Clay Matthews

April’s Elegy


Spring and I remember my brother scratching

his skin until the pus rose there like diesel

from a puddle of water, oil from vinegar,

the poison ivy crawling over the tree

line at the edge of the cotton field

where we cleared out an old road. Muddy

Waters on the radio, an old dobro a friend sat

under a tree there for three months because he wanted

to hear rust moan—he needed a sound that wasn’t

quite right. Now it’s old photographs and wisteria

balling up on a power line post, the vines

reaching out from graves and the kudzu still brown

but already remembering it will soon be time

to make you remember again. I have a voice but god

didn’t build me for song, just singing

in the low light of dusk where the days stretch out

and when I think of my brother I think of the heat

coming off fried chicken on a stick, the ways we fed

ourselves from the pails of gas stations and glass

bottles: to be born with nothing, to have

nothing when you die. Again it all returns and death,

some surreal story from a children’s book

I keep coming back to, again, the cows have wandered

into the neighbor’s field and there’s a little girl

out there all alone calling them home, her voice

like a prayer you can’t ignore anymore, it beckons

beside the streetlight and an old basketball goal,

the ivy waiting for the dark to rise up,

again these windows and outside the fields

of yesterday, the corn rising like a tide

until the green is at your neck and then you’re gone,

surrounded everywhere and lost, safe,

stowed away form the world and the words

of someone you love telling you everything

is gonna be alright.


Good Fences


A mockingbird perches on the edge

            of the neighbor’s metal roof, a giant old house,

the white stripes of the bird’s wings stretching out

            like a flag. It can be a dangerous thing

to look up. A pecan falls just then

            before it is ripe.




A neighbor’s story. A due unto others.

            Her trucker man, home only long enough

to get her pregnant each time, and then

            once home for good they divorced.

She breaks lily and iris bulbs apart

            constantly now, leaves them

in a wheelbarrow beside our back porch.




I climb under a truck and try to envision

            the history of oil. It gets ugly.

I feel small in the shade, giant in the sun.

            I dig holes in the hard ground for the flowers

the neighbor brings, sometimes thinking

            it will all be too much,

the blossoms will be everywhere.




The child plays in the grass.

            The woman hangs clothes on the line.

I hear something over a microphone

            on the other side of the town,

a man’s voice I can’t make out.




We can’t thank her for her flowers,

            the old wives say they’ll never grow

that way. Sometimes a gift leads

            to more work, sometimes you can curse

a blessing, the thousand parts of our daughter’s

            toys, spread across the living room floor,

nothing making sense in the directions.




It is usually best to transplant

            a flower before or after it blooms.

There in the interim, the lesson is,

            enjoy a thing where it lies.

Next week a storm might flood the world.

            Next year everything you put down

might come back.




She is crepuscular in the summers,

            working the shade of the earth’s

belly. Her son comes home from work

            and mows the tall crabgrass.

Once she saw him making giant circles

            around a weed in the middle

of nowhere, thinking it might have been

a flower—something she’d planted

without anybody knowing.




A power line goes down and burns

a hole through the center of an oak.

A generator hums, the frequency of power

replacing power, a boat motor in the Mississippi

calling out the Asian carp to fly. Angels,

she said at the end. They’re here. Thousands

balled up and dead in a backed-up irrigation ditch,

this is where we send stories to die: empty

pitchers of beer and a tumbler of whisky

in chicory coffee, shrimp shells rotting

in a cardboard box. A turtle dove with her head

pulled off, a throat full of milo seed

and in the charcoal month we’ve burned

the breasts and sang a song or two.

Amen to the spark before it catches fire,

the pistons of a three-wheeler bouncing

across a fallowed field, and a boy

with nothing better to lose

gassing that two-stroke into the distance.

What waits there? A question about pronouns

I haven’t quite been able to figure out, slow rain

and a tree line filled with the voices

of starlings settling down and turning on

the cicada station. Late nights with a forklift

and the arc coming off a welder, fusing

these cut pieces together for now.

        return to poetry

Clay Matthews has published poetry in journals such as The American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. His most recent book, Pretty, Rooster (Cooper Dillon), is a collection of sonnets written in syllabics. His other books are Superfecta (Ghost Road Press) and RUNOFF (BlazeVox). He teaches at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee, and edits poetry for the Tusculum Review.