Russell Thorburn

The Union Soldier Braces for the Cold Beneath the Tree

After the Saturday Night Fight Sergeant Reese Dreamed of the Blonde in Her Hijab

A Polish Professor Tells Me I Am Wearing the Same Kind of Hat That Czeslaw Milsoz Did Years Ago


The Union Soldier Braces
for the Cold Beneath the Tree


His neck roped in these veins
tying him to a chill, and his brown eyes
like old shoes want to walk away
before his puffed knuckles
stab at his mouth with a cigarette
to ward off the mosquito onslaught.

He touches his almost forgotten color
of blue on his tunic, fingers thinking
through the hanging buttons.
He should have died at Shiloh,
but he survived that winter, the fields
where the other soldiers met their gods
in the reddish ground: some of them
bent over in prayer or battle.

His brother died with them, and he tries to heal
himself up here, ten feet from the shore,
the whitecaps like teeth for a minute
while he exhales the smoke from his dreams.

His canoe lies turned over on the sand,
the paddle so worn to his hands
he believes he’s stroking across water
toward the pellucid mist of nothing.

Let me be released, the young man
with leaf lines under his mottled eyelids,
intones to the ache of his own thoughts
rustling above his head, each one

a leafy curl of what he has suffered—
like miniature boats tended to branches
only for so long, until they set sail
in the gust of charcoal clouds
that want to join his body
into this larger shape over the waves.


After the Saturday Night Fight Sergeant Reese Dreamed of the Blonde in Her Hijab

His nose couldn’t be right, neither the helicopters
             in his head about to lower the patrol
into the neighborhood already blown apart
                          by the Americans, and his taped fingers
             coming undone in their search for a nose—
drunk with Sugar Baby’s blows to his face—
             like ground tromped by steel-toed boots,
and screaming helicopters remind him of Iraq
and the reader of Madame Bovary,
             her hijab aggressively showing a blonde curl
of her heresy—a woman barely twenty,
                          and her fingers always on top
             of the American sergeant at a café table—
straightening his wild eyebrow hair
             or bending an earlobe closer before anyone
saw them looking into each other’s eyes—
and he longed to say he loved that unnatural curl,
             despite remembering his father tell him
how his mother hated Marilyn Monroe, her curves
                          leaving a crater in her head.
His letter told of some other bombshell in Paris, and the large
             dumb dog named after Marilyn was shot.
That pale bulb too much for his squinting slits, he fingered
             the broken teeth of his mouth, where Sugar Baby,
his opponent, knocked the hell out of his good looks.
Letters his grandfather wrote displayed in a mirror
             from the corners, small letters in cramped handwriting
almost Chinese, written upside down sometimes in foxholes—
                          he read them to learn more about love
and his habit of telling the truth. He waited for the doctor
             to inspect him like meat, tenderized by the fists
of Sugar Baby, after Reese called him a name he regretted
             in the clinch. He didn’t know why he fought so many
rounds in that place they called Culture City.
A dirty old arena, and where is the culture
             in burnt-out neighborhoods? his head full of helicopters
going down in flames over dark yards where scrappers
                          trespass for a dishonest living in Detroit,
stealing copper. Reese on the mat heard the door click open
                          for a grisly doctor smoking a cigar, what a mess you are—
and Reese decided he’d marry his woman in the hijab
             who read Flaubert and waited for him in Baghdad,
if she still sat there, only daughter of a tailor who once sewed
                          elegant suits, if Flaubert could reveal to her
a future with him, rough American soldier who had watched
             her eyes that morning reveal everything.


A Polish Professor Tells Me I Am Wearing the Same Kind of Hat That Czeslaw Milsoz Did Years Ago

For a short moment there is no death.
Despite the expanse of nothingness that is Lake
Superior a few blocks away. Time does not unreel
like skein and the horizon may be only a wheel
turning over dappled clouds, and look the beer’s
pithy as winter psalms. Words are what we are truly
wearing, seated outside under a glowering mixed-up sky.
A Polish professor with a build of a boxer, a mind
of wiper blades clearing any cluttered ideas from his sight,
jokingly mentions we are having a good time
up north away from the diploma factory.
I am a wanderer who happened by to say hello
to a friend from Wales, and I have joined
these good men for a beer and I am wearing a floppy fedora
that the Polish professor reminds me was the hat
Milosz wore—and I am glad for that—for anything
tonight on my way up the street to another bar.
But why not sit awhile and talk about Czeslaw,
whom I met in the back room of a café
where he demolished a whitefish and drowned
in a carafe of burgundy. Now, he said, pushing himself
back in his chair, let’s talk. And we did.
Like we’re talking now, candidly, in the telescope’s
eye of someone watching and that may be God
or not. Czeslaw was friends with the pope,
and they wrote letters back and forth in their larger
remaining years in Krakow. Piotr, the professor,
buzzes with ardor for life, Slawomir Mrozek,
the playwright who wrote so many unusual plays,
and my coming down to visit his university.
I feel my years fade away as one does drinking
beer, and everything seems to be an endless wedding—
of youth and age—trying to gauge any rain later;
and the metal chair seems comfortable for now,
the way up the street postponed, the uncanny chill
about to fall brightened by our lively banter.
Three of us there, good men from Poland, Wales,
and America—and the beer affording us time
to talk like fools and not mean it.

RUSSELL THORBURN is the author of Somewhere We’ll Leave the World (Wayne State University Press, 2017). A National Endowment for the Arts recipient and first poet laureate of the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he lives in Marquette with his wife. His poems have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including And Here: 100 Years of Upper Peninsula Writing, Poetry in Michigan, Woman Is a Metaphor, Prairie Schooner, Third Coast, and Willow Springs.