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by Bryce Milligan


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Lost and Certain of It

Lost and certain of it, the woods crowd in allowing only glimpses of the track that was so clear and broad and well traveled only moments back where the sun fell bright between the leaves to dapple the mast, but lost and certain of it, the woods crowd in spinning the senses like leaves in a wind risen from the past to obscure the path that was so clear and broad and well traveled. A broad green stream appears for a moment strewn with rippled light and autumn's soft flames. Lost and certain of it, the woods crowd in and the stream slips away into the deeper shade, taking with it the desire for the path that was so clear and broad and well traveled, taking with it the memory of the last dregs of love and I am glad that I am lost and certain of it. Let the woods crowd out all that is clear and broad and well traveled.

—from Lost and Certain of It (London: Aark Arts, 2006)

Summers In the Country

    for Tino Villanueva

Summers in the country, I was the city boy
up from Dallas to visit the farm, up to visit
up to explore up to no good up to corrupt (those
old ladies said behind their curtains) those
country girls those twelve-year-old cowgirls
who snuck beers behind the rodeo stands and
those boys who talked about which cows were
best who wondered what the hell I found so
interesting about the damn grave yard and
why did I always have a damn book with me
and was I writing down notes to give their
damn mothers or what.
			Summers in the country
I was Huckleberry looking for Jim and a river
I was Woody looking for a song and glory I was
Meg trying to tesser and Davy trying to trap
the perfect coon for the perfect hat and trying
to get it all down on a back-pocket steno pad
taking shorthand on life and getting curiouser
and curiouser about how my parents survived
this damn town at all.
		         Summers in the country 
I drove grandpa's air conditioned tractor 
while field hands bent double down the long rows 
sometimes singing chopping cotton always sweating 
everyone of them a philosopher of labor 
a poet of the machete an Odysseus 
making his way back home every one of them  
knowing more about the land than I ever would 
in a lifetime of summers in the country.

—from Lost and Certain of It (London: Aark Arts, 2006)

Trusting Steel

Here in the flux of flood and drought
that is south Texas, my Decembers
are wheelbarrows of freshly split oak.

Here, where I have the luxury of abhorring
the evening-splitting rasp and growl
of the chainsaw, I allow myself
to trust a simpler tool.

It is best when the streets have gone silent
and the heavy stroke of steel on oak resounds
house to house— 
		   here, deep in this city.

The chunk and thud assumes
a natural meter and again I hear Frost
rasping out memories of all his
maple and birch woods.

And here is Hall
tucking up the leaves
against the house at Eagle Pond,
banking the cold fragile flames
that await the deeper insulation
of the silencing snow.

With each fall of my red axe their lines
rear up like the faces
of forgotten friends
and I hear a cautious halting pace
in frozen woods
I shall never call
my own.

A thousand miles to the west, Ortiz
cuts piñon, loosing a wilder smell,
preparing a different spell,
			     but aching
with the same ritual.

Here I cut the green oak into lengths
then let it lie a single summer.
A San Antonio August will almost
split it for you, so that
it leaps apart at the touch
of December's blade.

—from Lost and Certain of It (London: Aark Arts, 2006)

Metaphor

I need a metaphor that will transform
this skeleton of passion into some
thing that breathes fire rather than the still air
of overly considered conundrums, into some
thing that stands of its own accord against
time and these chill unseasonable winds.

I need a shape-shifting incantation
to turn the shamans cape into the shape
of the panther it once contained, to take in
whole the one mind, the one soul that called forth
the transforming morpheme, that piece of sound
that like some particle born of theory

remains unfound, unseen, but whose effects 
attend all the invisible powers that force 
all our hours into vectors pointing 
to new futures rather than past cycles.  
I need a metaphor to change,
I need a metaphor, a master rune,

a word, a sign unspoken since time was
set in motion.  
	          Deus erat verbum.  
I need to warp this, our reality,
to be the body that bends your body,
to create the pulsar, the double star.
I need a metaphor to change, to change.

—from Lost and Certain of It (London: Aark Arts, 2006)

The Green Man Returns to Greenland

Newly calved, the shards of ancient glaciers
ride toward deeper waters, darker waters,
beginning to melt even as the sea
surrounds them, lapping fresh water wounds
with salty tongues that cannot staunch 
the molecular awakening.
Sunlight and ice yield virgin springs,
freed at last from millennia of placid, 
frozen dreams, cascading in crystal 
rainbowed streams into the gray waves.

Ashore, stones split, crack with sharp
hallelujahs in sunlight so long denied;
the frozen droppings of a thousand
generations of puffins and gulls, seals and hares
steam and team with the brilliant rot of life.
All around the streaming bergs, men in kayaks
and umiaks take fish seldom seen so far north —
lumpsuckers and cod fleeing the warming, 
deathly, central seas.

Somewhere in Greenland a furtive shadow falls
as the Green Man walks paths dim in memory,
calling forth blade and leaf, yet even he —
for whom green is all — stares confounded 
at the ultimate cause of this riot of life.

On every hand, vessels greater than the greatest
gray whales converge, floating islands —
steel forests to his eyes — with roots that draw
black blood alone.

—from Take to the Highway: Arabesques for Travelers (Albuquerque: West End Press, 2016)

Advent's End

(prose poem)

Fog clogs the highway but clears the mind of all but the tail lights wavering 
in and out of focus as distance and density compete for attention with the black ice  
creeping across the asphalt the further north you get, transiting both map and  
memory as you recall another winter drive toward another death bed fifty-six years  
ago, the night a cop pulled your father over somewhere between Estilene and the  
bridge over the dry-as-Ezekiel's-bones Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River for  
speeding in a midnight blizzard, and it was only when you heard your father explain  
that his father was dying that very night in a hospital still a hundred miles 
away that your seven-year-old self understood that all journeys can end without  
arriving at an appointed end — just a slide and a thump, barely audible through  
the downy snow-thick air, just a wheezing cough and a gasp, just a glance away from  
the business of staying alive long enough to earn a wistful moment or two of longing  
or regret or admiration in the tumbled memories of those left behind, perhaps no more  
than an image, enshrined in the mind for no apparent reason, like that other winter  
night when you were too old to believe in Santa but were determined to believe simply  
because you did not want to not believe when you snuggled beneath your  
grandmother's quilts (three deep — oh, we were quilt-rich back then) when at  
the fringe of sleep you saw your father in the swirling white cold beyond the rimed  
and rattling panes bringing in the gift only Santa could bestow because only Santa  
could know and the option of believing because you did not want to not believe was  
abruptly null, your faith sucked into that void from which faith in anything other  
than the present moment never returns without its twin shadows of guilt and doubt,  
shadows that cloud at once the meaning of yesterday and the potential of tomorrow  
as thoroughly as the fog clogs this highway yet lenses all time into momentary focus  
when you hear the dead calling you to breakfast from the kitchen on Christmas morning  
and you smell the sage and pepper-rich sausage your grandfather had slaughtered,  
butchered and smoked only weeks before, and grandmother's biscuits and turkey hash  
and the strawberry preserves made from your own labor the preceding spring when the  
ruby fruits stained your hands as if ... and here speculation falters as memory stumbles,  
and you are parking your car in the hospice parking lot because yes, if you refuse to  
die in a corporation hospital they will be happy to rent you a room in which you can  
die at your leisure, and you lean back, exhausted by hours of hyper concentration, minding  
the road, fighting the ice, entering the ghostly vortices that envelop the car as if to  
enshroud it but engine heat keeps the pall from forming on the hood although snow begins  
to freeze on the windshield almost at once, so you hesitate to shut off the ignition,  
reluctant to leave because to quit the car is to quit the dream and to step again  
into the storm.

—from Take to the Highway: Arabesques for Travelers (Albuquerque: West End Press, 2016)

Four-Stroke

(prose poem)

If ever you spent much quality time on the hurricane deck of a trusted motorcycle 
then had to give it up — trading it in, say, for a station wagon to haul around your 
rock band or maybe pay a tuition bill or buy an engagement ring — then you'll recognize 
the symptoms of the syndrome: involuntary if slight twists of the wrist, muscle 
memory that leans into a curve, the tendency to roll down the car window with the 
A/C on, prompting your wife/kids/partner to ask if something is wrong — every time 
you pass a rider in your family minivan or SUV or silent little electric leaf 
blowing down the highway — and it dawns on you that you never really fell out of 
love with that old Honda 305 or the chopped metal-flake green Triumph 650 or even 
the minibike you built with your dad, with its angle-iron frame (that's how you 
learned to weld), its wheelbarrow tires, bicycle handlebars, and the 3.5 horsepower 
Briggs & Stratton four-stroke former lawn mower engine that your father insisted 
you must rebuild before he would even entertain the idea of letting you spend your 
allowance on a real centrifugal clutch, and so you spent weeks figuring out how 
to take it apart, washing each part in gasoline, and naming the parts — ah, the 
naming of parts: there seemed to be hundreds but it was only a few dozen — as you 
laid them out neatly on a sheet of cardboard on the garage floor: piston and rings 
and rod, camshaft and timing chain, valves and lifters, ball bearing races, carburetor 
needles and springs and floats and ports, and the beautiful gleaming crankshaft — and 
what was of importance to most third grade minds was simply blown away by the 
burning desire to know the name and function of every part and to use the seemingly 
ancient tools to bore the cylinder by hand, grind the valves by hand, clean each 
carburetor orifice by hand, and replace every part correctly in relationship to 
the others so that like your father cleaning his rifle beneath a jeep on the beach 
at Iwo Jima you could do it from memory in the dark, and your father watched, 
advised and consoled you when it did not start the first time or the second time 
or the fifteenth time you took it apart and put it back together as third grade 
became fifth grade until finally the magic of mechanics worked and the engine 
roared and you danced a private jig in the twilight of the garage to the rhythm 
the engine puttered, bolted to its vibrating wooden base, as you sang "I've just 
seen a face, I can't forget the time or place, where we just met" and you were 
startled to find that you were as in love with that 3.5 horsepower, four-stroke 
Briggs & Stratton engine as you ever were with the girl with the Picasso pony 
tail who sat in the desk in front of you the day Kennedy died and with whom no one 
could even compare until you met the love of your life a decade later — that kind 
of obsessive love, the kind that led you to copy out by hand the Encyclopaedia 
Britannica article on trigonometry and damn near memorize the thing while barely 
understanding it just like you'd memorized the engine parts on the garage floor 
or her pony tail on that cold November morning without a clue as to what drove 
you to begin writing poetry that very day — and when that kind of love was rewarded 
not only with the gift of a shiny new centrifugal clutch but the consequent gift 
of actual speed, as if youd been gifted with the Wright Brothers' wings, speed, 
solitary, wind-making, hair-whipping, jacket-flapping speed, speed that would grow 
with one machine after another just as the bonds with your father would dissolve in 
the face of a war, so unlike his, that you could not agree to fight, speed that would 
carry you across deserts and mountains to the Haight, from Woody Guthrie to T.S. Eliot 
and back again, from the trinity of sex, drugs and guitars to that of blood, birth 
and this quietude you only glimpse now when the highway wind lashes eye and ear and 
arm as you watch some young man and his twenty-something old lady twist the throttle 
that churns the four stroke dream between his legs, accelerating, pulling away, 
leaving you with mere echoes of desire.

—from Take to the Highway: Arabesques for Travelers (Albuquerque: West End Press, 2016)

Down the road a bit in America

(prose poem)


If you didn't own a Ford back in the day then likely you didn't take those long 
rambling road-trip vacations to remote caverns or hidden canyons or desert meteor 
crash sites, and so there will not linger at the back of your memory a dusty adobe 
motel with honest-to-god tumble weeds and windmill water thick enough to chew, but 
rather the postcard visions of these same places, painted in back-alley New York 
studios where big sky sunsets and painted deserts came out just this side of 
psychedelic. But either way, whether the etched memory is real or second-hand illusion, 
now, a few miles down the road from one of America's more famous caverns, there is a 
rundown tourist court.... Probably, just down the road from every geographic or cultural 
oddity on the planet there is some equivalent of the rundown tourist court — 
I mean, Lord, there's a souvenir shack on top of Mount Sinai — but in America, 
generally a mile or two down what was in the '30s a new two-lane blacktop but is now 
a pot-hole-pocked, disintegrating back road half a mile or more off the smoothly 
sterile modern highway, up out of the landscape will rise some raggedy remnant of 
the days when being a tourist was a serious communal adventure, some L- or U-shaped 
building made of the very soil it stands on, lined with peeling, turquoise-painted 
door frames with illegible numbers, looking very much like some backwoods brothel 
except that you're in the wrong state for that and besides, only the goldenest of 
golden-hearted hookers would deign to make a warm and welcoming getaway of such a 
place — and there are not many of those ladies left (maybe there never were 
all that many) — and with the wind whipping up a dust storm in the distance 
that looks like sundown before the Ragnarok, and your GPS spouting nonsense, and 
your cell phone that's texting  "are you kidding?" to your every inquiry — 
then that place by the side of the road begins to have a certain appeal, and you 
begin to think of yourself as a hollow-souled wanderer about to meet Gabrielle Maple 
by the now-defunct gasoline pumps where she will be reading Fran├žoise Villon and you 
will quote T.S. Eliot to her, or maybe its appeal is not Depression-era romanticism 
at all, but simply the exotic absence of neon, whatever, but you see a wavering 
light in the office window and a rusted "vacancy" sign that's creaking a soprano 
solo above the deep tenor hiss that is sand-blasting your windshield, and now you 
don't really decide, but your hands turn the wheel of themselves and set the brake 
and turn the key, and you wonder if there's coffee inside and just how gritty it is, 
and just how bad the scorpions in the shower will be, and whether the silhouette 
in the window can possibly match your imagination.

—from Take to the Highway: Arabesques for Travelers (Albuquerque: West End Press, 2016)

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