Poems by Joe Wilkins


Tamping Bar


I know the exact ring of dark grease
a bad bearing gasket makes
slung to the floor
of the machine shop, the squeal

of the creeper’s split-wheels
beneath my father’s broad back. I know

how to lift the rifle from the rack,

palm a paperbox of shells. I like the clink
in my pocket, the cold, golden slick
of them thumbed into the clip.
I’ve seen the lamb’s skin unzipped,

what was inside
turned out, the long, puzzling ropes of guts
tipping into a metal stock trough.

I know this road, every turn & washboard—

it leads to the cutbank coulee
where we dump what of the dead

we don’t need. I tally there
the thin, black spores of coyote shit
shed almost delicately

in the dust. I know my body is the lamb’s body,
I know my father’s hands tenderly plumbed
every bevel & concavity of the engine
firing beneath us. I don’t know

about the tumors hardening
across his belly, the furious cell divisions
spilling into his lymph. I have no stories
or landmarks to help me map

his coming absence. The dust of the road
ladders & loves the white-blue sky,
& I am & love everything
I see. There is so much
I do not see. The way the nothing we call wind

thrashes the trees. I’m afraid most of all
of the years between us. Once there was an us.

Once long ago my father told me to grab the tamping bar
from the back of the pickup, & I knew
just what to do.




The first lamb comes clean & easy,
comes wool-ribbed & wet,
& the second—smaller, pinker—
has the curved, limp look of a fish
in my grandfather’s hands,
in my hands, as I hook the caul
from its nose & gentle it
next to its mother, the old ewe
licking one lamb & then the other
& huffing proudly, motherly,
as each lamb bleats feebly,
that nodding stalk of newborn neck,
& I stand, the ache of midnight
in my knees, behind my eyes,
when—crack!—the ewe flings
her head back, grinds her wide eye
& wild tongue in the dirt & straw,
the whole of her rocked, wrung—
& my grandfather is reaching
in, is trying with only his hands
to hold back the meaty rush of prolapse—
Hell, he says, hell & goddamn
& I’m standing there dumb, standing
a thousand miles & thirty years later
at the kitchen sink, my own hands
disappeared in the dishwater.


Joe Wilkins was born and raised on the Big Dry of eastern Montana and now lives in the foothills of the Coast Range of Oregon. He is the author of a novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, praised as “remarkable and unforgettable” in a starred review at Booklist; a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers; and four collections of poetry, including Thieve and When We Were Birds, winner of the Oregon Book Award.



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