Three Poems by John Sullivan

The Work We Do

When wind blows this bitter, nothing
conscious, nothing live stays rooted long.
Trees, windows buckle and snap while one
man, tiny in the land, dismounts his 4X4
bushed from the last ten senseless hours
and a gust hits him hard, and then
another. He hunches over, folds
his arms around the core of his
loneliness and slogs through wet mud
to the door of his double-wide.

Inside, he’s got no Babe, I’m home,
no Honey, no voice at all
to offer the woman who sits there,
dazed and stone-eyed on their LA-Z-Boy chair,
and stares out across the flat plain, rimmed
by mesas, pocked with stunted juniper
and pinon, where the wind rolls on in
from: sheet after ragged sheet.
And she turns to him
as one fog turns inside another,
and she says to him with a hollow
smile: old gale’s been hittin’ on me,
flat-handed, all afternoon.
Just a little more of this stuff
and I’ll taste each slap, just like
Mama’s second sight, before it even
kisses off my jaw.

My own mind’s just the same
about this steady wind, and March mud, and
hard time, all alone. Gusts crack sharp around
me like a harsh whip, and topple over
my saw horse table, rip away the boards
I want to cut. I try to hold it all
steady but the old wood’s full of slivers
and the effort tears a hole in my hand.
So I drop the job, leave my tools and walk
bent at a 45 over to my own trailer thinking: this
shed – or whatever it was I presumed to build –
can stay a notion for another day, another week,
at least that. I walk in, jam the door shut, and
peer due east out the window where the laser
eye up top the heavy concrete stack
at the Coronado Power Plant blinks back at me
like the very pulse of this cold, wind-blasted
high desert. It sets me thinking how I once
loved Spring south of here.
Now, as a section of my neighbor’s silly
picket fence cartwheels off through rabbitbrush,
borne along in the throat of this endless dry
hurricane, I have to wonder: how much of my own life
will blow off toward New Mexico tonight?

At dawn, next day, it’s still for awhile, so I
walk down to “Buddy’s” where the guys from the plant
hang out after work, or gear up each morning
over coffee, glazed “bear paws” and pan dulce.
I lift up a hot mug to these men I’ll never
know well, steam rising sideways off my joe, like
Cain’s useless prayer. And they nod back, as they
trudge to the cashbox where an old school Norteña
named Dolores runs her tongue quick, pink across
her lips, and tries to jive with them –
animo pobrecito! – maybe make them smile
once, just a little.

Outside, their tall trucks wait to go do it.
And the road waits further on where gravel
switches, too abruptly, into red dirt,
and a steep bloody haze of dust.
And that lone eye waits, too, no passion
in sight or mind, knelling them all back
to work again: still tired, still cold, born
tired as they say it, and still waiting
for permission to unclench and shatter
in the afternoon’s first hard blow.


Nocturne in the First Oil Patch

Windows of Electralloy Steel glare across the black
Allegheny River, as workers yawn, punch in, and sky-doze

opens up to travelers driving Route 8 out of Franklin,
driving in from Rouseville, Rynd Farm, Petroleum Center on

the Oil City – Titusville Road. Offerings of smoke rise up
like empty pain balloons to stars we can no longer name or

bear to follow. Like when that young Quaker State exec
out of New York (circa 1976) first drove in with his wife, and

she gagged on the greasy air, sweet with benzene, and
railed against her exile from Gotham. But on a late Sunday
night, snow sparkling like silver dust above the empty

blocks along First Street, lights off in living rooms, TVs
dead in the water, all us local exiles can almost buy again

that old magic algorithm: oil equals black bucks equals
star swagger equals mammoth Victorian mansions equals solid

bedrock for an empire beyond time. Now the derricks, drills
and tank farms – all creatures “out of nature” – dissolve

into the woods like a dead baron’s dream. Hemlocks, maples,
white pines shake off their soot, the PENNSY rail line

rolls up its tracks for the night, and we’re back at it,
again, doing the real work: dreaming hard in the dark how

clean wind scatters smoke, how snow covers the bones of
tycoons, roustabouts and ancient industries, as

Orion, the Hunter and the Shepherd, drops his
sword and belt for the next hajj.

(Winter, Oil City PA, 1997)


Leaving Kansas

In the center of a deep hole, blank and no-end-to-it, somewhere in Kansas, you remember how sunlight chased your train, spreading its thin corona along a ridgeline to the west while you climbed Raton Pass, how the tinny, bright yellow leaves and silver limbs of an aspen near the creek in Trinidad shattered the late fall afternoon into shards of pale light.

When the Southwest Chief groans and lurches to a dead stop way out beyond the steel buildings, grain silos and buggy yellow yard lamps of the Garden City station, you hold your fist like warm brown Jemez mud tight against your chest and whisper a warding charm: Truchas, Sandia, Agua Prieta.

An official man in blue stumbles through the dim coach telling everyone who’s still awake about the wreck up ahead – a load of coke or slag or hogs dumped across the track – and he stops at your seat, and cranes his head down closer to your face, and seems to look for a pressure or a force in your eyes, maybe, to protect him from the wind outside that batters at the coach, from the long song lines that go on and on, unseen and barely sensed, like a speedy brood of ghosts past any clarity, that leave you simplified, naked, and shivering.

You stare through cupped hands and your own reflection in the blind aperture of your window. The soft rolly-man beside you who babbled through the evening about his Husker’s interior line, his wife’s weird family and his fear of dying on the road away from her, now sprawls and sleeps behind a vacant face. In the still coach you hear him push tiny moist bubbles through slack lips with his breath.

You sit there all adrift from midnight until next morning, suspended in a sea of prairie grass with no shape or bottom. Then the low solid sky comes into focus, almost on the sly, like a shy friend’s face bobs to the surface in a crowd and rides the swell toward you. And you now see what you feel you heard all night: strands of power line buckle and pop as the wind slaps past.

That same blue man announces that they’ve cleared the track. He apologizes for the down time and all the vertigo of this hermit’s moment in a metal box jammed with strangers, surrounded by wind, and the night. The train pitches forward, stutter-steps, and rolls on toward Illinois like a horse gathered in a smooth lope that usually lulls your eyes heavy, and lets you sleep.

But this time you’re humming deep and so low you can feel more than hear it: Hound Dog Taylor’s “Walking on the Ceiling” shading into “Give Me Back My Wig.” All these hometown songs from where you’re going, maybe Chicago, maybe some other gone horizon at some other end of time. Against the pulse and hiss of steel on steel, you’ve got to bend the lyrics, punch up some velocity and prod your ponderable body through this morning’s bright aethers with the right kind of push. You’re leaving Kansas now, for reals.


John Sullivan received the Jack Kerouac Literary Prize, Writers Voice: New Voices of the West award, AZ Arts fellowships, Artists Studio Center fellowship, WESTAF fellowship, was a featured playwright at Denver’s Summer Play (Changing Scene Theatre), and an Eco-Arts Performance fellowship from EMOS / University of Oregon. He was Artistic/Producing Director of Theater Degree Zero (Tucson / Bisbee AZ), and directed the Augusto Boal / Theatre of the Oppressed focused applied theatre wing at Seattle Public Theater. For the past decade, he has used Theatre of the Oppressed with communities to promote dialogue on cumulative risk / environmental justice issues with NIEHS environmental health scientists, and directed – with Michelle Rae – Amnesty US Local Group #23 / Houston’s Forum Theatre based outreach program.

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