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12-1-2020

 

John Murillo

 

DISTANT LOVER (OR, WHEN YOU’RE TEACHING IN AMHERST AND, WHILE ON A LATE NIGHT WALK, YOUR WIFE CALLS FROM BROOKLYN TO SAY GOODNIGHT)

 

The dead of February, and everything

sexual. So sexual the icicles skirting the

barn.

Sexual the animals huddled inside,

shivering. Sexual the cloud disappearing,

appearing again, from your half-open

mouth. The moon swollen bright. Sexual the

trees, stark

naked, all their branches spread and

undulating in the wind. Sexual the tundra.

Sexual

the blackest snow by the road, made blacker  

by the city worker’s plow. Sexual, the

snowman leaning in a midnight yard. So

sexual

dead February, the small town windows lit

from inside, fogging, watching you burn.

DOLORES, MAYBE.

 

 

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.

 

I slept once in a field beyond the

riverbank, a flock of nightjars watching

over me.

 

That was the summer a farmer found his daughter

hanging in the hayloft, and wished, for the first

time, he had not touched her so.

 

I wish I could say we were close—the girl and

I, I mean—but only knew her to wave hello,

 

and walked her, once, halfway up the road

before turning finally into my grandmother’s yard.

 

This was Ontario, California. 1983.

Which is to say, there was no river.

And I wouldn’t know a nightjar if it bit me.

But the girl was real. And the day they found her, that was

 

real. And the dress she wore, same as on our walk—

periwinkle, she called it; I called it blue, blue

with bright yellow flowers all over

 

—the dress and the flowers, they too were real.

 

And on our walk, I remember, we cut through the rail

yard, and came upon a dead coyote lying near the tracks.

 

A frail and dusty heap of regret, he was companion to no one.

 

Stone still, staring. Our shadows stretched long and covering the animal.

She told me something, I want to say, about loneliness.

 

Something I’ve since forgotten, the way I’ve forgotten—

though I can see her face as if she were standing right here—her very

name. Let’s call her Dolores, from dolor. Spanish for anguish.

 

And whatever the sky, however lovely that

afternoon, I remember mostly the wind,

how a breeze unraveled what was left of a braid,

 

and when I tried to brush from Dolores’s

brow a few loose strands, how she flinched,

how she ran the rest of the way home,

 

how I never saw her after that,

except when they carried her from the barn—her periwinkle

dress, her blue legs and arms, and the fields

ablaze with daisies.

 

I spent the rest of that summer in the rail yard

with my dead coyote, watching trains loaded and leaving.

 

All summer long, I’d pelt him with stones.

All summer long, I’d use the stones to spell the girl’s name—

Dolores, maybe—in the dirt.

 

All summer long, fire ants crawled over and between each

letter—her name, now, its own small town.

 

A season of heat and heavy rains washed my coyote to nothing.

Only teeth and a few stubborn bones

 

that refused, finally, to go down.

Weeks into autumn, someone found the father

hanged from the same groaning tie-beams,

the hayloft black with bottle flies.

But that was 1983. Ontario, California.

Which is to say, the bottle flies are dead. So, too, the ants. And neither field nor barn is

where I left it.

 

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.

 

I gathered a handful of my coyote’s bones, his teeth, and strung them all on

fishing wire—

a talisman to ward off anguish. A talisman I hold out to you now. Please. Come closer. Take

 

this from my hand.

VARIATION ON A THEME BY ELIZABETH BISHOP

 

 

Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again.

Lose a good woman on a bad day. Find a better

woman, then lose five friends chasing her. Learn to

lose as if

your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on

it. Learn it like karate, like riding a bike. Learn it, master

it.

Lose money, lose time, lose your natural mind.

Get left behind, then learn to leave others. Lose and

lose again. Measure a father’s coffin against a

cousin’s crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through

prison glass. Know why your woman’s not

answering her phone.

Lose sleep. Lose religion. Lose your wallet in El Segundo.

Open your window. Listen: the last slow notes

of a Donny Hathaway song. A child crying. Listen:

a drunk man is cussing out the moon. He sounds like

your dead uncle, who, before he left, lost a leg

to sugar. Shame. Learn what’s given can be taken; what can be taken,

will. This you can bet on

without losing. Sure as nightfall and an empty bed.

Lose

and lose again. Lose until it’s second nature. Losing

 farther, losing faster. Lean out your open window,

listen: the child is laughing now. No, it’s the drunk man

again   in the street, losing his voice, suffering each

invisible star.

-from Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books 2020), selected by Fall 2020 PoemoftheWeek.com Guest Editor Angela Narcisco Torres

John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher 2010, Four Way 2020), finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books 2020). His honors include a Pushcart Prize, the J Howard and Barbara MJ Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Best American Poetry 2017, 2019, and 2020. He is an assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University and also teaches in the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.