Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan
There were cotton fields,
lines of white, straight as rulers
measuring the days of the pickers
pacing back and forth.
Behind the cotton, a path cut
its way through pines to a swing
hung from an oak. Down the road,
a drugstore, old men sat outside,
told stories, spitting tobacco juice.
Inside, an old dog curled by the door,
a candy machine we saved pennies for—
a multicolored gumball could be traded
at the counter for a rabbit’s foot.
There were train tracks.
We walked in line,
This landscape is memory.
Before leaving, you gave Mom
your lucky rabbit’s foot, saying
you didn’t need it anymore, then
everything went wrong. The map
that was our lives ripped. Nothing
is ever the same after a brother’s
I eat Chinese food inside Safeway,
gaze through the window at a man
in the mist, wearing army fatigues,
begging for change.
Fathers steer carts around him
as if what he has is contagious
and maybe it is. Eventually,
loneliness touches everything
that’s human, it’s the war
we all fight.
Is it as simple as a path forking
in some woodland: I chose one,
he chose the other? Or are some
lives drawn with a straightedge?
I wish for a penny to give him
and for a magic machine that
dispenses only multicolored
It’s what we all wish for: something
that won’t cost us too much.
Sometimes we’d put pennies on the tracks;
after the train passed we’d pick up the warmed
copper, the stretched faces of Lincoln.
We’d chase the 5 o’clock bubblegum man
who rode the caboose, throwing candy.
And sometimes I still feel the rumbling
of that train, the heavy sounds of steel,
the rattling of empty boxcars, and we’re
running full speed, chasing that train’s
tail towards sunset, towards another
You hop on the caboose, toss candy
that turns to dust and dreams.
There’s something in the gray:
a moment when black and white
I break open a fortune cookie,
pull out a slip of paper, as a baby
cries in a shopping cart overflowing
with groceries, and that man outside
steps back into the fog.
I found a slip of paper
behind the reference books
at the public library;
on the back was writing.
The words were old,
I put it in my back pocket,
carried it with me.
In the alley
between the Catholic gift shop
and the liquor store,
I saw you.
as if wearing a black cape,
merged with shadows.
At that spot you vanished
I knelt down,
but found only
and a weed
looking for light,
wanting to bloom.
How long did I hold on?
Thinking I might find an answer
written in a language
between logic and poetry,
a drug between whiskey and God?
Like the darkness in a raven,
there’s a blackness that reveals
a spectrum of violets
when the sun finds it.
I started a poem today,
a few words scribbled
on the back of a napkin,
but abandoned the thought,
placed it between
the salt and pepper shakers—
figured I’ve carried it
9 AM, After Driving All Night
I misread the sign,
think it says “Nirvana,”
so I exit the freeway,
drive into a small Midwestern
town, past the bar, the church,
the high school, the kindergarten,
to where the woods take hold,
passing faces I swear I’ve seen
somewhere else or everywhere.
Yes, this place, these faces
they give no hope, no despair.
But before I turn around,
continue traveling towards my childhood
home, to Mom and her visions she never
misreads, and who sees reasons behind
everything that happens, I imagine
telling her there was no need
to fly to India, no need
to pray in a Buddhist temple;
there was no good reason
my brother died, but the thoughts
fly off as I find an abandoned
driveway leading to a burnt home,
and a certain quality of light
gathers beneath oaks
that lost all their leaves,
standing in what once
was a garden.
You had to look down while you walked
so you wouldn’t fall through the hole
in the school’s wooden floor where
canebrakes and diamondbacks waited.
Teachers taught English, but we spoke Alabamian.
My accent was as thick as a cottonball.
Grandma bought used underwear at yard sales.
She owned only two dresses as a child,
would crumple Sears catalogue pages
to soften them for toilet paper, but maintained
she wasn’t poor because of what she held inside.
After school, waiting for the bus,
we gathered around Jerome
smiling so large it looked painful—
his bloody gums infected
by some disease I couldn’t pronounce.
He spray-painted his bike
gold. We all wished we owned it.
My brother got to ride it once.
Mama took us out of that public school,
said she was worried about our education,
put us in a Catholic school.
The church had shiny statues, gold cups,
an ivory Virgin Mary. The school floors
were swept and waxed. We walked
in straight lines in clean-pressed uniforms,
were told to keep our heads up, but I
kept an eye low, knew there must be a hole—
a place people would fall.
The teacher’s pet scribbled cuss words into his Bible,
explained their meanings to me, whispered how he hated
niggers into my ear; I punched his face; blood stained
his clean, white shirt.
Then a nun tried to beat the gospel of nonviolence
into my thin skin, but I learned another lesson:
the distance between right and wrong,
like the distance between any two points,
is never straight.
While driving through the small town of Joyce,
my eye caught a glimpse of a boy on a bike,
and I remembered the important teachers disguised
as ordinary people and how the most precious lessons
are not taught, but found, like common quartz
in a gravel pit, that in the right angle
can become a diamond.
My wife asked, What are you thinking?
Gold, was all I could say.
I was thinking of gold.
These are old poems that have been sitting inside the memory of Patrick’s computer, and he decided it was time to air them out. He has published two chapbooks of poetry, and is trying to get a novel published. He’s a gourd artist and has made two gourd banjos that he plays obsessively at his small farm where he lives with his wife, a blue cat, two bunnies and nine curious chickens. Email: ploafman[at]tfon.com