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Explain: Beach Trash

In the beginning wind spoke to sand words whipsawed & thin as hairgrass.
In the beginning bear laid down in the pine dunes her great, weary head, & in
          wonderment sand fleas came close, & gulls followed the fleas, & the rocks
          cared for no one but the waves, the two sharing their salt & minerality.
In the beginning we had only one thing to do & that was worship & serve our
          hunger, bear grease smeared on our cheeks & chins.
In the beginning we came every day down from the safety of the cedar spill &
          walked to the end of the spit, light loose & white, & sometimes came across
          a gull’s wind-licked bones & sat down & stayed with those bones a long
          time, as we should, even now,
the beginning so long ago, our confusion, as it was then, immense, though our
          hunger has thinned, become a small channel, the reedy neck of the August
          estuary, or the dampening line of beach wrack, which we crawl along,
          hoping again to hear the words, dragging ever behind us our windy sacks
          of bottlecaps & cracked plastic shoes.


Explain: Harvest

That was when the last stars
were ghosts, & the far hills dawn-haunted ghosts,

& we, too, were ghosts
hauling grease guns & canteens,
clink of ice, snap of cut stalks,
& the six note songs of meadowlarks

clear & good to hear
in the half-light. That was when

grain trucks as old as grandfathers farted & sparked,
& bachelor neighbors crawled out of the Bull Mountains
with twists in their dark beards,
& each day began with the knock
of the straw walker,
the thresher’s metal howl. That was when

there were jackpines, sagebrush,
the bleached, refractory yellows of prairie sunflower,
yarrow foundering
in the wind. Gravels roads were gods then,

& carried you & ten tons of winter wheat
up creekless cutbanks
& over alkali-wasted flats

& past that fenced square
of slumped headstones at Lemonade Springs,
which wasn’t sweet or sour
but dry, dry as the dust

that lifted as you passed by
& settled on your lips. That was when bad luck

snapped a belt, sheared a bolt,
barked your knuckles to the bloody quick,
& you closed your eyes

to hear all the better
the boss’s coming storm of furious
& lovely curse words. The wind was a gift,

cloud-shadow a consecration,
your own back a slab of sanctified stone
you could set against most any goddamn thing
& heave. At sundown

the combines coughed to a stop,
& the boss’s wife showed up
with a half-rack of warm Rainier,
& in the deepening silence, in the blackening night,

you all stood around,
stars of pain rising in your wrists,
the butterfly muscles

beneath the eye. That was when
there was a second skin
of dust & chaff,

though you were every night
too tired to wash, & so fell to bed
to dream yourself clean,
dream yourself
into another, kinder life,

& now there is another life,
& I am telling you, child, there is only one

good luck, & that’s to choose
your own gods & ghosts, your own
excruciating stars.  


Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. His third full-length collection of poetry, When We Were Birds, is forthcoming from the University of Arkansas Press in spring of 2016. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Ecotone, The Sun, Orion, and Slate, among other magazines and literary journals. A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award finalist, he lives with his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.