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.
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.
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.