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
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
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
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
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.