Word Poetry




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Sample Poems by Rick Mulkey

Theoretically Speaking

My father writes to say the seven year locusts have hatched.
All night the whirring and clicking
in the maple and fir have kept him up. "Oh," he writes,
"how I hate that voice." Hunter, not yet five,
decided last night he wanted to sleep with me.
He'd heard something outside, a monster he thought,
and though I've tried to explain about monsters
last night I accepted that fear has no explanation.
It arrives when it wishes, clicking just outside the glow
of the night light at 3:00 a.m. Yet, I admit
I'm at home with the ghosts. They accept me,
and I accept them in all their late night forms.
There's one in my cousin's three-piece gray suit, another regular
in my aunt's poodle skirt; there's Steve, childhood friend
who'd lived up the hill, whose father claimed Jesus came to him at night,
sat upon his Italian leather sofa and offered business advice;
Steve, the preppy, even now dressed in khaki slacks,
striped oxford and blazer, and not a single scar to show
what guardrails can do. My mother tells me that
Elvis, the only spirit she'll claim, exists at the center
of a considerable debate between those who've spied him
sporting 1950's chinos and those who've seen 1970's sequins.
I no longer doubt any of this, or the psychics,
or that one day my fortune cookie numbers will win the lotto.
Besides, wasn't it Wittgenstein or some other reasoning German
who said go ahead and believe, what harm can it do?
On the other hand, my friend Carol believes in one thing,
her fear of bridges. Carol has decided she could never
belong to any of the Dark Age's religions in which the soul
had to cross a thin, thread-like bridge to find paradise. Fall off
and you're lost forever. Take Carol across the bay from Tampa
to St. Pete, or across the Cooper River into Charleston,
and you might as well ask her to cut off her arms.
It isn't the idea of falling or even dying--it's the bridge itself,
as if it represents the worst kind of modern haunting,
the technological prowess of steel and concrete a living
marvel of torture, atoms exploding beneath those Firestone tires.

And why not? Even quantum mechanics, that newest of religions,
believes that reality is not only a product of the external world,
but is bound up with our perceptions of it. Still, Carol's no Hart Crane
and I want to help, so I explain how in mythology, bridges
have almost always represented new life, good fortune,
that the Milky Way itself was once known as "The Bridge of Souls."
"No thanks," she says. "I'd rather go to hell."
In the face of that, how can I argue?
Though there are, of course, other theories. One described
by Thiselton Byer of Lancashire, that children born during twilight
can see places, events and people hidden to others.
Or the modern physics theory that "alternative worlds are not
always disconnected from our own: they overlap
our perceived universe." Or my personal favorite offered up
by Leonora Galigai, a convicted 17th century witch,
who, when asked by her judge how she had enchanted her victim,
replied, "My spell was the power of a strong mind over a weak one."
Still I'm not sure how any of this can help my father
up past midnight listening to voices, dealing with memories,
real or perceived, that he'll never reveal.
Or Hunter, awakened to a world of unrecognizable sounds and sights.
Or even me. I lied when I said I was okay with the ghosts.
There was one I never understood, never wanted to believe in.
He stood at the edge of my room, just days after I'd found him
dead outside his bath, his heart twisted into a knot,
my grandfather over my childhood bed, staring.
I'm not sure why I woke, or how long he stood there, silent,
or even why I didn't say anything to him, or call out
down the hall where the phantom glow of the TV flickered.
I was a grown man with my own child before I ever confessed
this, my first real fear, my first connection to another world,
to my father. When I did he looked away, nodded
then sighed and nothing more was said. We sat on the back porch,
late August, and watched a meteor shower. We understood
the how's and why's of each falling star, the theories behind
interplanetary bodies, but we preferred the mystery,
the old wives' tale of how each represented a death.
One of us, I don't remember which, lit a candle. Then I slept
under that sky, and when I woke it was morning and the world,
so bright and clear, was beyond my knowing.

Negative Space

My wife is drawing the body
as best she can, dark line
against the blankness she now has
a name for. She has always felt it,
that empty hole we live
our lives filling. What she's after
is winter's blood & heart, the solid heft
of breath steaming across the mouth,
frozen, measurable, ecstatic.


The two a.m. face of the waitress rising
over a steaming pot of boiling beans
in an all-night diner near Hays, Kansas;
the well-fed hawk resting on power lines;
the astronauts of Apollo, of my childhood,
playing games in zero G's with floating Jell-O and ballpoint pens;
Skylab--both in orbit and freefalling into the Pacific;
my first lover buoyed above me, the weight of her breast
on my mouth, her wrists thin and brittle as birds' wings;
the brute whack of a Barry Bonds homerun;
the scar on my father's chest where they'd opened his ribs,
the weight of the human heart a mere 1l ounces;
the theories of Newton and Einstein, the theories
of my friend Steve on theories, how everyone's got one,
and how theories on force and resistance pushed Steve
over the mountain where, according to witnesses,
his car soared twenty feet before arcing
downward into the cliffs; James Dean;
the implosive spirals of Elvis, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain;
the coal-blackened faces of miners near Logan, West Virginia
stepping from the mountain's shaft into moonlight;
Hunter, at three, calling out, "Be careful. You'll fall like an angel,"
and me surprised that he knew that phrase,
so surprised I start to say how it's too late,
Daddy's already fallen. But I think he won't get the joke.
Those Sunday rides as a kid in my Dad's Caprice convertible;
how the leaves on the maple and oak flared in the sunlight,
the way the limestone cliffs, solid and sheer, rose above us,
while below the gem-studded New River shimmered and shimmied;
the way my Dad always took the same highway,
the way his loose curls flew around his face like a boy's,
how he laughed and reached to hold my mother's hand,
the way she smiled back and breathed easily,
the wind carrying us to no particular destination,
only the hum of the engine and the thumping mantra of the road;
how the following day we'd rush to work and school
and clean house and pay bills while the air around us would sizzle
with arguments and fear, betrayals without forgiveness;
how for a few hours every Sunday there was the road,
and those first evening stars reflected in the river;
and of course there's always the river forced lower and deeper,
and dawn the color of bruised gills,
and the fishermen stalking the trout, casting the cricket into eddies
so it dances just enough to lure the fish to surface
because the trick, you see, is not to cast a shadow,
the trick is to believe we're made of light,
and we've never really fallen.

Devolution Theory

Late at night when I remember the women
who shaped their lips into a perfect "O"
over the burning end of a joint and blew
shotguns into my mouth until our heads
grew as full of static as the AM station
out of Dubuque and we slid naked and willing
into the backseat, I'm amazed I've ended up
this marginally respectable, 401K contributing,
family man. I'm as likely to be caught
today reading Popular Science on a park bench.
Or if I'm really daring, you might find me browsing Darwin
at Hot Rodz, the local exotic bar, where $4.50 buys you
a watered-down bourbon and a corner table
far enough back not to be bothered or recognized
but close enough, between paragraphs, to watch the dancers.
There are moments when I allow myself these visits
into the smoke and light of my former life
that I hear my name denounced through the megaphone
of what's correct and decent,
and I rush outside to make certain no one
is photographing my car and license plate
for distribution on the Web under the title
"Perverts and Miscreants of the Carolinas."
It isn't that I've forgotten my wife,
or the women before her I spent whole nights with
arguing the rules of love. I wouldn't
exchange a single one of them for any
locker room myth-fest or testosterone prom.
But I won't renounce that world of men either,
leaning against their Mustangs and pickup trucks,
their hoods lifted like battle flags,
groping beers and engines as readily as anything,
sniffing the exiled edge of a wilderness of their own making.
Maybe this is the best that natural selection can do.
Marking trees and tires with our own pee's scent,
barking out lists of boasts, we dream of wading mouth-
deep in the slough of primordial love, not because we're afraid
to hope for something finer, but because we see
those invisible borders drawn on bodies,
places allowed and forbidden, and growing closer
we hear the robotic clamoring of the soul.
So like any good primate we thrust a hand deep
into the stinging ant's hill because what's hidden there
tastes sweet, and the pain, being this much
alive, sweeter still.