Refinery at night with fog

Three Poems by Randall Dills 13th Annual Contest in Poetry Finalist

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Theories of Translation:
Saturday, 16 April 2022

At breakfast my niece is telling me about
an eagle eating a coot on the Columbia, its green lobed feet
pedaling postmortem
seeking purchase

            and of seeing a Gray-crowned Yellowthroat
            on the Camino al Cocodrilario in San Blas,
            Nayarit, Mexico

            At the bookshop by the river
pulling poetry off the shelves, cradling
volumes from G-H, Halperin, Gallagher,
in my arms

And Moby Dick, the third time in my life
I bought it, this will be the year, an edition
Wheaton, Maryland
Greenville, North Carolina
Merry Christmas, 1966
my own copies circulating in
the Midwest and
Northern Alabama
stamped “From the Library of [Name Redacted]

            The man that rings them up taught me
set me off on a life lived farther and farther east
to Russia and back again
but he no longer knows me

He hands me the Halperin,
Halperin who taught me
the theory of translation
as a history student struggling
to think in Russian, before I
knew him, before I understood
myself as a poet, Halperin
together with Georgeoliani,
whose father feared Stalin,
kept a suitcase packed and ready,
Halperin and Georgeoliani
hunched over dictionaries and
yellow legal pads working out
translations of Sosnora and P’yetsukh
after the fall of the Soviet Union,
when the Paris Review had an appetite for such things
before I knew how
to open my ears
and listen.

I come down from my father’s attic with a copy
of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
I am clearing his upper floor one book at a time, he’s standing
at the stove making cornbread in a cast-iron skillet
from his mama’s Appalachian recipe and he says,
I still don’t know how to get where I’m going.

            And I’m running a wooded trail beneath small planes
taking off and landing, wet dogs weaving around me as I run
farther, faster, than ever before—I return to the farm, the girls
galloping across the pasture on horseback, two small boys
throw rocks at an abandoned car as an old woman comes
hollering and I can’t bear to be there,
I text D in Ottawa, but she does not answer, &

            I’m at the checkstand at Safeway in Oak Harbor
and I look up and see J’s name on the wall in big red letters,
I text her:
R: i just saw your name on the wall
J: That’s cool! Go and see the sunset from Joseph Whidbey
And I do, pastels painting the sky above the Strait of Juan de Fuca, she
asks for pictures and I send them, says she misses the island
and we are young again, living that old life,
missing those days

            A butter moon, full tonight, it is Passover
and I feel foolish, D has her phone off in Ottawa,
And I am thinking about the pillow I found in my
father’s spare room, the white one without a case,
the one that has my mother’s name scrawled on it
in her hand, the one that she took to the hospital,
& I am thinking of her and my elder kin,
their silence,

how they died
before they told
all their stories.



Closed Doors at the End
of the Universe

At Snee Oosh beach, where
the land is curved, carved
by a relentless rising sea

the sailboat makes a run for the Pacific at Deception Pass
a triangle sliding across the water.
you could push it over with your thumb,
knock it into the sea where your heart is,
filled by clouds, obscuring a ribbon of fingers
untangling, making space, fingers apart, unbridgeable,
we won’t touch again,

what is there to do but let them fall into your thigh,
your fingers, what they did, they won’t do again,
the feeling rushes out of them, shaped in darkness,
midnight sky, torso turning, shoulder before head,
reaching for empty, arms unfolding
carmine satin rippling in wind, billowing, and behind it,
the beyond, where

we were curious, but you slipped into the stream of life,
away from us,
our lips, parted to form the sound of your name
and we fail to make
all but a rounded
vowel, the mourning O,
and our lips forget your name.

Do you recall that time in Wenatchee, above the Columbia
the car door opened and the stars fell out
and with them my dreams for you,
you hung a foot out the door and went ashen,
looked back at me still in my buckle, the earth ripped open,
you forgot my birthday,
I forgot all the birthdays.

And now sitting in tall grass groping for ground
triangles falling through the universe, looking for purchase
what is below us, you asked in third grade
that’s a dumb question the teacher says
there’s nothing below us, only space
the girl says, you see
that sliver of goldfinch colored moon, that’s god’s fingernail

A tentative step on melting pavement,
on the hospital row
a pathway between daffodils, an honor walk
the past shutting off like dead stars
scattering across a freezing universe,
the last time you shut a farm gate,
the last time you pulled a coffee cup from a cupboard,
the last time you stood silent in a crowded room,
memories like birdsong at dusk
as the tree line goes from pink to blue

the earth is falling
we walk through doors
you’ll never come out of,
one foot, then the other
through a dusting of lemon yellow light
limbs angled
acute, obtuse, acute,

You understand.

I see it in your eyes.



Puget Sound Refinery: The Universe
at the Point of Contraction

Hands gathered in the dark December
on Contractor Row for shift-change. The refinery
hums, hisses, and rattles, steam vents from
the ground in great billows across roads and footpaths, like mist,
warm mist, poison mist, ripple the pant leg mist, is that a
steam burn mist; mist drifts through the yellow lights that dangle from pipe racks
and lamp posts on the units: Alky 1, Cat Cracker, Poly, the Boiler House,
the Coker, scorched, the killer Coker, it’s killed fast and it’s killed slow.
This refinery in all its modern, sublime beauty, industrial terror
lights up the Salish Sea this night, a shining city
on a hill, reflecting on calm, black water.
                        They used to call it Progress.

In from the sea comes a low, thick layer of white cloud cover
over the supertankers out of Valdez arrayed in the bay,
encasing the refinery in a white dome, refracting yellow light,
the flame of the flare tower singes the bottom of clouds.
Weary groups of craftsmen from the night shift,
shuffle silently towards the front gate, for home
to lie down beside wives and girlfriends,
to leave thick, black, coke dust on white pillows,
they never get clean, it’s in their hair, their lungs, their

The morning crew passes through turnstiles,
badge reader beeping, tracking,
they trudge through gravel, dragging their
bodies along, stomping, kicking rocks,
kicking heat into their feet,
worn out already, the predawn cold
rips through muscle, a hundred walking skeletons
who know how to turn a screw,
in their last solitary moments before
the shutdown begins, the turnaround,
the refit, 42 days,
13 days on, one off, if anyone is checking,
seven twelves and then six twelves and
repeat. Long enough to become unvoiced,
short-tempered, brain-addled, some men
will walk behind the smoke shack and cry,
they can’t hear themselves think.

They are travelers, roustabouts, roughnecks,
Union men and women, OCAW! IUPIW!
If you are one of them, when
the Top Hand says you are one of them, then you are
Pork Chop, Knucklehead, Professor, there’s
Bug, Pinky, Farmer, Daffy, Deputy Dog, and Doc, they are
sparkies and rod-busters, pipe-fitters and welders, civil men,
heavy equipment operators, they come out of the Army
and the Navy, out of the prisons and detoxes, they are
a crew—

In the single-wide trailer, sit
twenty men and five women, cramped on dirty,
wooden benches between five wobbly plastic tables.
They are “gearing up,” getting into work boots,
strapping on tool belts. Some sit reclined
against the walls, smoking,
Lead man dragging on a cigarette,
blowing smoke through the hole where his teeth used to be,
puffs of white squares floating off above bowed heads
of Bible men forestalling the last temptations of fallen men,
praying off last night’s tavern sins, keeping eyes low, averted
from the female fire watches removing the signs of
femininity, tying and tucking hair under hard hats,
slipping into oversize Nomex coveralls. Others
apply brand new stickers to their hard hats,
“Top Cat,” “Sasquatch,” “PSR 1995.”

a gaunt, broken man in his middle fifties,
starting all over again at the
bottom of the scale, the tool room manager,
sips coffee from a Styrofoam cup.
He is all geared up, in coveralls, and hard-hat,
with oversize safety glasses over his broken spectacles.
He does not need to wear these things in the tool room,
but he wants to be prepared. He wants to get the call
to ride the sidestep pickup with the top men into the units.
Wants to pull hose and fire watch, tie the bowline
send up wrenches on long ropes into the pipe rack,
he’s been practicing, repeating up through the rabbit hole,
round the big tree; down through the rabbit hole and off
goes he, back in the hole
He sits zazen on the bench and
holds the pose, shows the cracked yellow teeth
of a smile.

Frank arrives every morning and makes coffee,
hard, thick stuff that stains gullet and Styrofoam,
The way they did it up north in Alaska,
where your bones froze. He sits there dying
but no one likes him, he’s a little “ducky,”
telling stories and more stories
how he built that runway in Germany, in ‘68, for Uncle Sam
How he killed that bear in the Kenai in ‘73 and dragged it out
by himself, about putting in the pipeline on the North Slope in ‘76,
he is the hero of his own story, starts in on how
there are places on this earth where time does not exist.
In the desert, in caves, you have to have people he says
for time to exist, you have to have light. My time is older,
but we share this time because we share this light. Out there
under the bay, through the reflection, in the dark, is a place
on earth where time does not exist

The foreman comes in and calls:
Let’s make some gasoline!

Clean boots, crisp overalls, new gloves,
still sleepy, still thinking of the comfort of bed and
those they left there, they bend into the back of
early model Ford Rangers and Chevy stepside trucks, all
but Frank.

The cold gets into the cracks of fingers, water forms in the eyes
from the wind off the bay, the wind comes and comes, they sit
hunched, clutching knees, shoulder to shoulder,
coveralls, long johns, and tee-shirts
can’t keep wind from reaching bone.

Everything feels slow, time is slow, no watches
on the unit, no phones, the whistle marks time, first break whistles,
lunch break whistles, second break whistles, knockoff and go home whistles,
whistles in the ears for years, even to the last breath
it sets the rhythm, never ceases, is present even at

the end of time.




Randall DillsRandall Dills is a former academic and day laborer who now lives in a small cottage on a wooded farm on Fidalgo Island in Washington State. His work has appeared in the Eastern Iowa Review and CIRQUE. His first book, The Universe at the Point of Contraction, was just published by FutureCycle Press.

Header photo by TTstudio, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.