Four Poems by Gary McDowell


The overnight part. Lightning like struck matches,
distant, heat I cannot touch. Step into the ghost—
it won’t mind—and pull yourself through the rain-glint.
Your hands a halo, your voice a folio of do not disturb.

The storm owes a debt. It drapes and cleaves in every
direction. Memory at the speed of thunder, a refusal
as question. Sleight-of-hand is the second oldest
profession but the first one based on lies. Selling

your body—it is morning, our limbs have direction—
the small space on the back of the neck that buzzes
you alive: A wind-splint, an ellipsis, and every
tongue. The wet breasts of songbirds. The after-rain

when they flutter like emptying a tulip of its dew.
But enough about me. The sky darker now and hushed.



The baby frets. However belatedly. Overcast today,
an abundance of cover. Radiation is bullets, the sun
a massive fission. We are rimmed in fear, are never
more than eight minutes away from—. There’s

a theory in physics that says jokes are funny
because of quantum gravity: The brief lag between
punchline and laugh is your brain falling through
spacetime just far enough to catch up to its future

self. Laughter is therefore the oozing of time into light.
Let there be light? No. Let there be humor, ill-wit
and the talk-talk of jays, the gripping down
with our toes into the soil. Our skin breaks when

it dries, our hands let loose when they tire, and we list
the world in threes: We can’t otherwise conceive ourselves.



All up and down this tiny dream I think of you as
the limbs on the persimmon tree. Of trailing, of
having waited—the world is waiting—every limb,
every sprouting. To disappear and reappear in foliage

backlit by the scatter of leaves across the moon.
So much of the poem is trapped in these wonderings,
in these moments of glimpsed beauty, but what of
the rest of our lives, the shit we wade through

to find the syllables swarming toward—twisting and
twisting—this chorus of things certain, true, and
resplendent? Mid-phrase of the sparrow’s call,
an SOS or a celebration: I don’t hear the difference.

The ceiling is thirty thousand feet. Below it we can see
all there is, and even some that isn’t: That’s where we live.



A way of life. The curvature of the Earth, its
lilt. A fox on the side of the road. A garment
bag with legs, a snout. This is a failure of imagination.
Greed is precise. Open the window, let in the wind.

Sleeplessness can wait. I don’t want anything I can’t
hold in my arms—this orbit, this constellation—
unless the river, which is you, only you. Its silence
is staggering. Like blood to my hands you return

to remind me. For the first time I’m tired
of believing. Not pity, not the second-hand spinning
as slowly as a geranium opens. Take it to heart,
she says, as the storm arrives over the horizon.

In which part of the night sky will you find its
brightest light? Beyond, beyond: Sing it, touch it.


Gary McDowell’s most recent book, Aflame, recently won the 2019 White Pine Press Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in Fall 2020. He is also the author of a collection of lyric essays, Caesura: Essays (Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2017) and five previous collections of poetry, including Mysteries in a World that Thinks There Are None (Burnside Review Press, 2016) and Weeping at a Stranger’s Funeral (Dream Horse Press, 2014). He’s also the co-editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Prose Poetry (Rose Metal Press, 2010). His poems and essays have appeared in journals such as American Poetry ReviewThe Southern Review, The Nation, and Gulf Coast. He lives in Nashville, TN with his family where he’s an associate professor of English at Belmont University.