Life and Death in Spoon River Country

StarkCountyPoems_cover

Last Stand

When he woke in a cloud of pain to find
that he’d been installed in a narrow bed
in a strange room, a part of his mind
returned to the morning he lay half-dead
in the Argonne Forest, awaiting help,
expecting deliverance, counting upon
a fellow Marine— but no such hope
supported him now. He was on his own.
He ripped that abomination, that tube
and needle, ripped it out of his vein
and, laying hold of the lamp like a club,
he raised a thunderous shout till a rain
of running feet on linoleum poured
indignantly down the hall to his door.

Like Bowie near death at the Alamo,
propped against pillow with pistol cocked,
the old man waited for faces to show
in the open door and launched his attack,
hurling bedpan, lamp and telephone
at the scrambling nurses. They had him packed
and escorted home within the hour.
That evening, dug in like a cornerstone
on his own farm, resolutely locked
against all reason, lord of his tower,
he defied his family’s threats and pleas
till they crow-barred the door and found him dead,
draped in a coat, sitting upright in bed,
a Winchester rifle across his knees.
~ ~ ~ ~

Nowhere to Nowhere

When they sold off the farm she took the child
and caught a bus out of town— as for him,
with everyone gone and everything grim,
he opened a pint of bourbon, piled

pictures, letters and clothes in the yard,
doused them in kerosene, struck a match
and watched as they burnt to ashes, watched
and worked on his whiskey, working hard.

The next morning he caught an outbound freight
heading god-knows-where and he didn’t care—
he was down to nothing, a gypsy’s fare—
down to a rusty tin cup and a plate,

dice and a bible, a bedroll and fate,
down to a bone-jarring ride on a train
through country dying and desperate for rain,
running nowhere to nowhere and running late.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Proprietress of the Party Line

It wasn’t so much that she listened in
on our every call, it was that she took
not the slightest trouble to mask the din
and clatter of pots and pans as she cooked,
or bothered to set the receiver down
as she bellowed out the door to her boys
or cursed a pig off the porch. All the town
had to talk above or around the noise
of Lucinda’s chaotic life, and yet,
we’d not have embarrassed her on a bet
by letting her know we knew she was there—
the dullness and drill of her daily fare
had left her, like most of us, deadly bored;
whenever she blew off steam, we just paused
and held our tongues till the turmoil passed:
we wouldn’t want her to miss a word.

* * * * *

The Prodigal

In the end the thing that disturbed him most,
the thing he remembered most through the years,
was when he returned to the family place,
to the hard unforgiving acres where
his father still farmed, and recalled again
the inherent knowledge he once possessed
simply by being his father’s son—
a knowledge foregone, consigned to the past,
till he saw it rise up in his father’s face
as a look of reproach: that nothing gained
by talking has worth, that cattle and land
are the only wealth befitting a man;
that a landless man is like Adam cast
from the Garden, shamed, and forever lost.

* * * * *

There Are Stories

There are stories you know without knowing quite
how it is you know them, stories without
any point to speak of, except the point

of their own peculiar strangeness, stories
as empty of purpose as any abandoned
barn in these barren fields, enduring

against all likelihood or good reason.
One such story took place around here
a lifetime ago. An old couple died—

whether, as may be, by Providence
or simply by luck— they died, either way,
on the very same day. He died before lunch.

The daughters decided to tell her nothing.
She appeared to take no notice of sharing
her bed with a corpse, except to complain

of his icy feet. She was dead before dark.
And that’s all there is to that story.
No one recalls anymore who they were.

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