War of Attrition

TankAt 15:04, Tyler’s ‘57 Volvo comes to a stop by the caterpillar treads of a tank. Although a decade old and acquired second-hand, the blunt-nosed car is still a shiny red, like the sunburned arm dangling out its window.

The tank sits on the edge of a Wisconsin cornfield, put there by a local veteran of World War II. The barrel of the old armored vehicle points out toward Interstate 90, running parallel to the service road where Tyler has come to a stop. The August afternoon is brilliant, filled with the sounds of traffic and barking dogs, with the screeching of crows in the top branches of the nearby oaks. It is a moment for Ty to love everything: he’s graduated from high school, his summer’s free — nothing required today but a trip to the grocery store. It’s a time of passage and possibility: one door has closed, and another stands ready to open.

Tyler’s right hand rests on the black plastic ball of the stick shift. To his left, a dark blue pickup truck is pulling out of the little gravel parking lot by the tank. Its driver, wearing a black cowboy hat, suddenly notices the Volvo and jerks to a stop.

Ty motions for the pickup to proceed. The cowboy defers with a wave of his hand. Tyler waits a moment to be sure, then begins to accelerate. The cowboy sees the pause and moves forward.

At 15:19, a police officer parks his squad car next to the pickup and steps out.

By 15:31, the cowboy has accepted responsibility for the little dent in Tyler’s front fender. As the police officer completes his notes, a blue jay rises from an oak branch overhead. The bird squawks, drops its payload and is out of sight — leaving a white stain on the officer’s navy blue shirt.

The officer smiles dryly, shaking his head. “For some people they sing,” he says.

At 15:46, Tyler pushes a grocery cart briskly through the U-Save, gathering the items on his mother’s list: bread, milk, a large bunch of bananas, frozen orange juice, carrots, pretzels, canned tuna. In the produce aisle, the stock boy drops a box filled with heads of lettuce. Although he is forty minutes late, Ty stops to help pick them up.

“Lettuce turnip and pea,” he quips.

At 16:15, Tyler pulls into the driveway of his parents’ house. The grocery bag wobbles slightly in the seat beside him as he opens the car door. His father comes out of the garage and walks slowly towards the car. Behind the front door screen, his mother stands silently. His father’s face reddens; the right hand clenches — his eyes fix on the front bumper.

“Give me your license!” he snaps.

Tyler’s chest fills with sudden, hot electricity. He stands motionless, unable to think of anything to say.

“Don’t even think about arguing with me,” his father yells.

Ty pulls the plastic card from his wallet and surrenders it. His mother closes the front door and is gone. His father returns to the garage, throwing the license into a trash barrel.

Tyler enters the kitchen through the patio behind the house. He goes directly and quietly to his room, pulls a carefully packed, olive drab duffel from under his bed, and carries it to his car.

Where one door closes, another opens. Better to retreat a yard than to gain but an inch.

On Interstate 90 at 16:38, Tyler rummages in the bag of groceries for a banana.

Copyright 1996 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in Tasty Morsels: An Anthology of Short Fiction


Writer in the Closet

I have noisy neighbors. That won’t surprise anyone who has ever lived in an apartment. There’s always that neighbor who doesn’t believe they’re noisy. Or just doesn’t care.

Quiet isn’t always available to writers who need it. Here’s how Robert Bly described the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.

“Rilke had begun a way of living that later — except for visits to castles or the apartments of the rich — became typical for him: a city, not much money, one respectable suit, a small room, often on a noisy street because it takes money to purchase silence….”

Unlike Rilke, I was able to purchase silence via noise-reducing headphones. While a little uncomfortable, they cancel out most sound.

When I inherited a small wooden desk, I found another way to effectively achieve quiet: I put it in one of my walk-in closets. There’s a decent ceiling light, and the door shuts.

It’s a little strange, but it blocks out distracting sound.

“Und warum trifft es immer mich?” Rilke asked: “And why am I always the one who hears it?”

Copyright 2017 by Brian Dean Powers

Can You Say It in Just Two Lines?

Blake Manuscript
When I first started writing poetry seriously, it took years to learn how to make longer poems with fully developed ideas. Lately I’ve been interested in the opposite challenge: how much can a poet pack into a couplet?

Here are some examples, some of which you will probably recognize. I’m also posting one of my own.

Richard Wilbur included this work in his collection, Mayflies. Although the poem was published in the 21st century, it’s written in rhyming iambic pentameter.

     A Short History

     Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame.
     Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came.

This example by Mark Doty is from his book, School of the Arts.

     Shahid’s Couplet

     Your old kitchen, dear, on Bleeker: sugar, dates, black tea.
     Your house, then ours. Anyone’s now. Memory’s furious land.

Walt Whitman put this little poem in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass.

     The Untold Want

     The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
     Now voyager sail thou forth to seek and find.

This famous poem by Ezra Pound was written in 1912.

     In a Station of the Metro

     The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
     Petals on a wet, black bough.

This tiny poem with the enormous title appears in Mary Oliver’s Redbird.

     Watching a Documentary about Polar Bears Trying to 
     Survive on the Melting Ice Floes

     That God had a plan, I do not doubt.
     But what if His plan was, that we would do better?

This is my first attempt at a two-liner.

     [Broken] [Shine]

     I don’t know who broke my bedroom window.
     Sunlight blazes the long edge of cracked glass.

So what do you think? Do these poems feel satisfying, or do you want more? Is it fair to say this brief form sometimes requires a good title in order to succeed?

Listening to Cicadas

Tree in Sun

August already: time to see summer
before it sinks. Beneath bountiful branches

I stand and watch the sunlight soak
through green and breathing leaves. All 

around, like fog in the trees, alarm clocks
ring beneath male cicada wings. And look: 

a current of slick, black ants flows
down the dark drive. Sometimes

I stop to hear the waterfall gushing 
from my window fan, and sometimes

I want to pour it all into words,
lingering to love what can’t be kept.

Copyright 2000 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the 2002 Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar

Orion’s Belt

Orion Constellation

They seem together
from where I stand:
three stars, a row

on a flat, black sky.
My guide book tells me otherwise—
they are light-years apart,

deep, deeper, deepest
into the dark.
I marvel at the stars,

how they burn like beacons
on distant, unreachable shores,
how the isolation

doesn’t diminish the shine.
I studied their names
when I was a boy,

stared at them
from my bedroom window
in a middle-class home

that must have looked fine—
station wagon in the garage,
closets of ironed pants and shirts,

the threesome eating dinner
in a spotless kitchen.
But there were light-years

between our plates, cold space
between our seats in the car.
There was no guide

for that constellation.
So I learned distance.
I drifted away.

Copyright 2005 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of Word Fountain

Van Gogh’s Bedroom


The artist returned to the Yellow House in Arles
after painting all day in the fields. Nature
stuck to him like a burr as he walked into his bedroom.
Pale-blue sky seeped into his walls, and the outstretched
wings of crows slipped into the window’s
dark sash-bars. Sunflowers settled
into the center-woven seats of the ocher chairs,
blossoming over the worn path of earth-hued floorboards.
A field of poppies managed to inhabit his red blanket,
but not even nature could make the room contain
the artist’s seismic swirls of moon and stars. 

Copyright 2016 by Brian Dean Powers
Published in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of Word Fountain