Mudlark Flash No. 99 (2015)

Kindred | Poems
by Michael Milburn

Nocturnal | Praise | Family Dinners
Indelible | Drop-Off | Class Act | Kindred

Nocturnal

I try this before sleep 
to keep dread at bay,
string up by its four corners 
a relaxing tableau,
stretch it across 
the front picture window as it were of my mind,

but you know the rest,
anyone with a cortex does,
how the wind of worry blows in,
straining its strings,
swelling it like a sail.

I watch it get battered,
I watch it get rent,
but it’s still in the center of my eye,
and there’s no precise moment
when I can say 
I stop thinking about it; 

rather, the fears sweep up from behind
like blindfolding hands
and I’m lying there,
a guy in bed 
fighting to curb his mind,

until I slide sleeping
into another room
with another window
that does not come 
with its own storm.

Praise

You hear about those 
who withhold it 
to constructive effect, 
aloof fathers and schoolmasters
breeding little strivers 
turned high achievers,
how a child saturated with it when young
will turn out complacent,
nothing to work toward.

I have had it both ways 
and done it both ways
to the point where 
if you convey that 
I have disappointed, 		
I mobilize, but I also 
mobilize if you convey 
that I have surpassed,

which makes it more 
a light onto my self-loathing 
and desperation for grandeur
than a gauge.  Even now, 	
possessed of the credentials and language 
to apply it to myself, 
I contract it out: 
my fantasy in your words
that I beg you to broadcast back.

Family Dinners

With their stalk-away arguments,
muteness, and moods, 
they were the part 
of being young and indentured 
I longed to escape, 

and did, for a while,
to eat over stoves
or spilling on sports pages 
until spoon scraped saucepan,
only to find myself here

like a Great War veteran 
asked by his beloved 
to dine together for togetherness’s sake
in a trench on the River Somme. 
He’d want to do it for her

as much as he’d want
his bayonet beside him 
and disbelieve the sensation of dry clothes. 
I am that soldier, 
the trench is our dining room, 

and you, dear, are you, 
analogies I’m smart enough
to swallow
along with
this meal.

Indelible

The older I get
the more I identify experiences
as peaks or lows,
sea-spray moments
or crude companies

when I say to myself so urgently 
I’m amazed it’s not audible,
notice this,
as if recognizing equaled realizing
and realizing equaled reckoning,

but of course it’s never that plain,
never our truly triumphant or ruinous times	
that beg to be seen as such,
but the ones surrounding
the ones we would choose.

As we look back,
that’s where our biographies lie:
on the street before
the impulsive pause, clutch, kiss, and vow,
in the years since the worst words	

of the worst fight	
of the worst stretch
of the whole divorce
leapt from our lips
within earshot of the child.

Drop-Off

1.

Cheerios and milk
in his mother’s kitchen,
a backpack I’ve never seen before
and alien textbooks
spilled onto a chair.

2.

We pick up his carpool friend
and the friend’s sister, 
both surprised to see me,
re-introduced,
and we’re under way.

3.

At school, they explain the rules
of the drop-off circle,
crammed with cars and darting kids.
Suddenly all three leap out 
with quick goodbyes.
Queued to exit, a few parents 
give me curious looks.

By nine I’m back on the road to Connecticut.

4.

It was the only time 
I ever took him to school, 
a mundane ritual
I’ve since made momentous in my mind—
the textbooks, the carpool kid’s sister 
keeping her backpack on
in the backseat of my car—

until thinking about it is as much a part of my days
as the actual taking would have been, 
something I occasionally get sick of 
and long not to perform.  

Class Act

Speaking in school 
he struck me as guileless and fair-minded
even after being caught
in a cyber-bullying scandal 
which I forgave on the grounds
of youth and stupidity 

until one day discussing a novel in English 9
he mimicked a poor girl’s speech 
in a voice so vicious with condescension
he might have been my father 
amusing his cronies 
in the country club bar

and that image of a boy
with a man’s anger, prejudice, and smugness
replaced the fair-minded one
which was still there on the outside
even after I saw behind it

as one does through daily exposure 
as teacher or son,
but will others be so
for lack of a better word
lucky?

Kindred

It wasn’t what she said 
but the way she said it, 
referring to time 
her son was spending with his father, 
speaking as if self-trained 
in the art of not tearing down a bastard.

I’m guessing that she returns often 
to a decision her younger self made 
and stands outside the stage of its making,
like a veteran enacting 
her own flag-draped ceremony
commemorating the death 
of goodwill.

Not to belabor 
the war metaphor, 
but comparable to the solidarity
of lost limbs and scorched skin 
is that of speaking around children 
in a way that spares them distress 
and others knowledge,
which in the right company 
makes for its own betrayal 
of honesty—a giveaway, a clue
born of hating someone 
you remain tied to by love.

Michael Milburn teaches English in New Haven, CT. His third book of poems, Carpe Something, came out from Word Press in 2012. Several of his poems appeared as a Mudlark Poster in 2014. And his essays on poetry and teaching have recently been in Poet Lore, South Carolina Review, Montreal Review, and Cheat River Review. 

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