Poetry

Click the links below to read one of Kelly’s poems about little things that inspire big ideas. Listed in order of goodness. Or chronology. Or random.

The Day Grandpa Taught Me to Drive

Hands at ten and two,
I inched tentatively closer,
Riding the maroon bumper
Of the Buick in front of me,
My wiry frame shaking
On the upholstered bench seat
You sank into, arms crossed,
Cherry-flavored pipe tobacco smoke
Dancing down your suspenders,
Filling the cabin with the aroma
I still associate with you.

I glanced back and forth
Between the dashed yellow line
Whose meaning you’d quizzed me on earlier
And your wrinkled, bearded face,
Behind smudged horn-rimmed glasses.
You only gave a half nod and a wave,
Daring me to pass.
I signaled and floored the pedal,
Feeling the vibration of the steel cage,
The goosebumps from both
The nervous thrill of acceleration
And the air conditioner you always set
At its full arctic blast.

I expected a raspy reproach
As the speedometer arced
Like the setting sun I raced under,
But was met only with a heavy silence
That voiced your disappointment
In my youthful disregard
For the rules you held so dear.
You let me pass three more cars
On the winding country highway
Between ours and the next town
Before making me pull over.

As the engine quieted
From a fierce growl to a weak idle,
I watched you watch your tarnished watch,
Bracing myself for the verbal smackdown
Waiting patiently behind the pipe.
I looked away only to see the Buick
Whoosh past us, shaking the cabin
Almost imperceptibly. Your eyes
Rose to meet mine; your throat cleared.
“You passed four cars. You saved two minutes.”
Was all you said, and all you had to say.

I wish I could say I never sped again,
Just as you probably wish
You could tell me again about how
My freckles came from
Tanning through a screen door,
But neither is possible.
Still, as I sit idling in rush hour traffic
Inevitably in the lane twelve cars
Behind a stalled out minivan,
I catch a whiff of pipe tobacco
From a neighboring car and look for you
In the passenger’s seat, longing
For the freedom of a country highway.

All the way to the top

Home

Is it the place you were born,
The place you grew up,
Or the place you live now?

Is it the rinky-dink, one-horse town
Where you managed to beat
The odds of an unconscionable
High school dropout, meth addiction,
And teen pregnancy rate —
Or the nearest major city
You tell strangers about
When they ask “Where ya from?”
To keep the conversation short.

Is it the place you reference
Within your own city limits,
Or the one you can’t wait
To have people ask you about
The second you’re one mile outside?
The place you couldn’t wait
To get away from, or the place
You can’t wait to get back to?

Is it the mouse-infested, beige double-wide
Where your parents brought you
Home from the hospital,
The yellow ranch with unfinished drywall
You snuck from every night
To make out with the quarterback,
Or the white suburban condo
With the oak crown molding
You commute from so you
Can make your way in the world?

I’ve been to all three this month
And I still don’t know.

All the way to the top

Shotgun

The early summer air
Is two-hour-old bathwater
Attacking her senses as
She exits the not-limo
To walk down the not-church aisle.

She climbs eight once-red
Carpeted stairs in her
Doctor-approved, once-white heels,
Sweat glue instantly pooling
Under the folds of white satin
Expertly concealing their
Tiny not-miracle.

She feels her blood
Oscillating through her veins
Like dirty oil, propelling her
Forward to her father’s
Not-ecstatic smile and
Impatient arm, her not-fantasy
Wedding gown laboring
Each subsequent breath.

The eyes of Mr. Not-Right
Greet her stunning entrance
With ambivalence and fear,
The same substance hammering
Her swollen feet to the creaky floor
With each irresolute step.

Who gives this woman to be wed?

All the way to the top

My Mother’s Hands

I once joked about lending you
My ‘seductive red’ nail polish
Somewhere in the off-again
Part of the on-again, off-again
Relationship you had with Gary.

I suppose it would’ve looked strange
On your hands, rubbed raw from
Hard work, much harder than it had to be.
It wouldn’t have complemented
The superglue you used to bind
The deep cracks in the skin
On your knuckles to keep the blood
From seeping up through
The life lines on your palms.
It would’ve made the fertilizer
And cardboard box shavings
Harder to clean out from under your
Neglected, fractured fingernails.
I imagine It would’ve looked better
On the hands that held me
When I was a baby.

Have they always wrung in
Nervousness, even when you
Swaddled me in infancy,
Broadcasting your anxiety to the world?
I might’ve inherited that from you.

All the way to the top

Occupy Rural Route Two

Demand number one:
Repay taxpayer bonds with corporate gains
From a livestock auction

Demand number two:
Start immediate construction
On a green light rail system
To take us back and forth to town

Demand number three:
Offer pizza delivery.

Demand number four:
Repeal the law that makes it
Illegal to shoot deer
From our kitchen windows

Demand number five:
Widen the shoulders on all
Rural highways so cars can pass
Us in our International Harvesters

Demand number six:
Expand Citizens United
To include farms in the definition
Of corporate personhood

Demand number seven:
Preserve teacher tenure
So our children can get the same
Crappy education from the same
Crappy teachers their parents had

Demand number eight:
Prosecute the teenagers
Who use my land for sex

Demand number nine:
Stimulate the farm economy
By forgiving all agricultural loan debt

Demand number ten:
Force the meth cookers
To pay their fair share of taxes

All the way to the top

Sister Christian

We were all close to God –
My brother and sister and me
Crammed into creaky pews of
Oak under layers of white paint
Between the blended family
We stomached and our friends
The pastor’s kids.

We chased each other
Up the street each day
The church doors opened,
Hungry for God’s love
Before we became cynical intellectuals
Laughing at the absurdity
Of immaculate conception.

You were the last of us
To cling to your faith,
To swear by its influence
In guiding you through life,
To share your testimony
In parts of the third world
Us two would never go.

As long as you believed,
I nourished the hope that
There was hope for something
Beyond this world, simply
Because you believed.
Today you told me you find
Christianity hard to swallow,
And I lost all remnants of belief.

All the way to the top

The Split Fingernail

It was the second time I worked at the Cracker Barrel,
The time after college; the time after I left you.
On a late, debilitating Cracker Barrel night
Before a too-soon, grown-up desk job morning
I dropped a ten-pound can of forgotten salad bar item,
Instantly snapping into two unequal vertical halves
The neglected fingernail of my scarred middle finger,
Unhappy neighbor to the finger that still assumed
A smooth skindentation of a freshly-removed
But long-worn wedding ring.

I used the paltry paychecks and stacks of wadded,
Gravy-stained one dollar bills to get rid of our
Negative equity housing bubble impulse buy,
My recently-totaled-yet-lien-ridden car,
And your last name. I tried to mortgage anything
That reminded me of you.

The fingernail still grows in two separate pieces
Today, chipping away one side at a time when it gets
Too long – a regenerative reminder of the dark times
I stomached trying to free myself of you,
But a token nonetheless of a life I mostly escaped,
And how much worse off I’d be with you.

All the way to the top

Culley’s Pub: An Elegy

Today I walked by the bar we used to frequent
Every weekend and pre-weekend.

I peered through the vacant film that coated
The windows that used to advertise
Mickey’s grenades in bright green neon
And saw the wavy walls, lined from floor to ceiling
With the empty Jager bottles we drank with
Your friends, now occupied by spiders
Hiding behind the peeling labels, yellowed
By age and cigarette smoke.

The drink ledge I used to sit on
To better see the irreverent-yet-catchy
Cover band that played every Friday and Saturday night
While you sympathy-flirted with the damaged coeds
Was warped by years of inattention and water damage.

The only thing more faded than the once-blood red sign
Above the boarded-up green door
Is any feeling I might have ever had for you.

All the way to the top

Meeting Hokey

I remember it because it was Shark Week
On the day the internet suggested
Your video of Paranoid Android,
The flux capacitor that took me back
To the final encore, the moment
The stage lights turned Blizzard Blue
And I felt the familiar shaken percussion.
At 0:03, I heard the familiar scream
Of my own voice behind you.
You must have been eight feet tall
Obscuring my view of the spellbinding stage
That took me into the Thom dimension.
I remembered your nice ass
And powerful arms that acted as a tripod
For seven minutes and eight seconds.

The internet told me we both drove
Four hours to go to that show.
Maybe we should have carpooled,
But I didn’t know anyone in this city.
I hoped Hokey76 wouldn’t think I was forward
If I left a comment on his mindblowing video
That represented one of the most blissful
Moments I’d ever experience.
More blissful, even, than Shark Week.

Things in my Stuff Drawer

Two years’ worth of dead AA batteries
Eaten by my wireless mouse
That need to be recycled but sit
In a corner heap like half-dirty laundry

A flimsy, unscented dryer sheet
That I run through my hair
To kill the static cling
Of the dry, frigid winters

A once-twelve pack of thank you cards
I bought over two years ago
To send the woman in HR
Who interviewed me for this job

A cheap, touristy keychain
From a coworker who went
To South Dakota that I don’t want
But can’t bring myself to throw away

A stack of five by seven manila envelopes
Stolen from the office mail room
Used to send writing submissions
Printed with fresh toner on office paper

Payment coupons for my car loan
That still have my married name
And my pre-divorce address
Printed in bold, black letters

Pictures of places and people
That used to hang by thumbtacks
On my soft, gray cubicle wall
That I don’t want to look at anymore

All the way to the top

Crayola Caste System

I remember the parade of Crayola crayons
In the jumbo box of eighty distending
From the skipping arms of Melissa Rich
As I shrank under a Rubbermaid craft table
Holding my sixteen box of Rose Arts
With the invisible “just” preceding the label
In one of my small, just-peach hands.
I watched Melissa with my just-blue eyes,
Her first-day-of-school razzle dazzle rose dress
And wild strawberry patent leather shoes,
Tossing her goldenrod curls, blinking her cerulean eyes
Struggling to secure the colossus
Of Crayola crayons with the built-in sharpener
That separated the two of us.

All the way to the top

Tequila Sunrise

The elixir that brought us together
Separates me from the ones who matter,
The ones I shun to see you every night
Through the distorted gray
Of the bottom of a pint glass

Each squat jigger of spirits
Takes me further from me, closer to you,
The chum who’ll hold my hair
Away from my vacant face as I vomit,
And welcome my fading into bilious sleep
On your once-black, petrified sofa,
And offer a secondhand shoulder
For me to cry spiked tears on

But whom I’ll never see in the warmth of sunlight,
Not even through bleary, next-morning eyes,
Or touch without the cold of a rocks glass
Still damp on the palms of my weak hands,
Or receive comfortably to anything greater
Than the most insignificant of events

Which we share every night
As we meet under the glow of neon
Where we’ll drink ‘til our blood
Is as thin as our friendship, that’s
As empty as the glass we slam down
On the sodden formica we lean against
Instead of the people who remind us
Our affection is as fake as we are to each other.

All the way to the top

To a Moth

I have fluttered my way to many,
Index finger protracted with each
Wavering inch to transcend friendship.
Can I brush the light and escape unscathed?
With a veneer of bravado, I refuse
To heed the warnings; I am too intoxicated
By the brilliant radiance, the allure
Of the light. You are hypnotized like me.

Why do you fly toward the light?
Your dull, earthen wings—twittering—
Wild fanfare stitching haphazardly
Against the textured, white ceiling
Of a drowning, incandescent living room.
Why doesn’t it hurt when your feet,
Head, wings graze the flame?
You ricochet off, disoriented,
And rediscover your life’s purpose.
Flying—in a trance
Trying—with your dance
To keep from getting too close. Moth,
Come rest on my scarred fingertip.

Oh, let me fly with wild fanfare.
Let me imitate your moronic virtue
Without consequence.

All the way to the top

Skipping Stones

Because it can’t take the silence
The river whispers through the virgin grove.

In no way inferior, it makes the crickets
Sound their shrillest cries to overcompensate.
In no way scared, it eases over
The intimidating stones and snaky limbs.
In no way inadequate, it waltzes godlike
Gliding inches from the lips of the bank.
In no way guarded, it bares its soul,
Its will stripped naked to the surrounding forest.
In no way lonely, it walks hand in hand
With the fishes and leaves and broken branches.
In no way unfeeling, it invites the moon to dance
And the dragonflies to make love on its silver skin.
In no way an outsider, it reflects the image
Of all who visit its immaculate shelter.

It is in no way like me—
An inferior, scared, inadequate, guarded, lonely, unfeeling outsider
Our only likeness is our superhuman strength

But maybe today, for just a few hours,
I’ll let the river be strong for me,
Because I’m tired of being superhuman.

All the way to the top

Seeing the Sunrise After an All-Nighter

A brilliant apricot sliver of sun
peeks over the shadow of the east.
A fuchsia ribbon slices a once-cerulean
sky, star-laden with the new moon’s best.
The uppermost crests of the high, thin clouds
gradient themselves in indigo.
Like a catcher signaling curveball touts,
twin beams shoot white toward earth below.
A crimson glow blankets the cold ground
that echoes beneath crickets’ feet.
Morning’s radiant splendor all around
in hues of amethyst, scarlet, and aquamarine.
Gazing at the spectrum of Roy G. Biv,
I hate myself… I want to live.

All the way to the top

Ode to a Quarter

Gazing through the bottom of a Mason Jar
for God knows how long, you sat
until Fate seized my arm and sent
you tumbling to the ground below.
Sitting among rocking shards
of transparent green glass, I thought
you insignificant until I needed you.
I chose you from the mass of slivers
and held your aged, greenish body

I carefully withdrew you from my small
right front pocket and twisted your serrated
ring between my fingers. I swept
your suffocated face free of pocket lint
with my thumb and surveyed your face.

Did you afford John Doe the morning
paper so he could find a job during the Great
Depression? How may disputes were settled
by your cartwheeling through the air?
How many shots of Jager have you sent
down frat boys’ throats?

I’d love to hear your story, but my throat
is dry, and your life span is greater than mine.

All the way to the top

The Bird

I thought I saw your face today,
cut out and paperdolled on the faces
of nameless passersby like a shapeless
demon hiding in the shadows;
a phantom in the dark recesses of a curtain.
An instant meeting of eyes
before the elevator door closes;
a blink that transforms you into a person
who smiles awkwardly and looks away.
Another haunting apparition of you,
cemented on the face of a driver
as he turns onto a dark gravel road,
headlights forcing my eyes into a chink.
Fear leaps into my heart when your black
gaze paralyzes me and I, terror-stricken,
anticipate the words you used to say
when you saw me:
What the fuck are you doing here?

All the way to the top