Two Poems by Joe Wilkins

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Union Slough

Its name is derived from the […] union of two watersheds: the Blue Earth River and the East Fork of the Des Moines River. The terrain is nearly flat, allowing the flow of the water to be determined by the direction of the wind at times. This 3,334-acre refuge [is] surrounded by a sea of corn and soybean…
            — U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

You might say, This, God forgot to finish:
a bewildered river sistered to the wind,
a loveless wind lusting after grass. Bulrush,
little bluestem, turkey-foot, and dropseed—

the grass forgets its many names and dances
like some religious fool, kneels down at dusk
and asks a benediction of the stars.
Due north, the earth turns blue. South, silent monks

unspool in ancient river-graves. Below:
black earth, wet stone. Above: a sky cloud-shot
and wide, white ravel of light. And here, oh,
here the dead march of cornfields halts—

for what seems unmade is a deeper making.
Wind-drunk, we, too, grow wild, unarranged.



Note to My Unborn Son Concerning Gardens, Wishes, & Grief

It was necessary to hold on to the things that mattered.
The dead man mattered, the new life mattered.
    — James Baldwin

As if the hours forgot themselves,
this day there was
no light―
only a lifting of the dark
for another dark.


Oh, I am weary & grieved,
for the good man who was our neighbor

last week laid himself down on his sofa
& nestled up against

his temple the pistol barrel & fired.
Child, the blood

of your birth is yet some months away. Today,
would be better. For I am weary

& grieved, & your mother,
she is heavy, too, with both death & you.


He was alone all winter with his suffering.
We heard he’d died but thought it was his heart.
The bad wind had gone bone cold again.

When his sister came to move his things—
Help, she said. Help. I can’t let mother see, can’t
let mother see. She’s a wreck, she’s suffering!

Inside, I thought I might be sick—on the cushion,
a good inch thick, a puddle of his blood. No, I thought,
not this. Not the bad wind gone bone cold again.

Mother see, mother see, she kept saying. Goddamn
couch—we have to haul it out! We stared at what was left
of him, this evidence—so loud—of silent suffering.

We knew him. We knew him only as a neighbor
but anyway hauled that blood-soaked couch out,
where without sound it suffered the bone-cold wind.

We stood there, then, & shivered. His sister lit a cigarette.
I knew, she said, but didn’t know. I mean, it’s hard to know
how deep it goes. Whatever it is. The suffering, I guess.
The wind slapped & battered at us. The wind. The wind again.


In my dream last night a little boy—        
towheaded, ornery,

wouldn’t leave me be—
Get the fuck away from me, I snarled,

my voice not mine & mine.
The fuck away from me. He’d lost his factory job,

our neighbor. I count back now,
realize it was the very day before

I saw him on his back step,
having a cigarette. Said he couldn’t wait

for spring. From budding branches
robins fat as fists scatter now

& fuss. I tell myself who knows
what any four walls will do, I tell myself

the boy was no boy
but some errant neuron’s ugly stutter.

All kinds of things,
I tell myself.


What to do? What to do but plant
tomatoes, sweet peppers, the three seeds
of cucumber in a single, crumbling hill? But offer
to the one I love—your mother—my hand
as she rises from the broken earth
we hope will be, some months from now,
abundant? We haven’t seen his sister since.
That cold day, as we turned to leave,
she took my hand & squeezed so hard it bruised,
the bruises fading only now—
yellow, green, & faintest blue. Child,
before this goes any further
know you owe us
nothing. We did this—garden, wish, & grief—
without your consent. You will eat the air
& scream. We will be wrong
to silence you.




Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers, winner of a 2014 GLCA New Writers Award, and two books of poetry, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. His third full-length collection of poetry, When We Were Birds, is forthcoming in spring of 2016. Wilkins lives with his family in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.

Read additional poetry by Joe Wilkins appearing in in February 2014 and Issue 24, Fall/Winter 2009.

Photo of bulrush silhouette with fog courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.