The Fourth River

Tributaries, The New Nature: Five Poems by Kerry James Evans

By on November 22, 2017

selected by Ira Sukrungruang



I am always between where and when I should be.
Like a pigeon with one wing and half a foot,
I lean too much, fall into my dinner,
when all I meant to do was bend down
to get a bit closer to a meal I had no business
eating in the first place. Collards
don’t sit too well with worms, or whatever it is pigeons eat.
Come to think of it, collards don’t sit well.
My grandmother brewed tea in a pickle jar
—she’d leave it out in the sun until good
and cooked. Still tastes like pickles,
even with that sweet well water. I don’t know.
Maybe it’s better to be incomplete,
to hear the pitched squawk over the song.
Not once have I mowed a lawn and not been bitten
or stung by something. I should be thankful.
At least I have this wing and this peg leg
to keep me between here and wherever
I thought I should be going. Even with one ear
I can listen to my friends up on the wire.
Some are in love. Others are fighting.
I guess we’re all looking at a wire
and wondering whether or not to leave
the one we’re on. Well, I’m still on the ground,
but that’s not all bad. I’m closer to the food,
and I’ve made friends with horny toads,
mice, and even a striped cat named Virginia.
She could have eaten me. She could have batted me
all over the sidewalk, tossed me into the air,
and—with one claw—sliced me open
like a paper bag, but she never did.
Maybe she could see past a landscape
still soaked in blood, and that to understand
that world means to walk in it, even if it means
having to limp through life like a bird
nobody ever liked to begin with.



these pink and yellow desert orchids
rooted in stone-fired clay pots
and white bowls that lean
like monks who no longer chant

sunlight that beads through morning dew
like a hummingbird the house
itself a desert which has flowered
a 1929 duplex conjoined to form

a Spanish-styled stucco labyrinth
with a minotaur whose hooves
clomp through the house like The Devil
in a Tarot spread I sleep beneath

a bear skin blanket I muse in a garden
whose lone raspberry begs for a mouth
and a tongue so finally I ask myself
why I came to the desert I came

for the bottles of water and the air
and though not all of us arrive we must try
to turn what seems like endless gunfire
into a chorus of scrub jays in flight


Nowhere in Particular

My neighbor dropped off a bucket of lemons sour as love scorned,
then asked for the bucket, and when I said, Where will I put the lemons?

He said, Your lemons, my bucket. For two years I watched my guitar
hang by a leather strap from a hook that curled up like the answer

to a question my father would ask after I stayed out past curfew.
Nobody ever fooled nobody. Nothing leaks oil worse than the present.

Yesterday, I passed a Cuban bakery when walking in Miami,
and I thought to myself, How can anyone go on living in a world

without bread? After this thought, I walked right off into the ocean.
I like to think—that in the afterlife—David Bowie and Muddy Waters

jam with nothing but a pair of spoons and a skillet. Maybe one steel string.
Maybe one washer. One nut. Just enough to keep the candles lit

while Japanese beetles carry whole empires beneath spotted shells.
We call them love bugs. Heaven is nothing, if not electric. Light it up.



I walked through a green door
into a windowless basement,
carrying a sun-bleached BDU blouse.
It was a Friday. The lady
in charge handed me
a pair of scissors to shred
the blouse. I began
by snipping buttons.
When removing a pocket,
I found a disintegrated mint
still in its wrapper. I removed each patch
from each shoulder, each fistfight,
each promotion, my rank—
I removed it all. It took longer
than expected. I walked
down the hallway, then dumped
the remains into a basin
of water. In the middle,
a metal grinder emulsified
each piece, which produced
a gray / brown pulp.
It was a process.
With two hands I dipped
a screen into the pulp,
then watched as it drained
into a bucket. I was making paper.
The lady offered me a stencil,
which I took, and with a spray bottle,
imprinted an American flag.
While it dried, I ate lunch
by a fountain with other veterans.
We ate turkey sandwiches.
We drank tea from purple cups.


Meditation with Disembodied Speaker

If I stare long enough into heaven’s webbed fabric, its nuclear fission
caught in buckets of water held            by a slender woman
with imaginary bones      for a body,

what keeps me here but the       foghorn blast
of a train engine dragging coal from West Virginia?

What smell but            the sulfuric-acid rain,
the deformed roses reaching for chimney smoke?
I walk inside,   where the kitchen floor
stinks of     bleach. The lamp in the corner
blinks like a distant quasar.      Without me, the blink

is          hardly a word. I am the center of it all,
looking through two eyes         at a world
rolling like dough on a      baker’s pin.
What am I even looking at,         when I gaze
into Tallahassee’s legless sky? Is it       the beginning of time?

Do I climb the fence?              Hop the train?
No!      Another mistaken middle-aged
busybody napping in a foldout     chair, I think about stirrups
in the bedroom.     My youth hangs open like a half-filled condom.
There’s too much out here for one pair of eyes.

Moreover,     how do I share a galaxy?     It’s a great deal
for one person to inherit. I walk back inside.
My living room     rug is almost a constellation, the wine stain
an excuse for a star. I’ve brought all of it       inside.
Even the owls: a picture of my wife hugging me          at the waist.

My sweater           is feathers,
red and silver, spread wide against the wall.
If I open the sliding     glass door.   If I let myself glide into the juniper,
will I look up with the same nervous gut?
Look at us.                We’re almost flying now.



Kerry James Evans is the recipient of a 2015 NEA Fellowship, a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and his poems have appeared in Agni, New England Review, Ploughshares, and many other journals. He is the author of Bangalore (Copper Canyon), and he currently and works in St. Louis, Missouri.