I fold this map up and keep
moving. Someone else will
have to translate: jewel thief,
hard labor, the coolness
of a plum. I let my language
slip into the last river pass,
sinking in a sack with old photos,
a passport, and stolen pistol.
I’ll make my hat and the cut
of my suit and white of my teeth
catching on a thread of the sun
do all the talking. My belt
buckle as a book report: a bullet
stopped just short of the spleen,
a buck knife blocked as it was cast
at my belly to clean me like a fish,
the place I hid the stones.
Maps are no good past these hills
into Honduras. They say there,
the people haven’t invented
roads or words for gringo.
The Chief knows no mystery, the man’s married
to endings and as always the story must go like this:
some poor, aging gumshoe, he’s sent again
goose-chasing his client’s common law husband’s
mistress, finds her, the money, and a straw man, see,
they’ve got a horse racing report in hand, the couple
caught in a cloud of smoke, teeth, and bangs, nuzzling
in a booth. Later and later into night our sleuth mistakes
her sinister list of names for heartache and his vodka
for vermouth, he doubles down till high noon.
Then he’s pistol-whipped, kissed hard, boiled by the sun
and his bootless toes licked by Pacific saltwater shore.
Forget this dame, his friends and witnesses say,
you’ll be done-away-with, picked down to flesh,
clean by switchblade’s Tijuana spring flashing quick
and you’ll be tossed out with an old albacore.
None of the detectives are bloodhounds, none too wise,
but one begins to recognize the last footprint found
two steps past the perimeter of the crime scene.
He looks over to see the Chief stop to put a little shine
on those same-sized, well-worn Florsheims.
And after the getaway’s got, hopping
off a water taxi onto sandy dock. Lobsters
fight for the cool spot in your stomach.
After you’ve swum through every mermaid
in Belize and the sweat’s left in your smile’s crease.
After your legs rested, back straight, and feeling tall again,
you really think you’ll quit the grift, quick switch,
pay up full after following this three-card monte
almost to the end. You’ll go fishing for what crooks
can’t hook at home: a nickname’s end,
a house, an old sensoria neighbor who blushes
at sight of your tattoos fading and disappearing
into a wedding shirt, covering your past
like dirt on top of dirt, like the Mayan temples
overrun, ruined, and reclaimed by wilderness.
The Man from Nowheresville
-After Jack Gilbert
I came back from my funeral and crawled
around, pocketing small pieces of myself:
motes of dead skin suspended in hotel’s
halogen lights, a navy suit still smoky, and her
brass barrette left nine years ago on my desk.
I carried it like a cricket for good luck.
All my other plots will go to rot—
this final grift, born of blackjack and broken
hands, watermarked, and forged in coffin felt—
must keep the goons away one month more.
Under the underground: I grow behind
bruised fruit stands in Pittsburgh,
then to Baltimore and a one-room shack,
I’m counterfeiting two tickets
back home to Nowheresville.
Jason Braun currently teaches English and is the associate editor of Sou’wester at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He hosts “Literature for the Halibut” a weekly hour-long literary program on KDHX 88.1. He has published fiction, poetry, reported or been featured in The Riverfont Times, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, ESPN.com, Drum Voices Review, Big Bridge, Sou’wester, The Evergreen Review, The Nashville City Paper, Jane Freidman’s blog, and many more. Twice chosen for River Styx Hunger Young Poets series, he also has poems forthcoming in Rusty Nail, SOFTBLOW, Camel Saloon, Eunoia Review, Star*Line, and Mobius.
Q: We were pleased to see Jack Gilbert’s name come up in your work. Would you like to discuss his poetry or your connection to this late, great poet?
A: While I was studying with Adrian Matejka he had the class read Donald Hall’s essay “Poetry and Ambition,” then tasked us all with finding three poems that could live up to Hall’s criteria. This was how “The Man from Nowheresville” came about.
Hall writes that an ambitious poet shows the “desire to write poems that endure.” Donald Justice’s poem “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” embodies this idea, as the poet sacrifices himself for the poem. Hall writes that, “Milton and Shakespeare, like Homer, acknowledge the desire to make words that live forever.” Jack Gilbert’s poem “Married” is that every attempt to make these words and this memory and this particular story live forever. Hall writes on about the idea of fame: “For Keats as for Milton, for Hector as for Gilgamesh, it meant something like universal and enduring love for the deed done or the song sung.” B.H. Fairchild’s poem “The Welder, Visited by the Angel of Mercy” is one of these poems that should transcend our time.
When I was trying to figure out what all these poems had in common, I wrote out the first and last line of each:
Justice’s first line: “I will die in Miami in the sun”
Last line: “turning away abruptly, out of respect”
Gilbert’s first line: “I came back from the funeral and crawled”
Last line: “a long black hair tangled in the dirt”
Fairchild’s first line: “Spilled melons rotting on the highway’s shoulder sweeten”
Last line: “standing like silent children along the western wall”
These poems feature death or injury, a lonely men, fruit, dirt/earth, preoccupation with memories and a delicate inventories of objects and the setting that inform the main characters (in some cases the persona) of the poem. I had tried to write a version of “I will die in Miami in the sun,” before. It is a favorite of mine. I also love the Vallejo poem it was modeled after. But that poem started as a double sonnet, was loaded with sci-fi references, and I never found the tone. I had that in mind as I stole Jack Gilbert’s first line. Then looking at his poem and doing the opposite, what would you keep of yourself if you could after you died?
These three poets are not my top three favorite but they all work towards what Hall was calling for in his essay. Gilbert most of all was emphatic, reaching for universals, and a certainty that might only come to a romantic.
Q: What does it take to be authentically hard-boiled?
A: Born in the “no coast” of Southern Illinois, just outside of St. Louis, I was always fascinated with the idea of a getaway. Crime was the first idea that came to mind as a means to facilitate that escape.
I’ve always been around dives and rough neighborhoods. Never underestimate the ingenuity of the working class. I never went to prison but know plenty of people that did. I realize if I would have spent a few months longer jobless and living on people’s couches–things could’ve went south, as they say.
I’ve worked construction at oil refineries in Oklahoma and at chemical plants in California. In those jobs you work with people who are away from home, up to no good, and after working all day at a dangerous job–who can worry about wearing a seatbelt or getting into a barfight? You’re still safer than you were at work. The hardboiled know that everybody doesn’t operate on the same economy. That’s something I’ve learned through traveling in Central America as well.
Q: As Issue 31 will be appearing in the depths of January, what kind words might you have to say for the first month of the year, or for midwinter wherever you may find yourself?
A: Find a kind person to get close to and share something besides words. Love is a renewable resource.