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Sample Poems by Jeff Newberry and Justin Evans
Letter to Evans about Words
Dear Justin—I wanted to write “Hey, man,”
or “dude” because “dear” seemed intimate,
not kiss-intimate, but intimate like sharing a couch-
intimate. Have you done that? Sat near
someone you don’t know? Tried to track
conversation while you & jump in
the verbal double dutch? My brother & I
used to make up curses: “ass cake” & “bastard ass”
come to mind. I used a tape deck to record
us, running through our house, screaming
a stream of obscenities. Later, listening, we
giggled at each creative swear. It was a game
you could win. Creativity mattered.
For every “dick spasm” or “fuck narding,”
I could hear my father’s “dumb ass,”
his favorite words for me, the oldest son,
the one who should have been thinner,
meaner, leaner, the one who should have
been beating up neighborhood kids
& coming home with a bloodied nose,
not lying awake at night, face wet with tears,
while he pictured the earth empty,
an angry God who’d finally ruptured
the sky in rapture. When tragedy struck,
I’d dare myself to say “Damn you, God,”
or “Fuck you, God.” I never even made the word
shapes on my lips. At my father’s funeral,
I shared a pew with my mother & brother.
Our breaths mingled in the stale church air.
We sat too close, our fat legs touching,
suffocating each other with grief.
I wanted to say a prayer but couldn’t find words.
Letter to Newberry about Words
Dear Jeff: How strange to receive
your letter this morning as I laid
in bed, the first day I felt the distance
of summer stretch out like the miles
take time to consider how words are
invented amongst friends. When
I was in the army, my friends and I
called each other every foul name
we could muster. It was a game,
much like yours, and when we
ran out of names, we would signal
the end of our creative outburst by
resorting to the ordinary, dull thud
of a simple “jackass” or “moron”
pretending such a name was too cruel.
Perhaps we were just being boys
as it seems you and your brother played
along similar lines, the words setting
boundaries of rivalry and superior
imaginations. There was of course
no maliciousness or harmful intent
among us, but to outsiders we must have
looked the fools to anyone uninitiated
to our fun. I, too, was the odd duck
in my family. I wandered away from
all boyhood touchstones like a lost dog—
baseball, fishing, hunting, cars. I found
pursuits but puzzled my elders and peers.
Eventually I found my own, quiet vocabulary
but that’s not the same as knowing how to
speak the right words, is it?
Letter to Newberry from the Public Library, Lexington, Nebraska
Dear Jeff: Headed towards you, finally.
Looking forward to gazing out across
the horizon in all directions, imagining
when you will be passing me in our shared
experiment in writing: You coming west to
explore and write about towns while I go east
doing much the same. When you get there,
wherever there might be, watch out for the rains.
Too many people believe there is no water in
the desert. This is false, and you must be careful.
Flash floods can sweep away any kindness you
may have inadvertently assigned to this part
of the world. Some places are built for the rain
but others not so much. We may not have oceans
like Florida or Georgia , but our entire world
was built by water, slowly stealing rock and dirt.
When immigrants landed in the east, they built
the world they found, when those same people
came west, they discovered a world already made;
an earth made skyline processed by erosion—
a different sort of negative capability, carved,
polished over by time. The rocks rich in iron ore;
the blue mud in Nevada (first cast aside
while searching for gold) rich in silver; even
the pale brown rock and sand of my home, all of it
made in some way by the water which somehow
does not exist in the imaginations of those
who have not lived here. A pity. It all points to
an unfinished kingdom man has been destroying
ever since he came west. Don’t get me wrong,
I think we have made objects of remarkable beauty,
but I lament how some can miss the obvious.
The emptiness of the west will soon enough
be gone, so we should not try to fill it too soon.
When you arrive, fill in that negative space
you find with all your description, be certain
to leave a little space for my imagination. I will
try to do likewise, looking for places which call out
for description, certain to leave a little wiggle room,
some small, tiny place—a corner for you to
call your own. Certainly the two of us can agree to
something as simple as that. What would you
have me beware of when I arrive in the South?
What instruction do you offer? What cautionary
advice will make my journey easier?
Yours, waiting with anticipation,
Letter to Evans on I-75 South
Justin, outside Atlanta, the traffic
swells to the interstate’s edge
like the tide I remember from youth,
when a hurricane threatened the coast.
You’d watch the water coming,
never a gray wall like the movies.
Think silent swelling. Think of that old story—
the frog in a boiling pot. You know
the one? Only this time, he’s drowning
inch by inch until someone—let’s call God
an overzealous cook—pours too much
into the pot. That’s the traffic here,
man: too many frogs in one pot.
The semi trucks will force you to the shoulder
& roar on in a hot July haze.
I’ve imagined driving west so many times,
drinking up the miles like bourbon,
& enjoying the hazy drunk that follows.
I imagine life thinning—the grass winnowing,
losing one, two, three trees every thirty
miles, buildings retreating into the earth,
until all that’s left is a sepia landscape
of desert and stone. I find solace
in silence, Justin. I like the way
my ears ring after a while, songs
that play constantly in my mind.
My friend the Buddhist tells me
happiness is avoiding suffering.
I think happiness is silence—
but that vacuum scares me.
The traffic here never stops, despite
the good boys who like to believe
we all live in some rural paradise.
A friend from Idaho told me when she arrived
in Georgia, everything seemed crowded,
closed in. Nothing is more than a twenty-minute
drive away. In Moscow, she said, the mountains
shelter valleys no one’s darkened for twenty years.
That’s the place I want to be if only
so I can imagine what it must be like here,
the place I’ve left behind.