–for Rick Sousa
I don’t know how well you or I would do out here
with all the goddamned spiders and moths at night.
Can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a web hair.
How its ghosting on skin always keeps you scratching
and then you’re plugged in for hours catching every
little phantom itch. So when I sit out here, it’s on
the picnic tabletop, citronellas tonguing in their tins
on the porch rails. I kill the time with cigarettes
while I pet this half-gone tabby mouser that had six
months to live over a year back. “Lucky shit,” you’d
think, maybe, but from this stroke she had, she walks
on the whole of her back legs, not the paws, so now
the fur’s worn off and her flesh all blood and puss
when she crosses the cement driveway. I’m here
house-sitting because someone wanted me to give
her a proper burial if it came to it, but in the interim
a little love and care before the end. Soft, canned food.
Really, she’s sweet and I like how she swats at ants
or lightning bugs or the cockroaches that belly up
between the deck treads to sample her wet meal
on its paper plate. When I first came down here,
first night, after a thunder patch had passed by, a moth
came at me and I elbowed my beer from its perch,
watched it tumble and nearly roll off into the lawn.
I imagined you, careful, with a cigarette on your lip,
or my father, with plumb and line leveling this mess.
One closed eye. Splinter in the left thumb. It’d be
“dead balls” in no time. That’s what you’d call it,
right? “Kitty-corner,” not “caddy-corner” as my father
would say. Lessons I am better with than the chisel’s
answer to a pine board, the pipe-threader, forklift
or fuse box. Give me a simple, repeatable task. Anything
I can do with my bare hands. That’s why I loved,
so much, working the parking lot while you swung
bunks of lumber from one cantilever to another,
the brainless laboring of cement sacks into a trunk
or landscape timbers into some contractor’s truck bed.
Were you on shift when that gruff, furry guy came in
with his battered van, white paint over the back windows?
He balanced his lit cigar on the wiper blade, spat,
and ducked into the hardware department for what I
would later see was a cats paw and a pack of blades.
When he opened the back doors to toss them in,
I glimpsed a polished, copper steeple on its side
taking up the whole space. License plate, West Virginia.
Wild and Wonderful. I can almost imagine that thing
glowing even in the pitch black, the copper lit up
like a goddamned fire, reflecting the couple of floodlights
bolted above a church parking lot. Maybe peepers
chirruping like here. Sometimes I mistake a passing train
for thunder, the lightning bugs off in the darkness
for someone taking a drag from a cigarette, that the cat
is mewing to whoever’s out there, saying “Now. Now.”
Mix-tape (#3) With the One I’ve Played Too Much
St. Simon’s Island, GA:
I was always good at reading you
stories from my notebooks
where I’d given you and me
and everyone we knew a different
history and name. I made you
the Patron Saint of Cabinetmakers
because of the one night I broke
into houses along a lakeside
development with the girl I dated
before there was ever an “us,”
how we found piles of lentils
and rice and fennel in drawers,
little silver statues of Hindu gods,
and knew it was only a matter
of time until I’d be doing this
with someone else. I prayed
to your holy namesake each night
when we didn’t dare fall asleep,
but instead played those songs over
and again, that I might better handle
the learning curves of your hips,
or—if lucky—spend an evening
beside a body of water, beneath
a crowded vista that would leave me
helpless. I almost believed in
my own creation that spring break:
hint of dew-covered magnolia
blossoms or salt, a murmur
of trawlers on the ocean dark
and a quiet flock of seabirds
nesting in the dune grass we snuck
passed, slipped through a gap
in a work site’s chain gate.
You were a little drunk, red-cheeked,
something so beautiful under
streetlight, as we recklessly scaled
scaffolding, ladder rungs, rail-
less stairs. When we reached the top
floor of the unfinished hotel, I
wanted to tell you we were as good
at lacing our fingers together
as a fisherman with knots, to ask you
which one of us was first to climb
up here, who followed who, but
on second thought just stood there
buzzed and humming your tune.
Glencoe Mill, NC:
And if it wasn’t pillow marks on our cheeks
as that mix-tape and one song—our song,
always going—looped all night long, then
it was us on opposite sides of a bedroom, you
tirelessly, endlessly trying to explain to me that
your love was an out-turned pocket and I
needed to do the same instead of collecting
everything I came across, bottling apologies,
I promise’s or Just tell me’s like letters tossed
oceanside, and if it wasn’t then, then we were
broken up or back together again, and again
driving NC-62 N or parked by my favorite
abandoned millhouse in the woods in complete
silence, helpless to whatever it was between us.
We knew we would end long before we had
the words to pen it, and I probably could have
told you (not that I would have admitted it,
or wanted to) but there were a handful signs
I ignored, back on the island—how the only
book I packed for that vacation was A Good
Man is Hard to Find, or that the near-fresh slab
of sidewalk outside of that unfinished hotel
(who knows if they ever buttoned that place up)
was too set, too far gone for us to scratch
our names in it, together, or that whenever I
skipped to that one track it was because
it hurt and I didn’t want to feel whole. Fact:
a wave doesn’t exist without a crash and ebb.
Fact: I was the first one to say “I love you,”
the one who rushed up the scaffolds without
looking back to check for you and I should have,
should have shored each of your steps, one
by one. Before I moved out, away, across town,
we got out of the car one last time and sat
by the mill dam, beside the big cog stone,
wearing flip-flops in the middle of winter. You
draped your legs over the water-logged tree-trunk
ridden falls, and I couldn’t, too afraid of a breeze
nudging me just enough to topple over and in,
so I stood behind you, ready to pull you back.
The left one fell in not long after I decided I never
would have been quick enough to rescue you
if anything happened. My courtly act for the night,
giving you my own sandals so we could head home.
I never told you, but for weeks, and long after
there was an “us,” I went back and parked
and played that song from the opened windows
of my hatchback, searched by flashlight for your
shoe’s missing mate, strangely dreaming for this odd
miracle, but it was like our love, like postcards
I wrote to the Patron Saint of Cabinetmakers,
our song, all of it under starlight, already out to sea.
–from the Classical Greek, ἀγάπη
It was something like love. Christ, I wanted her so damn bad
when we left the parish grotto, past the migrant pickers
stripping basil from their beds, to a rotting clapboard house
somehow still exalted, tall in its spidery shambles.
It was something. Like love, Christ, I wanted You so damn bad—
or should I say Your water-stained, sepia print above
the brass bed frame in a backroom. We stared until fire ants
welled up from their deep nests and covered her feet in red welts.
Someone tore to hell the whole goddamn thing this summer past.
It was something. Like love. Christ, I wanted her so damn bad.
Mark Jay Brewin Jr. is a graduate of the MFA program of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper Nickel, Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. He has won the Yellowwood Poetry Contest at the Yalobusha Review and been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. His first book, Scrap Iron, won the 2012 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry at the University of Utah Press and was a finalist for the 2013 Julie Suk Award at Jacar Press.
Q: If you could create a soundtrack for your poem(s), what would it be?
A: Hot dog! I’ve got this one down! So, there is this project I’ve been working on, a series of
poems about the mix-tapes and cds made and exchanged during all of the dating relationships I had while in college (as you can see from “Mix-tape #3…”), and so I’ve actually put together a soundtrack for my poems. I don’t want to give away my official line-up because it is too dear to me, but I will say there is a lot of Chris Thile/Punch Brothers, Dashboard Confessional, Sufjan Stevens, and plenty of other heartbreaking stuff. But for the rest of my poems, I suppose the soundtrack would feature a lot of ambient noise from my neighborhood (kids playing in the streets, cars passing by, songbirds in the magnolia), a bunch of Bluegrass ballads, maybe a little Patsy Cline every now and again. I would want it to really be something, a soundtrack that isn’t simply music, but a sound story to help ferry along the details.
Q: Many love songs include the sea, the beach, an island – not so many abandoned mills. Tell us more about Glencoe Mill.
A: Glencoe Mill. Gosh, I love that place. Alright, so, I went to Elon University for undergrad and spent most of my time (when I was outside of the classroom) just driving the back, farm roads. Day or night. Just exploring. Burning gas, spending money I didn’t have on Circus Peanuts and energy drinks. The old textile mill at Glencoe is back in the woods just off the Haw River (I think that’s the river) and all along the main street are these old mill houses that people have revamped over the years—classic gaslit lamps along the road, each house painted some bright color, blue, green, red—and all of it leads to this dirt path that cuts back in the woods, along the water. There’s this dam, and above it, a perfect patch of sky. During the day, spring and summer, wildflowers grow along the banks. Hell, even all the beer bottles and trash caught up along the water's edge have this colorful, romantic look. Something about the old-timey Americana, the nostalgia, and when you mix that with the river’s flow, maybe a shooting star or two… I’m falling in love all over again just thinking about it. We need more defunct textile mills and factories and power plants in love songs. I’m starting the movement. Who’s with me?
Q: What did you collect as a child—rocks, insects, stamps?—and why?
A: Actually, as a kid, I didn’t collect much. I was really into Legos, washed my hands a lot, and listened to more country music than I needed. Since then though, I think I’ve grown up quite a bit personality and hobby-wise, and I do my real collecting now. My grandparents moved into an addition my parents built on their house, and while we were packing up their stuff and moving them in, I found a few old Skippy Peanut Butter jars filled with vintage cake toppers, plastic holly berries and leaves, etc, that my grandmother had collected over the years. She passed away two Augusts later and the jars came to me, as well as a box of empty Ball and Kerr masons that were hers, too. Since then, I’ve had a near obsession with collecting other old jars and filling them with various, random items. I have a whole wall of jars filled with things like a broken car windshield, sea glass, ugly pennies, golf balls, found eyeglasses, rusty nails I dug up from a garden patch, even a small fleck of glass I had removed from my eyelid (an injury from a car accident ten years ago). I keep amassing old jars, filling them with whatever I’ve got on hand. The jars serve as little time capsules I suppose. Moments in time. Cities around the world. It’s my own, weird scientific-type of cataloguing. A way for me to take this world, break it down, study it and understand the larger picture. I can’t stop. More jars. More of the everyday, of the random, to fill them.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to
completion (or abandonment.)
A: In short: sound sparks a poem. Words. Music. My mentor from my undergraduate studies, the talented poet Kevin Boyle, always spoke about the “aural pleasure” of poetry. I fell hard. So now, when I compose a poem, I start with a bank of words I simply love the sound, color and feel of, and create smaller units (phrases, images, parts of the larger narrative) that I eventually work them around the poem’s core. I have no talent for musical instruments, can fake my way through a ukulele, but poetry is the only artistic device I can use to create a “song.” After I get the poem going, it’s a trapeze act to the finish line. A good poem (as my grad-school thesis director, Judy Jordan, hammered into me) must balance imagination, sound, narrative and form. It’s so much fun! And it’s completely draining. I try not to let any poem simply fall to the wayside, but it happens. Either way, it must always begin and end with music. It has to have heart. I probably push my poems to be a bit more nostalgic than they should be, but I guess I am just a teddy bear.