“Caulking the Wagon” – Poetry by Devin Kelly

A classic computer game inspires meditations on suffering & struggle in “Caulking the Wagon,”  one of two darkly beautiful & profoundly moving poems by Devin Kelly in our Summer 2017 issue.

{ X }

after Nate Marshall’s “The Oregon Trail”

IN THE CLASSROOM, I GATHER KIDS around & make them relive
my childhood. I type their names into the wagon, call myself
a carpenter because I know a wheel will break eventually.
I have no desire to spend my money on what can be repaired.
Dirty sweat & knowledge. The human condition is always
in need of upkeep. Because I know a house is not a home,
I ask them to imagine our wood lined with fur, a mess
of rug begging for the shaking out. We will take turns.
We will leave as the last frost thaws free the first flowers
of spring. There’s no option to pause the game & bend
to harvest milkweed. There was no vase for sale
in Independence, Missouri. We will deliberate the crossing
of water, delegate the tasks required to caulk the wagon –
who here has not hammered tar-soaked cotton into a wedge
in order to keep their body dry? How easy our suffering,
that we may make the pace grueling. How we stop
to view a tombstone & laugh when Michael dies
of dysentery. In our heads we know there is no time –
we will bury his body with the one shovel we own,
taking turns in heat, & leave above him just a pile of stone
some stranger might use to bludgeon an animal into meat.
                                                                              This isn’t real.
Not the sun, not the pixelated bullet slow-twirling
to kill the buffalo, not the purple mountains swirling
round the plains. When I was younger, I believed
in this nation’s majesty, each loss a synonym for some
greater gain. But look. Even here, the children are dying
one-by-one, lost first to cholera & water, then to what
this game offers no name. A bullet, a color, a wrong place
once thought safe – call the outside of this school a mass
grave, a massacre, a high mass turned toward God in a language
riddled with blood. The oxen are bowing their knees, bending
weary heads to push the earth away. There are no pixels
in heaven. There is only the song of your life sung backward
through the mouths we call the stars. You listen & feel
the wagon wheel’s roll, the crunch of it winding in reverse,
the land unbound & unnamed, the paper turning back to trees,
the trees un-leaning their way toward sky, all of eternity
driven back to dawn. By which I mean the promise of something,
that slick patch of morning when what you expect is the same
as what you hope. When my father returned from the West
he brought back a soft pack of cigarettes & a custom
cowboy hat. His mother was still alive. Later, no one sang
at her funeral, or if they did, I don’t remember. There was
only my father & his returning no longer a story & how his brother
left for West so many years ago & never came home. Most days
I want to give in to nostalgia, surrender my body to the burn
of light curling at the edges of a memory, trade old stories
like currency.  Sometimes the going-on is the dirty speckle
on the petal of a rose, beauty gone to hiding. There’s no option
to turn back, the kids say. How will we carry all that meat onto
the wagon? The sky does not look like that. They sigh. They moan
open their mouths like fish to unhook themselves from twine. This game
sucks, they say. This game sucks, this game sucks, this game sucks.

{ X }

DEVIN KELLY earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the forthcoming collection, In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (CCM Press). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches poetry at Bronx Community College, and lives in Harlem.

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