I’ve become an issue of tense I am we were you are the missing part the missed the two extra buttons sewn inside my shirt I press them now between my ribs
& snow falls on lights of the silos lengthens wintergrass in my hair My breath leaves like trainsmoke dissipates as lights come on in high windows of the jail
I say happiness out loud that it would be enough of a prescription Branches & fire escapes darken Night slides down the throat of a steeple I’ve lost the center There is no center Only administrations of houselights & a qualification of bells
Nothing rhymes with orange in English except a memory— a woman with cat eyes buried in moonlight on a rooftop in Manhattan when she reached for my hand
Carry me to that woman’s ear to the dimple of her lower back that smelled of lilacs & Maldon salt For now I call November to the sky all its constellations— those just being born those just now dying Really anything
46.7324° N, 117.0002° W
It’s no use trying not to die in this dream Streetlights the gold chargers on my kitchen table My family surrounds me like statues in East City Park Their eyes pockmarks on the sidewalk filled with rainlight & the sleepcrawl of branches
A man smokes in his doorway downwind on Blaine arm swinging like a singlechain thurible Everything the size of a cathedral His eyes bedsprings lonely bodies fall onto in dark basements Face translucent raw as newborn rabbits I never see him again
I know myself by the things that scare me Veins humming in my hands are raised dark roads I have been holding tight onto everything
The night is numbered in a forest of sharps & flats In a register where I’m only wet mirrors It’s not important to know this Inside me a silo fills with rain I sing into it
Counting Down the Era
The Space Race reached my body in the Challenger. A classroom in Champaign. America in the sun and ten times headed for the moon from the Cape. That birthday candle thrusting in blue cake, pushing earth away for seventy-three seconds. We had just counted down. We had all counted down.
How it fireworked wrong and came apart like sunlight daggered through the trees and windows of a house where months before at our kitchen table my mother on the phone using a strange voice, and me hearing only her questions, the answers changing her face, hung up and said her father had died.
I watched for correction— my sister running in the yard, clouds like chandeliers through the trees. She existed in the garden, in dogwoods, through the sprinkler, and in sundown on poplars at the incline of the road. Her hair like house lights coming on over the fence.
My mother and I existed, and the fly on the table existed in a darkness that cracked and splashed its wet-blue-life, speckled pink like robins’ eggs dropping from the pines.
The footage of her face kept happening—
surrendering to her sadness made it mine. Then nothing, except my sister walking to the house not knowing anything about dying, and my fear in beginning to understand it, so that I knew it later in that classroom when there was nothing again. And nothing fell.
Surely no one had survived but us. There was a teacher on the mission, they said. She would have been the first. A long silence—till mine, with hair on fire and a voice swallowing all of the Atlantic, told me to turn it off.
To Boneyard Creek
A sky blue as corpses follows you— thin ribbon of rock and shoe, beer can and needle. In Urbana, you’re no more than a tangled skein at Goodwin and Green. A wet dark belt threading the waist of my town. Crossing Third at Healey, limping toward my old high school. You were always something decrepit in me. On smokers’ hill, breath spirits ivy through the chain-link fence, crows in the oak like cold Mission figs, limbs bending over Lynn, outstretching fingertips. I keep you around my chest, close to the darkest blood. I want to say enough. Memory, enough.
Would you raise me like fat balloons of summer— hot-air over Hessel in the eye of a cloud shouting fire? That seventh birthday, the unfilled piñata. My friends, their thin bodies swinging at the gangly dusk. Blindfolded blank faces, anonymous reservoirs. Several now are dead. Their bodies willows. Their names petrichor. Their eyes your water in stages of thaw. I forget what I meant to say for the ends of their lives.
At school, I could only joke at the terrible way priests sang in monotone, remembering every fit held in—my fourth-grade friend St. Mark, turning red as he laughed silently, tears streaming his face, upturned to the clean light of the stained glass. The Stations. No small divinities, the past. The bulk of our coverage fell away.
I want everything that has already gone to return to me, so I can tell what it meant. I might be wrong.
Let me remember my address, my landline, the names of my friends’ dead mothers. My uncles staggering the Boneyard as scarecrow-clothed wretches. My mother, sister, and I in the car, father skulking the miles home on foot after Christmas. His nights long as drags from discontinued brands. He moves in the sheet-cake silence, teeters in snow on the edge of no greatness.
Let me remember subtraction— the qualities I strike from what is not man in me. The heart forever saying yes, floods and moves on. Floods and moves on. Against the world I hold a light. We are thin together. Sit still, it says. Wait, it means. There is sun on your face; you haven’t done so wrong.
Stucco-white in ecru open fields, west Champaign, the longwide breaths of avenue. My room at the south corner of the house, small wooden desk with drawers where I kept my moon-foolish notes. In the yard, spine-straight cypresses fixed their green hair for school. My mother on the phone in the kitchen, her banquets of laughter I ate on the stairs.
There was a fire when I was young, started by painters in the attic above my room. We stood on the lawn, long-faced. Ralph Stanley’s twang through the crumbs of AM. At the intersection of two dead presidents, tires whispering onto wet brick. The air a black-licorice tang of fennel on my tongue. Dogwoods cotton-white and pink shot hot. The house looking east from McKinley in the rain, a blur of streetlamps in place of my birth.
Nothing’s good enough. I return my body to the Boneyard: Past the drunk’s house where a French horn struggles with a waltz. The man trying to dissolve into the old parts of his skill, playing what his ear remembers the wind makes beautiful again. Past dogs biting at bees in a construction site where Burnham Hospital used to stand. How my grandfather died there shortly after I was born, and we floated miles together along the creek, spirits sluiced blue to the sky’s wet culverts. Past the wing-flutter of someone shaking out a rug against a wrought iron railing on the porch of a clapboard house on Green. The apartment on First Street where I’d held you from behind in a small room white with morning sun, and the whole of Illinois floated like a moth in the light as you asked me to fill you up, and I wanted to with everything.
Past men with laudanum tongues pressed to the deaf wind, confessing the necessity of flasks. Shoulders that shrug the runoff from reservoirs. Pinch of happiness I send to the world, hoping it returns hungry. I still run against the question mark of your body. Whatever prescience comes, I say Okay, and trace my fingers along its stone. My slumped Leviathan, this is where I mistake the cruise ship for the tub. I spit in the sinew of the city, drink beer from a paper bag, piss on the trunk of the tree I felled whose ribs are stacked against the night. Whose magnets of greenfire charge the grass. The slingshot moon. My own voice— a red twist in the wind, a thread pulled through sparrow-air. I name it after myself: Cameron Read, Dreamless, Church Street, Midnight West Side Park. I might be wrong.
If domum is Latin for home, Champaign is domum for nothing waits for me. You are ten dreams away, my only argument, beauty… and the self… and the father… and the pilot light. I am the son calving. No matter.
Don’t you know memory is the mansion— I stand alone in its ballroom, darkness twirls. On the wall, a painting of a field, and in the field, a woman gathering her dress by a well. Stones tower into ground. A basket of wash at her feet. She is looking towards a river, eyes wide like the eyes of fish.
Where are you, my little light? On the ripple, on the bridge, in my dagger-eye of that corner room? Boneyard, I’ve become the shadow of all the colors inside you. On the days I tremble your name behind me, tucked in the folds of my shirt, beneath the linings of my shoes— I place you between myself and the world. I am learning I cannot paint sadness on everything, it is simply not the truth.
I count the days I’ve been alive— the days I followed you back home until you ended, and the days you lit my leaving. I am from whatever you are. Dare I say you were enough.
Cameron McGill’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, RHINO, Sonora Review, and elsewhere. His first chapbook, Meridians, is available from Willow Springs Books. He teaches at Washington State University, where he serves as poetry editor of Blood Orange Review and co-director of the Visiting Writer Series. His work lives at cameronmcgill.com.
Header photo by Shawn Nielsen, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Cameron McGill by Daniel Johnson.