The Coe Review staff each month picks their favorite poem, or in this case, poems from recent submissions to feature online! This month, the staff picked “Ice” and “Turning Early” by poet and writer Jim Daniels.
(Zlatar, Yugoslavia, 1985)
We sit outside at the splintery picnic table
where Uncle Stefan gets hammered daily
since he lost his teaching job, his students
carrying him home drunk one last time.
Aunt Nada pours commie coke from a dusty
bottle they’ve been saving. I don’t know
what nada means in Croatian. Nothing
in Spanish. She pockets our gift
of American dollars, a magic trick in reverse.
Rain drops into our cups. Nowhere we can all sit—
six Americans and half the tiny village—
inside the tiny stucco house painted half green,
half nothing, the irritated rooms, leaning,
stuck with each other, the bathroom clock ticking loud, stale seconds.
We stare at the bouldered sky. desperate
for the rain to either stop or drown us
while the locals gamely ignore it
as they have been taught under communism
where nothing exists if you don’t acknowledge it.
Nada pours the flat, over-sweet cola,
nothing like the real thing.
In the cemetery, no tombstone
for Teta Anca, who died last year—
my father-in-law back in Cleveland
had wired the money for it.
We stood numb in the rain
and dropped our flowers on the bare spot,
all translation muted into shame.
Uncle Stefan takes our cokes,
disappears down the street, returns
with a bowl full of ice from a neighbor
with a freezer, presents it to us in a grand gesture,
half the cubes sliding onto the bare ground,
the other half, melted: ice for Americans,
the way we like it in the movies.
Nada’s bringing out cookies
mounded on a platter. The rain plasters hair to our foreheads,
Stefan’s laugh cracks into a rasping cough.
He regales us with slobbered songs
on his sad accordion. White birds flee
from a nest under the eaves. Eggs there,
Nada shows us, like the happy ending
of an old fable.
She’ll hide the money we brought,
she tells us, but we’re not betting
on better reception on their old
black and white, not betting Stefan
won’t sniff it out, send it off on
the lit paper airplanes of alcohol.
What can we say? We can say
nothing. We drop the small chips of ice
into the sticky brown of our cups
and it disappears.
Rain, and a fight with an old friend.
Sober, which makes it worse. Nothing
taken back. You keep drilling, can’t
stop. Into the molten core. Rain sizzling
in the hot spittle. Rain on your bald head.
You’d look ridiculous duking it out in the street,
laughing police grabbing you both by the ears
Loyalty, betrayal, what else?
In the woods behind you, one tree turned early,
its yellow leaves surrounded by green.
Was it a favor from the sun, or from dying inside?
You both should be standing under it,
rain knocking leaves down over you
until it is just bone and sky. He slams
his car door, the predictable punctuation
of angry departure.
A hundred years ago,
that slamming would not be possible.
Just stomping feet, barely audible, ellipses
trailing off into nothing, possible reconciliation
in the infinite.
Today, grief washes down.
His windshield wipers powered by rage.
A hundred years ago, the rain fell.
Jim Daniels‘ recent books including Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, Carnegie Mellon University Press, All of the Above, Adastra Press, and Trigger Man, short fiction, Michigan State University Press, all published in 2011. Birth Marks, BOA Editions, will appear in 2013.