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 @


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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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Available from Drumlummon  Institute, Helena, MT

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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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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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I’ve been badgered into it,
the hole, the pit, a basement
cleaning project seventeen
years in the making.

I begin vacuuming cobwebs
overhead insulating the floor
joists. Unfinished basements
are nests, attics underground.

Plastic garbage bags and cans
brim with the toxic residue of
human hoarding, bottles of unknown
liquids, rusts and molds, corroded

crap unreadable as unlabeled
mason jars from a cellar. Yellowed
bedding and sour pillows bagged
for abandoned animals on death row.

Boxes of vases, knickknacks, pots
and pans, Tupperware, a water
filter and serenity fountain, used
books and old magazines collected

for the yard sale—my wife’s scheme.
Camping gear over forty years old,
my repair kit in a Prince Albert can,
Zig Zag wheat straws and a Bic

lighter, the old clay pipe stashed
on a top shelf by the triple beam
balance scale used for years to
measure and sell lids of weed.

It was given to me by an Abbie
Hoffman lover who stole it
from the School of Mines—now
he worships Bill O’Reilly’s mouth.

Boomboxes and blenders, door
latches, mirrors, boots and shoes,
curtains, throw pillows, and lots
of clothes, lots and lots of tight

womens’ clothes. There is no end
to this deep-mess chore . . . yet
the arrival of my son in two weeks
just two days after this scheduled

garage sale sends me back down
there with more rags and bags . . .
a determined mind keeps prodding
me from behind, wonders casually

aloud from the ether upstairs,
How’s it going down there? And
the badger snorts a gritted-teeth
grin, hisses, “What the fuck

would you know about it?” I yell,
“WHAT?!” . . . How’s it going?
“It’s going out the fucking door!”
That’s good! she sings. “YEAH!”

I chide scrubbing a pile of dried
puke from the cement floor
before cleaning the cat boxes
and hauling more shit up and out

to the mound in the alley. I open
a beer, guzzle half, go back to
sweeping, dusting, mopping
and moping. Of course, in the end,

I have to admit that I do like
the look of it—open, clean, bare
like white space on the page—
I smile. This is my poem today.

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Uptown Boxes

His shaved bullet head bobs
up and down as he bends
to rinse glasses. The tee shirt
tight on his bulging wide
shoulders, a bar rag slung over
one collar bone, the Screamin’
Orphans serenading from speakers
overhead. He recites Basho
and Bukowski while pulling taps.

The patrons come for the pints,
pool, poetry, and blarney, the same
palaver and pleasures found
in Derry and Clifton pubs, along
with Whiskey Box poems
spirited from the gyre turning
and churning in his Irish blood.

This bartender-poet unfolds
his lingo in case after case
of whiskey, this place, faces
that come to him in dreams.
He sings the joys of distillations
and hails warriors who fight to
end all subjugation—a voice-
force for the word and the sod.

His Whiskey Box Sonnets
are perfect appetizers
to tantalize the palates of
insatiable human minds
unfolding one flap, one glass
at a time while spinning
the bottles and racing the clock,
squeezing out every last drop.

This bar, the weeks, yet
another year, are the stages,
the struggles, the loves
and fears, that this poet works
day in and out like Jesus
busting tires at Miko’s Garage,
with no net, no insurance,
no long-range plan, short of
feeding his sons his whiskey
visions of today—opening
boxes and diving in.

–for James Jay

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Clearing The Air

Walking across the campus
of the University of Montana
with a group of summer camp writers,
ten year-olds, we stop to view
the sculpture I’ve passed maybe
a hundred times before, an iron cone
topped with a wild, wavy shock

of aluminum hair: one child’s octopus,
another’s volcano. An astute student
reads out, “Tepee Burner!” A boy’s
expression gives me pause before
I begin explaining: when I was their age,
sawmills burned slash and sawdust
around the clock in these tepee shaped

structures. What would have been air
pollution alerts, we called “the mill,”
“wood smoke,” or “the sweet smell
of money.” That yellow ground fog
was our eerie London imagining Jack
the Ripper waiting like a werewolf
to attack, slit, and gut another co-ed.

Growing up sheltered by the lumbering
denials of a Christian culture determined
to hide embarrassing issues like genocide
behind Thanksgiving dinner and a heroic
last stand on the Little Big Horn, we wanted
to believe we were the good guys
wearing the white hats. No point in dwelling

on mistakes in the past. We believed
in putting our problems behind us, or behind
bars. Bars helped us contain problems, preferably
reservation bars. Tepee burners were everywhere
when I was a kid, but then so were “niggers
in the woodpile” and on the prairie. We caught
them by a toe, “eeny-meany-miney-moe.”

Didn’t study the history of the Indian
Wars in school, avoided the Holocaust,
too, like there was some statute of
cancellation for mass murder. Maybe after
Japan and Germany, we didn’t want to
talk about killing out of fear. Instead we’d
focus on Hitler, our model of what to abhor,
and never “get to” a discussion of ethics
beyond basketball. The track record
was clear: in 1540 the Spanish burned
thousands of Indians alive at Mabila,
set the standard for the next hundred years.
1637, the English massacred six hundred
at Mystic, and the French slaughtered another

five in 1730. I mention a handful from
the list that boggles the mind, thousands to
millions of brown corpses strewn over centuries.
California vigilantes, settlers, posses of white
men systematically went about annihilating
the coastal Indians. Here in Montana, on the Marias
River, Piegan women, children, and the elderly

were massacred just eighty years before
the existence of me. You’ve heard of
Wounded Knee where two hundred-some
Sioux were attacked at their winter camp, 1890,
by the 7th Cavalry, experienced tepee burners.
Custer, Sherman, Sheridan, Chivington,
proud Americans, soldiers, leaders of men

were known to say: “Nits make lice!”
and “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
They were even fonder of the stench
of blood and burning flesh. Extermination
was the necessary task they were commissioned
to do. They rode their high horses and polished
their brass. It’s hard for me to admit this

ignorance, my blindness: the “poet”
oblivious to metaphor, his own prejudice,
two words he’d never questioned, never owned,
let alone stood in blackened moccasins among
smoking tepees, the cavalry bugling, watched
the charge in his mind, the horses hooves, heard
the screams of frantic old ones and kids, mothers

armed only with infants, and smelled gunpowder,
blood on steel. Lice . . . the solution . . . horror.
War makes men insane. How do we manage
to forget? What we say and how we say it
precedes what we do. We must try to understand,
be more aware of our words. Think like a poet:
are tepee burners gone? Where are the nits of fear?

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Ed Lahey was the king of Montana poetry
for me, and I really wanted to meet him. So,
reluctantly, I made the effort to go introduce

myself, intrude upon his privacy. He lived
desperately alone. Ed invited me in under the guise
of literary kinship, but it was obvious to me

he was glad to have some company. I found him
to be open and as vain as me, blessed or cursed
with the gift of the gab, and I was fascinated by

his stories—the booze and Irish heritage, those
tales of revolution, drugs, mental hospitals, and loss—
breakdowns I felt connected to. The images

in his verses, the voices, his hard words—some sort
of working class elegance was starkly laid bare,
and his deeply resonant baritone invoked the stony

mythology of Butte, its immigrant stiffs and worn-
down women, their dirty urchins running wild
in gangs while the clank and rattle of the industrial

age siphoned all from the inside out. The survivors,
those tough huddled masses yearning to dance
and sing after each shift after shift after shift of drill,

blast, muck, and drink, religiously believed Lady
Liberty—the inalienable right to breathe free. Ed
Lahey embodied that for me, and I recognized

my father inside him, shouldn’t have been
surprised they were born on the same day
in Butte, twenty years apart, two Cancers

I’ll take to the grave. Ed and I began visiting
regularly at his apartment usually over beer
or coffee. I know he looked forward to those

dates, the companionship, something to do
outside his head. He told me so. Ed was honest
with me, but some days his mind wouldn’t play

with his heart. We tried to do what friends do,
stay true to it, the relationship, that Tuesdays
with Morrie story, and we did, up until the end.

Those last few years in the nursing home were
no fun for anyone as many of you know from
your own time spent signing in on death row.

Still, showing up is an honorably conflicted love
that rarely gets romanticized. We know the poems,
like us, will eventually disappear, dissolve to dust.

The value we place on fame or acclaim, our desire
to be read and respected for our tales of sense and
sensibility, won’t survive (most likely much longer

than us) embossed with our names on some post-
digital shelf. This life, this waking awareness
we are, knows only itself, so we get to decide what

matters to us. Today I think not of words, poems or
books, those paper trails we leave behind. What’s been
the best for me are the ephemeral moments, the memories,

those conversations and connections, our devotions to
each other, to being here, together, whenever we can—
hoping the sunset fades slowly into the long dark night.

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