Dale Cottingham

Dale Cottingham is of mixed race, part Choctaw, part White. He is a Breadloafer and won the 2019 New Millennium Award for poem of the year.  The poems in this volume are part of a collection he currently has in circulation for a publisher.  He lives in Edmond, Oklahoma. 

Crucible

I.


				I bear a silent grudge against the day, 
the way sunlight edges, as if with purpose,

				over the horizon, gleaming through tree lines,
					as if to reveal their secrets,

exposing roads to a god’s eye view,
as they lead through clefts,

and chest-high grasses,
            each moment offering the possibility

of journeys or mediations—the new day
					shining—but not saying what will be . . .

				Driving two-lane concrete—our going
					evoking a larger sense of passage, 

tires’ thrumming percussion running 
over expansion joints, uplifted, laughing,

we extrapolate, forsaking
the mundane interstate

for winding byways—we catch a whiff of smoke,
	a wisp, almost inconsequential,

thickening to veil our road, as if to show
	how mere sight can deceive,

my neck craning to see, 
wind shoving the smoke—


its carbonite, cellular, woody taint,
					making its way over ridgeline, careening 

				to the next innocent valley—
					our noses rank 

with sulfur,
					eyes stinging, mouths tasting gall,
 				
and then we see it—
the burning, 

a double-wide at roadside, at arm’s length away,
front wall 

pealed away, 
sofa and kitchen 

table ablaze,
flames shooting, 

like random arrows, dark
smoke billowing,

like a storm, structure melting 
like plastic in Vulcan’s forge—
 
				a family caught by chaos,
mouths gaping, eyes fixed on the rage— 

a harrowing which no voice spoke,
where burning utterly consumed—

me too—no prayer took shape,
not even a breath escaped my lips

as my grip on the wheel tightened
unbeknownst to me,

as the day revealed a lesson 
I hadn’t guessed I needed
in yet another kind of death,
as we called for help where no one could.

II.

Memory’s stage curtains slide open
	on another drama—the only grandfather 

I’d known closed to speaking by seizure—
	I imagine his mind like a river roiling and swirling, 

carrying his share of mud, debris, elbowing 
as it flowed, no way to hold it 
 	
or to pick one landmark phrase
to encapsulate his whole life,
	
no way to choose,  
only this rushing, this going,

his floating on the gurney 
to the ambulance, not even his garment

touching the floor,
	his life seeming to him 

at first accretion, 
then its avulsion.


III.


We followed the ambulance with Helen,
in grainy twilight, not wholly dark,

not wholly light, between clear states of being—
	leaving my understanding to straddle a chasm, 

floating on an ocean, unable
to see the departed or forward shore,  

driving past gas stations, a strip mall, 
what the culture we inherited produced, 

buffeted by winds from the infinite, 
that don’t know or care what they blow, 

the air tainted by sulfur, smoke,  
and still ageless night waits,

conceiving and plotting darkness
we can’t fend off—

				nothing to be done, 
from the shadowed backseat 

came a frail voice:
 	Why he’d get taken? Why’d I get left behind?

				Helen’s past tense meant her moan
was not for him, who still lived, 

but for Jim, husband of her youth,
father of her four children,

one my mother—
my actual grandfather, taken 

 
decades before, on a wintry night’s 
highway outside Toledo.

How he must 
have touched her, his fingers

outlining her rills, exploring 
beloved landscape, 

marking territory they shared, leaving
kisses on her lips, whispering

lingering prayers she held close 
for decades, for her lifetime, 

propelling her even on this road, 
sixty years on, with us. . . 


IV.


I see this excision in Helen, the bleeding
that would not heal,

				a burning and stinging
					that would not abate—

				still unstitched, open to further injury,
as she traveled her future’s empty expanse, 

no landmark, no guide,
adrift, trying to make a dead reckoning—

no help from the notes she made 
in the margins of her Bible

left open on her desk,
next to the phone numbers of friends

				she meant to call, as she faced
					un-scalable mountains and heaving sea—


  				V. 


. . . for a moment, sun receding, 
in front of the hospital, wind dying outside,

I see two generations back, 
to grasslands (before this plot was made

a parking lot) dried beige by winter, 
I recognize buffalo, switch grass,

but some I do not know the names of,
					and lament not having taken

the trouble to study them, to learn
all they might have taught me,
					
about navigating this dry wind	
buffeting and raking me,

				like discarded leaves,
bearing a taint of smoke
					
from some distant wild fire,
this gale I make my way through.

Claim

Facing what remains of the barbed wire fence: 
				years of decomposition, 

like a failed assertion, 
exposing something morally hollow,

a litany of the ego’s 
impoverished imagination, 

that could not see past 
what the culture allowed, 

its reflection of the human will 
what the seasons wear away,

as its frontiers flake, peel,
revealing how temporary 

the stakes,
		fallen to ground, 

posts I see human striving in,  
tree limbs hacked to serve

a line, where the mortal 
was scrawled, these husks 

gnawed by heat, drought, freeze, 
bark loosening, 

bark letting go, 
leaving desiccate wood, 

eroded past marrow, 
wrapped by looping,

unspooled wire, rusted, brittle,
a dispensation from fear’s religion, 

lying like an omen of failed claims, 
or urging of a new day 

of stewardship of Earth, 
as it turns season to season,

while I stand, like its axis, 
on down-sloping ground. 

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