Certain lines in this poem are in conversation with lines from songs "Goddamn Lonely Love" by the Drive By Truckers, "Go It Alone" by Jason Isbell, and "The Great Below" by Nine Inch Nails. Those lines have been highlighted with links to the songs. This poem was also published in issue 35.2 of the Pinch.
In my dream it's over
& over again: my brother becoming
a tree: his lips going wooden & striped
with pine grain, his feet
turning to roots & finding creases
in the floor from which he becomes immovable.
His broad human shoulders smooth
even with his neck, his face
widens, & whatever words I try
to say to him, his needle ears
do not hear, twitching silently.
There's an old Halloween mask of mine in the upstairs
closet in my parents' house: a rubber face
of a monster whose skull can flip
back—the scalp held on with staples, brain
exposed. When my nephew finds this
next to a box of old Legos & a flimsy gnarl
of Matchbox car racetrack segments, he puts it on.
Depression has been found to be likely
familial, an unconducted orchestra
of blood left
to reverberate wildly & without
pattern, but a specific depression gene
has not yet been identified. Several
have been marked highly interesting.
Like my mother I am always worried
something is wrong—The whole bottle—
when the phone rings an hour after dinner or too early
on the weekend—the painkillers
for his ankle—One Saturday morning I picked up
the phone just as it stopped
ringing & listened to my brother's therapist
say—he's in the hospital now.
It's easy for the family to point to the two suicides as results
of extreme external factors: that the loss of bodily
control would do that to any proud man, that if your wife had gone
& become an arsonist you might've also leaned goddamn lonely
into a 12-gauge. It is an answer, enlarging the hollow.
My sister swears we are becoming more alike
with each day, but math is my nephew's favorite subject.
This proves that we are, in fact,
different people. He learns how to figure
common denominators & shows me even though
the numbers on top might be different, they can be
combined & there's your answer.
I imagine the discovery of the depression gene
as excavation: a shovel instead
of a microscope, a dog stuffing its nose into the ditch between
scoops, & striking something hard & thinking it rock
at first but, after piercing deeper & wedging it
out, seeing a knotted burl of petrified wood.
When my nephew is suspended from the school bus for firing
paper hornets at the back of his bus driver's head,
my sister has me talk to him—He listens
to you—Later, he gets in trouble again for telling his classmates
thunder is God farting & rain is God peeing.
If I say I belly up & disappear, into which universe
do I go it alone, & can he hear me
still, & is there whiskey there, & is it stacked
on this one like a chord? Why is loneliness
any less a sin: if I enjoy myself here, in this edgeless
mud, who will torque the whip & scar my name to my back?
Each time I face the dream my brother's face
becomes tree & his mouth barks
over. I have hung
from his words since childhood—when he took
the time to praise me, to call me bud, & I stopped
everything to make sure I remembered. His words
are smothered over & his heart, a timpani beaten
In a game my nephew used to like I am a caged bear. I am trying
to get out. When I reach my arms out of the imaginary
cage & catch my nephew—who runs
by at unnecessarily close range—I tickle him.
He has since grown out of this game.
When my nephew gets a couple books from the series he reads
he tells my father he also needs a bookmark.
Out of the hundreds of bookmarks on the rack—with Wolverine
or green worms or little boys reading with their brains
popped out—my nephew chooses
the one that looks like a strip of bacon.
When I am homesick, I picture the massive yellow
poplar & my grandfather
underneath it in silence. The tree grows
rapidly year-round, its leaves a fractal of truncated
hearts. In April it earns its other name—
tuliptree—& buds out its little fire
bundles, which turn agape &, terminal,
fall onto his lap.
Eyes wide into a silty expanse, he is
drowning, the tendrils of my dream
finding first root: the first poem I ever loved
was one my brother wrote in high school. Unable
to control his urges to swallow, his mouth
gapes open & he fills with lake water. His ribs
constrict & water sprays from his lungs as he breaks
the surface, hoarse & choking on his own
The blackness of the house
swirls beneath his green needles like it's gone
nauseous in the liquid dark. My brother
in the dream will always be persistent
green. He stiffens from flesh
to wood, squeaking like a cork
twisted back into its bottle.
Dissatisfied with the monster
with its brain exposed, my nephew
wants a different costume for Halloween.
When he walks into the store, he tells my sister
he wants a superman with muscles costume.
Somewhere inside he changes
his mind. For Halloween,
my nephew is a sword-wielding hotdog.
Underground & kept isolated from the decompositional
force of oxygen, the wood is slowly bored
out with minerals, organic matter
hardening, & whoever finds it is left
with a perfect stone mold of all
that could have been.
Wood when petrified
crystallizes, hued green
-blue with contaminants—cobalt, copper,
producing something harder, much
stronger than before. It holds in its stone
grooves a gyre of quartz. Immovable in the wretched
frozen processes of helixing & unhelixing, the remains
of termites stud across its rings like ornaments.
One night my nephew is a wailing mess
when my sister puts him to bed.
He is inconsolable, unable to speak between
breathless heaves. Finally, he tells how he misses
his uncle, how he doesn't understand why I don't
see him more. I call him the next night but before
I can explain he tells me again
about his new bacon bookmark.
My family on my father's side has held
its roots in North Carolina since 1749.
In 1963 the state tree was declared
the pine. The longleaf pine, which was
more prevalent in 1749 before the lumber industry
took off, grows its needles in bunches
of three. It is especially resistant to forest fires.
My nephew & I play catch with a wiffle ball
when I visit, the ball striping, unstriping with maple
light, its little hiss rolling into our hands. When he asks, I throw it
as hard as I can—his hands too wide—& it hits him dead center
on the forehead. At first he's fine, but when I start laughing
he turns angry, balls up his fists & before running away
around the corner of the house, yells You want a piece of me?!
The trees in the Blue Ridge Mountains
each year make color out of cold, flame
a new mosaic. The Parkway veins
through 469 miles of dogwoods, pines, poplars—everything
alight with the new tilt of the earth
& the persistent green that steadies it.
From the dogwood branch slumped
over all the way so
its twig-end touches
ground, I swung as a child
in a wooden chair my father made.
When Fran came through
& showed the orange bottoms of trees
to the green world, stricken
green, that branch held.
The swing's suspension
ropes, though, had rotted long
before, & the swing
fell. There are no false winds.
It's the hardening of my brother's body
in the dream that wakes me—that he cannot
move, that he cannot change from this
form back to flesh, that his heart is heart
pine, that his veins turn to rings & the marrow
torques with turpentine.
It's that I cannot chop him down.
Within the first few months of my nephew learning
to walk, he steps off the end
of a dock, bobbing
once before his clothes soak heavy & his baby fat no longer keeps him
afloat. My brother jumps in
after him, his pale skin going ochre in the murk.
Days before Christmas, his father leaves
my sister after more than a decade of marriage,
& my nephew does not understand.
In the months that follow—between
bouts of incurable despair & more
trouble at school—he becomes
protective of his mother & begins
to help her more than usual
around the house. Dishes, chores, keeping
his room sort of cleaner than before.
Spring comes early.
Cherokee legend tells of seven boys
at the beginning, when the world was new,
who played a game with a stone
& stick all hours of the day.
Upset with them for not helping
in the cornfields, their mothers boiled
stones in their supper. The boys, hurt,
danced & prayed for an end
to the cruelty & began to rise
into the sky, becoming Pleiades.
One mother leapt & grabbed
her boy & threw him
back to the ground so hard he was
absorbed into the earth. There, when
the soil had become
soaked with their tears,
the mothers saw the first stellate
sprouts of a pine.
My nephew wants us to build him
a treehouse in the back woods.
There are several trees
we could connect—
a poplar, a pine, a beech—each limbless
at its trunk, perfect
for a good foundation.
It will be easiest now,
when afternoons bud
with warmth, one of us holding
planks of yellow pine to the trunks,
the other securing
joists for the floor. First,
we must learn to build.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
PJ Williams' poems have been published in [PANK], Salamander, Nashville Review, Crab Creek Review, Raleigh Review, DIAGRAM, Salt Hill, Puerto del Sol, Weave Magazine, Cincinnati Review, and others. New work is forthcoming from Ninth Letter. He is co-founder and lead editor of Utter—an online journal of writing and visual art—and co-editor of It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop (forthcoming, Minor Arcana Press). Find out more about PJ here.