Honorable Mention, 2020 Joe Bolton Poetry Award
You Remember Their Eyes
they are always brighter than they actually were,
and gleam with a certain knowing, useful
for poetry. The truth is my brother
was like the rest of us. His eyes gleamed
under the hot bulbs which lined
the bathroom mirror. Sometimes
they tightened around a small flame.
When he shot heroin his eyes
were beautiful then—the pupil
expanding, the blue iris a thin halo.
Beautiful also, and finally,
as the sheetskin over top peeled away
in the crematory, briefly
revealing their last gleaming and useful gaze
upward, as if taken by surprised, before
the cornea, feeble coat of wax, boiled off—
the yolky blue muscle fiber underneath
hissed for a moment and turned
to ash, each orb then
sunk into the crater-socket as the gaze
moved toward the melting brain
—crackling like the answer
to a question you contemplate
one morning, the clay coffee cup warming
your hand, the words on the tip
of your tongue when suddenly
light shifts on the wall and you turn
to look out the window but
the answer is gone, just as the flame
extinguishes and the soot skin is scraped
from the slab. And my brother’s eyes
become just a memory in the skull—
for what they see now cannot be told.
The Night I Found My Father
I walked into his bedroom knowing
what he was up to, nearly
hit my shin on the bed frame, guided
by the cable of light piped around
the bathroom door, the bottom
slashed by the bats of his feet—I went in
and saw him bent over the sink—
a straw bedded in his nose, a mirror—
I told him that he was a loser…that he
was an addict. I yelled right in his face:
“I hate you.” I slammed the door and ran
out the room and heard
the can of deodorant, little glass
bottles, and mirror hit the floor—
his feet began beating the tile after me.
I ran into the hallway under pictures
of our family in those starchy church
clothes at the mall and slammed my door shut.
“You fat little fuck,” he said.
My brother’s inhaler fell off the dresser
when I pulled out the drawers
and pushed it into the closed door.
My father’s arm popped through
and the dresser slid like an ice cube
when I let go. I threw the drawers at him,
one hit the wall, his bicep leapt
from his arm like a ball
and he swiped away a second.
My arms swung like tassels, and I saw
his fist jump between my eyes
and I fell to the ground—my head
landed in one of the drawers,
the dresser askew, the bunk bed’s blue
tubes framed his head, the orbital muscles
a sphincter to his eyes, and his hair
flung forward like frozen shards when
he grabbed my neck—my neck
pressed into the wood drawer, the ceiling, the
bed frame, the air, my eyes tight as boils,
carpet and walls folding as sweat
spit from his face, falling like sifted blood
into the drawer, onto
my own wet cheeks, his eyes
bursting like grackles from power lines
when he opened them to look at me.
I felt the power in his hands. His tools,
made to make things work, still
stained from grease, callused
from burns, hard from turning the tight
bolts in an engine bay.
They reminded me of Hurricane Andrew—
when he held me in his arms
and the wind tore tiles from the roof.
I was small enough to fit between
his shoulders. His bicep
a long plank to his shoulder, felt like
it could snap my neck at a twitch.
The smell of cologne masked his exhaust
and grease stained skin.
When Andrew’s gusts circled
the house like an anxious dancer
I looked up to him in a similar way
as to when he was choking me.
“It’s only the wind,” he said. “It feels
strange,” he ran his hand through my hair,
“like it knows we’re in here. Like it might
knock the house over. But it won’t fall.
It won’t fall. It’s only wind.”
At His Best
My father twisted the ignition,
fans fluttered, and sunlight
crept over our shoulders and found
veins in the vinyl seats,
sixties-blue, split with yellow foam
at every seam. They smelled
like old books seldom cracked—
Everything was like that. On the dash
a faded chromed Camaro in cursive
indicated something elegant passed,
like the stereo and carpet, all gone;
the interior was mechanic-bare-bones
except the scentless Little Tree
hanging from the rear-view mirror,
shook on its string like a belly dancer.
In the mirror, my father had
an old yellow picture of my mother
in her wedding gown sitting
on the hood of the car.
“Clutch in,” he said. “Watch me.”
His thick-haired sinewy forearms
pulled taut like rope when he moved
the stick-shift into gear.
“Down, right, and up. That’s first.”
The car lurched, the engine whined,
and my father smiled—which softened
the scruff on his chin and cheeks.
I mimicked, secretly, with my right hand:
Down, right, up. First gear.
“Down,” he said. “Second.”
Sockets and wrenches sloshed
like buoys in the back-seat.
When we turned on to Gateway,
out of the neighborhood,
plates of light bent about our bodies
and the road curled beneath the hood,
a blurring of houses and trees, a lake,
fell off at either side. “Third.”
His hand back to the steering wheel
like he placed it on my chest,
the brittle seat crackling as I pressed
deeper into it and, like a breath, I was
released from the suction-grip
as if taken whole
by some bright, beautiful force
through the windshield.
When he shifted again his hand
was like a bolt. “That’s fourth!
Feel it in your chest?” I did feel it,
like a chain on my heart, pull me
through the back of the seat.
I sat in some dark and singular place
—inside the car, inside myself—
touched only by the stream of air
through the open windows
with my father that brief second,
and we were alone.
I don’t remember why we took that ride
or where it was we were going.
My father never told me very profound things
or even gave me very useful advice.
I wouldn’t follow in his footsteps.
I couldn’t appreciate the miracle
of the internal combustion engine
as he did.
He’d explain it all in vivid detail:
the explosion of one fist sent
the other down like a piston
and revolved around the crankshaft
of his elbow, like it turned his heart.
And in the Camaro, when we came to
a stop, he said nothing. He just waited
for the light to change.
The stale scent of cigarettes rose
from the floorboards and when
we were off again the picture
of my mother flapped wildly
like some lost artifact of my father’s past,
memories, which I’m sure the cracks
in the seats held, gone forever
—except in the sound of the engine,
screaming to the brief silences
“These poems were submitted to the Joe Bolton Poetry Award. When I started writing, I carried around his book, ‘The Last Nostalgia,’ with me everywhere. When I’d hang out with my writer friends, I’d pass the book around and we’d all read our favorite poems from it. We were all hopeless back then, which is probably why we loved Bolton so much. He taught us to be romantic and sincere, to write seriously and try new forms, and to lay it all on the line with our stories and poems. Of course, tragically, we would never be able to meet him. But through his writing, through our reading it out loud and to ourselves, we felt like he was with us, that he was one of us. In this way these poems wouldn’t be possible without Joe and I hope they live up to his legacy.” –Jonathan Mundell
JONATHAN MUNDELL currently lives and teaches in Orlando. He graduated from Florida State University with a MFA in poetry.