Al Ortolani is the Manuscript Editor for Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas (USA),
and has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in
association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. His poetry has
appeared in journals such as Rattle, Prairie Schooner, The New York Quarterly.
His most recent collection of poems, Swimming Shelter, was chosen as a Kansas
Sitting on a Rooftop in Arcadia, Kansas
I Watch a Patrol Car Chase Two Kids in a Golf-cart
There are few places to hide in a ghost town
even when your electric motor is as silent as wind,
even as the coyote nosing the neighbor's trash
sulks behind the boney lilac. The sheriff's deputy
knows your names anyway. His revolving lights
are shut down, his engine pinging with bad gas.
He'll be at your house before you've turned
south on Military, before you've realized
you're caught. The woman next to me
hands me the bottle of red wine we've been sharing,
her sandals tapping the sandstone façade
of the potter. Ghost towns are perfect venues
for poetry readings, perfect for patchouli and loose
cotton blouses. In the cornerstone below
there are dells in the wall where old timers
sharpened their knives, hollows filled by night,
by poems disappearing like fast golfcarts,
and when you find you've been found
like the date on the back of a photograph,
you imagine there is time for living, the coyote
tearing trash bags, the nighthawk
swooping through the single streetlight.
When I study a poet, sometimes I read poems
from the end of their lives first, then I page
backwards through time. You could say
I begin with the scars, the proud flesh
healed or suppurated,
then in the early pages, where wounds
astonish in enjambment, where
blood marks the line breaks,
I begin again.
Sometimes reading works this way,
I hunt for salves, for herbs,
to bandage with greater skill,
to tighten or loosen the tourniquet,
to triage the end of the day.
there is no indication of it being eaten by humans
—Missouri Department of Conservation
I walk through the woods
at the edge of the city, rain pelting my jacket,
filling my prints in the muddy path.
I use my phone to photograph plants
that I can't identify. My dog runs free,
lost in the thickets, rabbit runs
I'd have to crawl on all fours to follow.
I identify a young Jack-in-the-pulpit,
Solomon's Seal, sprouts of Blacksnake Root,
Garlic mustard, Rattlesnake Fern, Shepherd's Purse.
This could go on all day with my new app.
The dog is in no hurry. My boots sodden.
I keep the photographs in the cloud.
On my next walk, I will have forgotten
as much as I've learned today, so for reference
I take more pictures than I need, each day
a cut worm, a stone dislodged.
At the end of the deer fence is a honey locust,
a grandfather, long dead, partly fallen into
a spray of dogwood. Eight-inch thorns
pierce the heart of mist.
Barred wings of the mockingbird. Ticks.
My father was known for giving away
holy medals and pocket Rosaries
with only a decade of Hail Marys to finger.
At one point he handed out gold-colored
lapel pin doves. I wore one on my brown
corduroy for years. Maybe I still own it,
rolling around the bottom of a keepsake box.
Mom didn't go for all that. She didn't even
keep a recipe of our favorite meals.
She wasn't stingy, but she kept things inside
her head, rather than written on cards in a file.
I never met anyone who didn't like her
Sunday chili or her Irish cabbage.
After dad passed away, we hoarded his rings,
his nine-dollar watches, his fake gold bracelets.
When mom's mind started to slip,
when the kitchen grew impossible after Mass,
when she forgot how to cook, it was as inexplicable
as forgetting a child's name, as simple
as sleep walking. One evening before forgetting,
I phoned her about stuffed peppers, and she offered
three different versions based on the spices
I could find in the cabinet, and for whatever
came next, there was a spoon for tasting.
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