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James Miller

Poet on a Business Trip, 2018

I pull the lens cloth from my steaming pocket: the laundry’s done.
Harleys humming on the corner. Viols packed and sleepy on our backs.

Close up the door, leave the stink for scavengers. Pouch some grackels,
pinch the prouds in Palestine and Tyler, Texas. We’ll string out dead words

in our wake: Zomby, Zeitgehöft, coal-eyed chicka-dee-doms.
We’ll sputter to the exit lane in Hope, Ark. Crackelbarrel crunch-bars

and licorice lips. March for a fort-night, sleep rough in husks
of Ozark majesties, scrape ants from our butter and jelly sandwiches.

You assume we’re coughing blood every moonglow under the pines.
Seen that one before! Badlands deadpan monologues, 80s ominous synths,

day-after dust sifting through every shot. You’re counting up the bodies:
shopgirls and gas pumpers in Branson and Jeff City. Casting the Cinemax

biopic, wondering when the knives come in. But we need none to peel
summer skins—fold them so tightly, forty-nine fit under a single tongue,

takes that many to get the kinescope effect. Sloughing through Champaign,
zonked on Kraft television, but wash your hands quick and queasy,

it burns like battery bouillon, leaving scars where the nails die off.
By November we’ve camped on the shore of Lake Michigan,

ready for our drowning stanza. You’re thinking we’ll stuff our pockets
with stones—you’ve collected a few to help us along.

Look how they flop in your palms like grasping mudfish. Wait for it:
they’ve found a way in. We’ll sit together by the slimy water.

Not long now... they swarm up rich veins to stop
your hearts like winking, last night’s stars.

Teaching Mark Twain

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The student glows
with remembering—of his
idyllic childhood, how he’d collect
his lanky neighbor friend
for four minutes’ trek
to the creek backing
their safe houses.

How they’d pantomime
Mississippi fishing,
prodigious haul
of goods. God smiled
on their sun-burns. Kind
faceless ladies walked
their flawless pure-
breds along ole Miss,
grasses damp but not
from weeping.

You’re Huck Finn and Tom
hunting Injun gold, she
laughed, unwrapped twin
leads from the heroes’
hairless legs.

A pause, and another student
answers. We had no creeks,
and, let’s be real, no
houses to lean from
over the water, no time
for counting white yearless
years like Christmas
cookies piled up
for a diabetic Santa.

And what would faceless lady
have said if, on turning
her beagles towards
the sweet sniffing
of the waterline, we
had been hucking
and tomming there,

sheathed in what she
would have called
innocence before we
spoiled her word?

Or better, imagine it was
her husband, threading
oaks and mosses to
the silver-gleam, the
far shore farther off
every time we replay
the scene? We’d maybe
lift our toes out
of the mud and wipe
them not-clean, frantic
to count (and hide)
the husks of honey-
suckle we’d drained
and dropped by our cat-
fish bucket. Each
one a year he’d wish
we’d not live,
or live free.

Cash on the Barrelhead

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There’s trouble down south, crowds
at the county seat. Hungry? No sir.

The papers say they’ll answer no questions,
accept no crusts, seem done with chewing.

Me and Emmy, we’re headed down to check out
the scene. And what knives will we bring?

I’ll pry sacred hymns from the courthouse lawn—
border harmonies slurp from the shell,

squeal and shiver down the throat. Emmy says
we’re primed for a shriven Louvin tune.

Sliver our wreaked hearts, the song says.
Fry them in the poisoned Rio Grande.

Lost Poem

Wednesday night, comp class well over,
you’re headed to Hibachi for lukewarm noodles
garnished with pink shrimps and zucchini strips.
Drop the Modiano (English trans.) next to your damp
U. of Kentucky umbrella, lift a grey-white plastic plate
from the hundred-fold pile, know that you’ll slip a pork egg roll
past your meatless promise. Stand with lukewarm beans
and crab rangoons in hand, but you have forgotten—
where is your table?

You wander round for stretched minutes.
Every face is new. You think: the greeter always
knows you, has she noticed that you’ve worn
a wedding ring these last five years, that you now
eat alone only on Wednesday late, when your beloved
is out at choir practice? But your place has not
shown itself. By now you’re thinking: will this
work in a poem, this loss and losing? An attendant
has noted your confusion, waves a half dozen times
and points—here, you’re sitting in the corner,
your ice is melting.

Sloppy California rolls work their way
to your gut. You sign the bill, flip through
messages on your phone, read a post
from your south London friend who mourns
this week the passing of yet another novelist.
Do you remember, he asks, the time we sat outside
Shakespeare’s Pub near the Embankment
and hashed out the books not Victor
but his Monster read?

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