with grilled

garlic-buttered French bread.

Butterfly prawns shelled


by hand, and the fries

like the burger patties

were pressed fresh daily.

That menu from the sixties:


the relish tray olives,

peppers, and pickled

veggies were canned,

only the carrots, celery


sticks, and green onions

were raw unless you ordered

your meat rare. The salami

was rife with peppercorns


and paired with Sharp Cheddar

or Swiss on Club crackers.

Of course there was a bowl

of shredded Parmesan on


each table and bread sticks

for the spa-ghett. A spicy shrimp

cocktail kicked off the parade

of food, but many just came


to the old roadhouse for fun,

the full bar and music every

weekend, a honky-tonk juke

box was loaded with country


classics by Hank, Patsy, Johnny

Cash or Paycheck, George

and Tammy, Loretta, Buck

Owens and Porter Wagoner,


Charley Pride of Helena and

the Sons of the Pioneers, you

could play three for a quarter,

watch the jitterbuggers swing


around the bar, order a ditch,

tuck four bits under the pool

table side rail. Some nights

Lillian Young and her Youngins


might be fiddling around

a table, Brownie on the spoons,

or if you were lucky, staged-up

to deliver the Tennessee Waltz.


Wintertime the knotty pine

lit by lamp light and warmed

by oil and wood stoves felt

comfortable-cozy like Christmas


at home with the extended

fam. For better or worse

we knew how to get along.

Those days are long gone


for me, but I do grieve for

those who still called it home

after hearing it went up in flames

last night. I remember the wagon


wheels, the only lights at the bottom

of Cayuse Hill on any dark

night of the year inviting you in

for a beer, maybe a shot, some


country cheer, a conversation

before heading home, a last call,

a six-pack, or a chance to warm-up

in the neon glow elbow to elbow


with a row of straw cowboy hats

telling tales of steers or stumps

or mud or snow, some goddamn

broke down piece of shit rig,


and laughter would roar. Somebody

would order a round. The sound of ice

cubes tinkling in glass made me smile

like the cartoon Hamm’s bear fishing


there in the land of sky blue waters.


Mark Gibbons

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