Michael Dowdy

Dude’s Drive-In


     Christiansburg, Virginia

Because the town claps and peals on the tongue
they say that believers from all over
nestled Caravans, Accords, and Firebirds
beside the spec homes rising in cornfields.

Their headlights rattled down cul-de-sacs,
scanning vinyl shrines skirting a highway
that twists over the hills like licorice
and slips into Tennessee’s puckered lips.

Dude must’ve been among the pioneers,
his foot longs pink as conjunctivitis
and thin as a teen idol’s sunburned wrists
blushing crimson in the steam of his heart.

Cool in my first ride I washed his dogs down
with chocolate shakes and cokes on crushed ice,
my bare arm surfing the window a flag
unfurled to youth’s spick-and-span ventricles

and to Dude himself, pale as Styrofoam
and napkin squares so miserly they split
when a drop of corn syrup hit their folds.

Then what came came in waves from Arkansas.
Mr. Walton’s mega church soon had rows
of fast food chains tugging its asphalt robes,

growing so full of the faithful, pink slips
flattened between their buns and the cold booths
or ordained as bypasses that next time

the waters rise our dude will steer an ark
packed with whole towns of folks, as he dodges
the virtues of competition, potholes

of trans fats, and parking lot sluice, living
on the bits and scraps of whatever floats.


A Carnival Worker Testifies


My time at Acme Carnival?
A rollercoaster. No, I wasn’t
the freak guessing your weight,
who fathoms your indiscretions.

For obvious reasons acrobat
was out of the question. My gig
never got a name. My expertise?
Things that won’t stay down.

They said up-and-coming career.
I had my doubts, patrolling
tilt-a-whirls and flying saucers
for keys and comet tails of vomit,

purses windy as Wild West sets.
Sure, I pilfered glamour shots.
Can’t stand the sad gloss of nearly.
Landing in Gotham’s business end,

I took stock. Like public speaking
and first dates, career advice rarely
varies. Stick to what you know.
Me? Sugar highs and upchuck blues.

Worse? Chase the men whose eyes
dart like pinballs, whose teeth shine
dollar green. Their feats of strength?
When their voices wobble we tumble.

Just around the bend, they swear,
sweaty paws wield thundering tools.
I wouldn’t mistake the sheen for joy.
Don’t gamble the stink will keep.

When we flip and lose our freedom
fries, they say the track is sound,
claim our hands slipped the wheel.
I have my doubts. My new gig?

A funhouse. Hedged bets yawn
like nooses, dreams pimple. I take
tickets. I’m learning loads of bull
can be swallowed but some of it
             won’t stay down.


The Out-Migrant’s Family Tree, as Seen through Binoculars


Smudged along the lower ridge

a copse of knobby hardwoods


withers in coils of cold wind.

Squint past the blind curve scribbled 


in cut banks of brush, just there,

where fog-coated sycamores


unfurl scrolls of icy bark,

where taillights trickle beyond


Oblivion, Virginia,

where calm haunts the revenant.


Laurel hells strangle hearth and flue.

Even springs zigzag uphill.


No good here my wistful words.

Those provenance jackets veil


a sparrow chest and stuffed gut.       

Here, where decades stretch threadbare, 


my grave dark eyes, sockets deep

as karst caves, skitter and rest.


A tongue rhododendron tied

slips loose; restless legs snap to.


My sneakers swoosh in hoarfrost,

scything kin from the harvest


of time, stutterers who hauled

fieldstone, sunk wells, and raised beams


right about there. You have to

cock your head just so, just there,


where clouds lung the mountains’ ribs.

Where trunks bend and crack the last


inky leaves bear down, hold outs

against the thieving north winds.



Watching My Daughter


It is not possible while watching children

to make a distinction between play and work.

-Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry



Set down my tools,

computer, clock, and saw.


Ditch my notions,

debts obliged in the jaw.


Discard my druthers,

codes of spit and gnaw.


Sit down, check my cool,

watch my daughter draw.



The crayon dangles

in a whirling crook

of sapling fingers.


Wax tendrils bloom

in seams of palms

spongy as lichen.


Dirt raids toenails

jagged as hacksaws.

Dawn to dusk play,


or rise to rest work?

How might we tell

a blush from a slog?


Energy spent, gained?

For whom it’s meant?

What she can’t say?



She scribbles a land

of first letters—

phonemes root in rows,

vowels string the night.


She pulses from play

to work as an oak stirs

from root to leaf vein

in loam dark as coal.


Miles from any sentence,

myth distills in run-off,

hymns rise from puddles.


Little keeps in cellars.

Where words whittle

to nubs syllables hang.



7AM, bidding me sing

twinkle again, her palms

buff my sandpaper jaw.


I muss her seedling bangs,

take a breath, and drag

my day toward the door.


        return to poetry

Michael Dowdy, a native of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, teaches at Hunter College in New York City. A Pushcart-nominated poet, he has published a chapbook (The Coriolis Effect) and poems in Appalachian Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Kestrel, and Pembroke Magazine, among other places. As a scholar, his publications include a study of Latino poetry, Broken Souths: Latina/o Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism and Globalization.  Read more at https://michaeldowdy.wordpress.com/.