by justin hamm
AFter the Argument
Everyone you love
sleeps in a quiet room of midnight.
Which is of some comfort,
Alone with the words
you should not have said,
you rest your head
against the storm door,
trying to tame your breath.
In the neighbors’ window,
pink and green lights,
the Aurora Borealis
of a television talent show
strobing in the darkness.
A gruff-voiced dog
barks his ineloquent warning
to the coyotes in the field
behind the house.
An uninvited memory:
your mother and father
embrace in a dingy kitchen,
just an hour or so after
she held a serrated knife
to the white of his throat.
In a corner, you
and your baby sister huddle
like broken puppies,
trying to tame the violence
of your sobs.
The moon a round bone
afloat in a black lake.
Time, a knife. Memory, the same.
Our failures to understand one another—
small blades, every one.
You tell yourself you are better
than what you come from.
You tell yourself that every
couple has it out now and then.
You look up toward
the neighbors’ house again.
Christ, you think, there is
no loneliness on earth
like watching someone
watch someone else
try to dance.
A pouch of white pelicans
on the ancient Mississippi,
a hundred or so sailing
delicately over the bones
of sunken steamboats
and their forever-grinning pilots.
I crouch near the river bank,
stare in a cloud of awe,
ignore the cool April mist.
How strange—to make a fuss
over a creature I’ve read
would gladly swallow the teeth
from my children’s skulls.
I admit it. Something dark
has hunted me a long time now.
No one can see it, but I can
see it, just the way I see the songs
that crawl from a widow’s eyes.
The girls finally tire of their wild dances.
The sun begins to slide behind the pines.
I sit upon a driftwood throne, watch
waves break white against beach rock.
At the far horizon, sky and water cease
their slight division, melding into a single blue.
Meanwhile, my own mirrors, ages nine and five,
seem to grow a little further from me every day.
But on this night they come in close.
We huddle together in a tattered old quilt,
and I tell them tales of Ole Brunes, the first
immigrant fisherman to build in this bay,
the storms he battled, the cows he sailed
up along the coastline from Grand Marais.
Many others since have fished this rich spot
where the Flute Reed flows into Superior.
They also loved daughters, and they watch now
with a jealousy only the dead have earned.
I feel our impermanence like a wild storm
inside my bones, draw the quilt tighter
against the bluster and chill of the fishermen’s
breath blowing off the big lake.
Whatever news they’re whispering can be dealt
with later. It is nothing the children need to hear.
Originally from the flatlands of central Illinois, Justin Hamm now lives near Twain territory in Missouri. He is the founding editor of the museum of americana and the author of American Ephemeral and Lessons in Ruin, as well as two poetry chapbooks. His poems, stories, photos, and reviews have appeared in Nimrod, The Midwest Quarterly, Sugar House Review, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, and a host of other publications. Recent work has also been selected for New Poetry from the Midwest (2014, New American Press) and the Stanley Hanks Memorial Poetry Prize from the St. Louis Poetry Center.