John Riley – Three Poems


I heard you nearly died, then married a mechanic.
Nothing noteworthy about either of these,
but still you sink into my rawbone brain
as I sit by this curtained window and try
to write about what Abe Lincoln meant
when he said, I love them not, but love
the one who owns another less. Should
I write we all own others in our heart,
where I held you, my lovely first heat,
first gaze, first “I can’t believe what you say?”
I seldom think of our backseat nights,
the smell of kisses drying on your face,
the shouting, the sliding, the coming alive,
the way I hated you when you cried.
Though I loved you less than others since
do call next time before you try to die


Juliet in 2004

Outside the lakeside bar, in 1957, she leans
against the brick wall, one arm across the body
that brings her so much trouble, cigarette in hand.
In the moments before full evening she watches
pelicans fly in from the ocean a few miles to the east
and begin to glide along the lake shore,
to dip and circle and make headlong dives.

So much about one pelican is like the other.
Brown and beige with gold eyes and beaks
that seem too long for their bodies.
On the shore they might be alike, but when
they fly she likes to single one out and watch
it dive to feed on the killifish and crappies.
She has no idea how long each group stays,
or even if they travel together. Their coming
and going is a thread that hides its end.

Before long, it grows too dark to see. Inside the bar
sits a man with a U.S. Navy tattoo on his arm.
Waiting, she thinks of a newsreel that played
the night before at the Carolina Theater.
It was about the future.
In 2004 robots will do most of the work
and there’ll be shots to cure all diseases.
You’ll be able to think of what you want to say and only
the people you choose can hear you.

There will be flying cars.
She doubts the cars will be able to fly
in wide looping arcs and breeze-lifted soars,
or make sudden stops on the lake’s surface.
There were crosswinds that blew in from the Atlantic
that’d make for a bumpy ride.

Would you need a special license?
She might be too old by then to get one
but she sure would give it a try.
Couldn’t you see it now? Her, old and gray,
maybe a widow. It’d be satisfying
to fly, alone, aimlessly. No one
to bother her, no one to notice,
nothing more to look forward to.


Factory Girl in a Blurred Photograph

There is so much we cannot know
about this day that never sets.
Before her first picture did she
take time to fix her position;
was it this need to settle her feet
that tilted her image undone?
Did the spark, the powder’s silver flash,
seduce her fluttering fingers
from behind the blurred and wrinkled light?
We will never know whether she knew
that long after she waved us away,
her vanished figure would linger,
her shadow continue to beckon.