“…before all that.” [Remembering Poems]


The woman behind the front desk,

who is quick to call any man handsome,

once told me

‎after she’d seen a picture 

(curling at the corners, becoming indefinite at the edges, in the background)

from your marathon years

or your Navy years

or some other years

before this year

of kittens and pornography

not sleeping through the night

skipped medication


sitting alone in the dark, the early morning

out in the county 

where there is hardly a sound at 3:00am

before you didn’t sleep for days

on the long trip north 

to go see your mother

dance ‘round the living room

to some song she used to like

to bicker with your remaining brother

your last brother

the good son, the one who didn’t kill himself,

who stayed alive, stayed home, became impatient 

and complained to you

about the mess of her eating,

the food falling out of the mouth

that sang you to sleep

‎before you got on the bus

before you were the far away son, the runaway son

the man who left the kittens

in these stupid mountains 

that were never your home

because you wanted to tell your mother goodbye

when you thought 

she would be the one 

to die first.                                                                            You were handsome, before all that. 

To tell you her life story, 

she’d crawl under that low table, 

tuck into a ball, 

duck walk crawl,

lay down flat-bellied 

on the nubbed-out carpet

Smelling dirt and plastic,

the cold of the concrete in the floor seeps up. 

She’d tell about watching

small hands fidget,

rising and falling from tabletop to chair 

elbows pressed close to bodies

and feet hooked ‘round the legs of chairs,

scuffing, rolling toes.

Air too warm,

like sleeping breath.

Thick buzz of sound and light, 

making tired,

voices, thin windows in the corner 

green grass between buildings, 

hard look of brick. 

Nothing at home was made of brick 

except the bottom part 

of her great-grandmother’s house

and old fallen chimneys out in the woods, 

from people that’d been there before, 

after the other people who had been there. 

You felt quiet 

still and cool in the yellow white light 

the cinder block room 

eyelashes curled up silky and black

butterfly mouth, proboscis

a word you’d never heard, did not know 

skin, the river bank 

right hand was resting on the edge of the table 

thumb feeling out the line from top to side, 

the formic seam

some pages flat and silent 

Adult voice

droning layer in the air

heavy over the room of round tables 

Your hand drops to the edge of the chair, 

under the table, into the shade

feels along the hard yellow 

lean the body forward, hold to the silvery leg 

She felt a crawling toward,

nervous animal,

hand under the table 

only a foot away 

surprising how easy it is

for hands to find one another, 

familiar clasp, palm across palm

fingerprints like the river we grew up on 

hot and dry, the dock railing in the summer sun

There’s no way she could tell, 

and no reason she’d need to, 

because you felt it, too

the cold of that grasp,

adult hand like air conditioning

smooth and bloodless

the pulling the warm creatures curled together

up into the bright of the room above the table

lifting the holding hands like some dead thing, 

some sad thing. 

“You will not,”

voice from behind, from above,

before they knew what was happening,

hands still clasped together,

dumb and silent in the air, 

because what can a child’s fingers speak,

“hold hands with,”

wrists encircled,

a swift outward pull, uncoupling the grasp

breaking the hold 

set the hands firmly onto the table, 

issue the declaration

that tells the story of who they are,

“little white girls.” 

To tell you her life story,

she’d have to crawl down on the floor,

hands and knees, 

and tell you that she knows:

This isn’t her life story,

in the way that it is yours.

Old Boy, swallow your bullets 

let the lead

sit in your belly

that weight like an anchor

holding a Bloated wood hull

Blood-swollen decks

right offshore, right offshore

You old boys, with wagging tongues

and shotgun shells

your backroom meetings

dirty hands, the salt of the earth

all its bones, all its marrow

caught under your nails

You old boys, don’t think that I don’t know you.

I came from you.

Old Boy, don’t you burn no churches ’round here

don’t you burn no crosses

because I know who you are.

I came from you. 

All the sheets in the world can’t hide the truth 

of who you are. 

I can see right through them.

You’re pink and soft, trembling and damp.

You’re scared, Old Boy. 

You’ve always been scared. 

So, you just swallow those bullets that you’ve been saving up

in the name of your own daddy 

in the name of your own greatgrands

and the slow death 

of the world they taught you to believe in

You just let that lead sit there in your belly

like the weight of everything you came from.

or, better yet, throw those bullets out into the river, 

and listen to the sound they make 

when they break the surface

setting all those old ghosts free.

In the thick ribbon of sucking tires

The shimmer of the earth ground to twinkling dust gathered at the barrier seams as snow that swirls and hushes at the edge of the roar I travel in insulated and absurd under grinning proclamations of injury and payout, promises of justice and redemption spelled in bright red, bright yellow As I travel to retrieve you by means of this road, which is not the only road, but is the quickest, despite my slowing, despite the impossibility of passage that mounts at the cloverleaf, the junction, the joining of major channels all witnessed blithely by the Waffle House that has turned into a We Buy Gold, announcing in familiar block black letters the eventual way of everything around here.

And you are landing as I stall under the reluctant sunrise that slow sighs a dull orange across the stunned oaks that pull to the forest that surely the fibers of their cambium remember as sweet water and blessed breeze the air pulling at stiff leaf and nimble green branch, up, up, into the air

As you come down, as stunned as the oak into all this mess from the bliss of empty spaces and open sky, only to see me, to come home to me and I know, in the early morning that I have near forgotten, that to have a home to return to makes the departure possible, defines, in fact, the adventure as something other than just a sad wandering away from something that does not love you, that cannot love anything, not even the gold it buys with the payout, even the triumph of the super highway, even the majesty of the unseen oaks sliding by as I get a little closer to welcoming you home.

I drove two thousand miles 

to find you in a parking lot,

to walk over slickrock with you,

to eat eggs

in the places where people used to live,

but don’t live now, 

those canyons filled with echoes

I didn’t know 

that I was supposed to meet another man

in another parking lot

while you fumbled for directions

with weak data. 

Maybe I was?

Maybe I wasn’t. 

In any event, 

there were 9 ravens in the sky, 

and a white bird like a hawk,

maybe a golden eagle, 

like we saw a couple of days later, 

in that Cortez parking lot,

drinking melted ice cream,

that warm day when the dog died,

back home, 

right before my father’s birthday. 

I held the drunk old man’s hand

listened to him talk about:

how long her hair was, how he wakes in the night and cries, his daughter that is off to war in Afghanistan, how he used to jump out of planes in the dark, was just a body falling, before he came home to be a Navajo again, before he ever knew that he would wake up at night thinking about the war, would drink himself to sleep for years…

I think we said a prayer together?

I gave him my phone number, 

and he gave me a rock. 

He never called. 

At least I don’t think he did? 

I don’t know. 

I hardly answer the phone anymore. 

I still have that rock. 

It’s in the box

in the back of the car 

with my cobra pin, 

the one I carry for good luck 

and for protection. 

There was that other man, in Cortez,

begging money for a friend, 

also with a face 

that spoke of ancestry and alcoholism, 

saying, “It’s cold out here tonight, 

he’ll freeze to death.” 

You were in the store buying ice cream. 

I gave him three dollars. 

I should have given him my blanket. 

If you didn’t really want to die

they will hold you down


if you didn’t really want to die

they will not speak to you

only to each other

small talk with the syringe from one hand to another

like a shaker of salt

at a lunch table

that you won’t be sitting at

and in that moment

you die a little

even if

you didn’t really want to die


the door locks behind you

people come and go

you stay

and the light is thin through

thin windows

always the same behind glass

you don’t even have shoelaces

only socks


so you don’t slip

and stumble

your way into line

“Take this,”

if you didn’t already

want to die

They don’t tell you what it does and so you stop asking.

You swallow the pills

because you have to

and you wonder,


why you want to die now, when you didn’t really want to die before

when, really, you were

just trying to explain that it was hard to live