N a p a l m   H e a l t h   S p a :   R e p o r t   2 0 1 3 :   S p e c i a l   E d i t i o n

L o n g   P o e m   M a s t e r p i e c e s   o f   t h e   P o s t b e a t s








A Version of Pastoral

(being a poem about rural Southern Illinois)


Part One: In Several Voices




And I sit in the café and watch

Because people come in and out

And muss the tables


Then the waitress wipes them clean

And someone else comes in

And it’s the same thing


Over and over and nobody knows

Who ate there last

Though always it was someone


And it’s the same

In the restrooms though

There some write on the walls





I told you, whatever you do

Don’t hit that roan horse

You can’t hit that roan horse


You can beat the gray all you want

She’ll just sull,

But don’t hit the roan horse


Especially when she’s hitched

To something—she’s high strung

And crazy





We went clear across to Missouri

I think it was Missouri. Somewhere south

There’s work up north but they ain’t

Friendly up there

You don’t get paid good down south

But you know what you’re getting


But I think it was Missouri

They pick cotton down there

Or maybe it was melons in that sandy ground

Anyway, right across the river on that

Big iron bridge at Cairo

And made some money

And sent it home





When mamma died

I heard about it

On the radio

On the Baptist Hour


I ever did listen to that


Everybody said

They couldn’t get here

Cause of the roads

But why couldn’t


Somebody a-rode

A horse

Across the field?





That’s what’s

Good about movin:

You get to look


All through the junk

The last folks left

And you’re bound


To find somethin

And when you finish

Lookin in the yard


You can go lookin

In the nearest ditch





Straight into the sun

Everything straight

Corn laid by


Doors straight through

Shotgun houses


The roads: everything

Straight. I wish there was


Someone to show it to

All this straightness





They put us on boxcars in France

And we couldn’t have no fire or lights

And it was cold

And we got sent to Belgium

And got moved around awhile

And got assigned to a division comin off the line

And they was goin back to France in boxcars





They don’t want live plants

In the graveyard no more


First they make us

Tear down the dirt

We pulled into mounds


And plant grass

On the flat


Now they make us

Kill all the evergreens


And the peonies

But you cain’t kill peonies


That’s why we plant em

You take a cutting


Out from the yard

And put it on the east side


Of the marker

And it never dies


Ever time you cut it down

It comes back


And it blooms bright pink

And stinks up the whole graveyard


And it draws the biggest bees you ever saw

You cain’t kill a peony


Because the roots tangle down in the hair

A peony wants to get up


Just like anybody else





In Nashville there’s a barber college

Where they cut your hair for fifty cents


You get the beard cut fer free

When I get down there


I wish I could get two haircuts for later





Then we left the Harrell place

And we moved down by Cottonwood

In that good bottom ground


We didn’t have none

We lived in a gully patch

But Dad, he worked for the men


Who owned the good bottom ground

They needed men for them ridin plows

That take three horses to pull


You need those in that heavy dirt

Where some places you drive a pipe

And up comes the water





He said, What you doin, feller?

You cut me off

Well, I said


What you gonna do about it?

Reachin across for my tire iron

Oh, nothin, he says


Nothin this time

And just turned around

And headed back to his truck





Why is the scythe

A symbol for death

Since a scythe has

So little to do with time?


Cutting the wheat and weeds

Early before the sun is hot

Walking into the field looking forward

To the first sweat


To the ease

Of splitting tender stems

Scythes don’t dread the afternoon

Or the dead things out


In the back woods

Scythes don’t dread

Seeing the morning’s work

Lying twisted and brown


In the shorter green

A scythe has nothing

To do with time

Though where I’m from


We call it a sigh





The first sergeant

He was always

Rough on me

But I couldn’t say nothin

Cause he was in good

With the higher-ups

And one day

When they was hittin us

With armor-piercing shells

And all the boys

Run into a cellar


He made me stay out

On the machine gun

And if I hadn’t started prayin

And crawled in a drain

I woulda got myself killed


But the next day

He got hit

And when he got back

He was a lot nicer





That’s what happens when Crackers get cars

First they learn a little kerosene will

Buy em some time they don’t have to work

Then they go off and buy cars and leave


But that’s ok

We don’t need

So many any more





I didn’t do so good at school

I was a slow learner

So I took ever grade twice


Once I got

All the way

To fourth grade


And got


Back to second





I mean, you just gotta have

A strong stomach

Which I don’t have

And you have to accept


You’ve got to look

Some animal in the eyes

And all of them have

Beautiful eyes


And you’ve got to say

This is for your own good

This is why you got to live

In the first place

You’ve lived good


And you’ve got to have

A strong stomach

That’s what I don’t have

And you have to accept





One day you just realize

All of a sudden

After you’ve tied

All them straps on him


That he can kill you

Anytime he likes

And he knows

He can kill you


He just don’t bother

That’s the thing

About a horse

He just don’t bother




Part Two: In Three Voices





Never did we feel

Lost in the mythic

Crabgrass of an

Illiterate world


We were self-contained

Like a sleeper

Who wakes himself snoring


We got there

Ate a big dinner

Then the men

Stumbled out


Under the shade trees

And went to sleep


They all worked for someone else


They had

Nothing to say


The women

Laughed inside

The house

And us kids


Not tired enough to sleep

Wandered like strangers

Until we met in the ditch


Picking up bottles

And cans

My eleven aunts

And uncles, my


Sixty-seven cousins

The husbands

And the wives


And the feathers

From a dozen

Killed chickens





My father and I go to Sharon Cemetery

We find the grave by counting catalpas

The concrete marker my grandfather made

Is washed smooth—no dates, no name


My father stomps a dint

Into the stiff grass and

Places the soup can

We have wrapped in tin foil

And stuffed with gravel

And two plastic roses


That’s my grandpa

He was a blind man

Blind thirty years

Last of the family

Pulled out here by horses





I’ve missed seeing the corn crop another year

I’ve missed again the smell of new-plowed ground

(though I caught a hint

Walking by a Ditch Witch)


The seeds swelled and cracked and died

And now it’s autumn—I’ve bought

Plastic for the windows

That I won’t put up and

I’ve gotten a check

For a crop I didn’t see

Paid bills without seeing a cent


I saw Orion last night

I watched my breath

As I walked toward the apartment

The sidewalk dark

Hearing the sort of gray silence

You hear pushing your ear

Against a basket of laundry


And today, the sky is absolute blue

I’ve put on the jacket I wear every fall

So that I feel like a teacher

And the students listen

When I get emphatic


And I’m not the farmer

And I don’t see the farm

And even the earth is words





The first town we went in

The buildings was on fire

Bodies was everywhere

People and horses and cows


And it was dark and

We shot at everything that moved

And in the morning we’d killed

Three Germans and two horses





I took photographs out in the graveyard

Took pictures of the fancy tall markers that came from up river

And of the sandstone ones, hand-carved

And of the empty crescent where the wooden markers had rotted away


I swatted swarms of mosquitoes and took pictures





A merry-go-round spins

In the sandy, empty park

As if it’s on

An endless loop of film


And the twilight falls

Like a tipped bike

It’s warm and a Sunday

I swing while


My wife and daughter

Play in the sand

A peacock roosts in a live oak





You cain’t make nothing horse farmin

It takes all you raise

To get the horse through winter


(Pronounced “winner” because it is

Always against our best efforts)


We had corn bread and beans, mostly

A hog wouldn’t last but a month

And cost five bucks


There was fourteen in the family

Fifteen after Grandpa came

He was a blind man, blind thirty years


And a ruptured man

He wore BIG pants

Out to here


And a fine Christian man

He’d hide hisself

And pour out his heart to God


He knowed he worked a hardship

Even with his pension check

That he got for bein in the Civil War

So he’d pray to God to die





The time is gone when wars stopped for the harvest

(1918-1940 the labor required dropped sixty percent)


Armor-production welder

Laid off

Pipe fitter

Laid off

Production welder

Laid off

And another war

And more machines

Until everyone worked

For someone else


Money buys tractors

Too many men come back

And another war

And more machines


Until we’ve forgot the cocklebur

And its double seed

And herbicide clouds float

Between the hills in August


And the children

The children have gone elsewhere





The yards are steep by the river

So steep kids learn not to drop a ball


At the very edge of the water

Two girls—almost women—

throw sticks into the current


A barge honks and the crew waves





Roads plowed in


Houses covered in poison ivy

Rats pushing up floorboards

Snakes napping in wall cracks

Then the houses disappear

Leaving a well

Or a tree

Or a stack of rusted cans


And broken machines in the ditches


When I lived there and farmed

I ate lunch in the shade

Of cemeteries—and there are plenty


I knew already I was obsolete

Like an ice-pick murder

Like a three-legged dog


I listened to the radio

And dreamed of writing poems





We had a blind horse

We got him cheap

But he was young

And powerful


I’ll never know

How he stood it—

Walkin all day

Never knowin where


We was leadin him





I sat staring at the hospital windows

A January so cold my nose couldn’t heat the air


I kept a rhythm, I don’t belong here; I don’t belong here

While wind froze my pant legs into perfect, aching glass


Going to school to be a writer

I rode the bus, watching


Smoke rise out of pipes

Then freeze and fall


Almost audibly to the ground

The shops and apartments


Dim in the flatness and cold

And people walking


Across a frozen river





It’s the Law of Averages


More went than came back

More were wounded than killed

More came back than didn’t


They’re all dead now





Daddy always said

The best thing in life

Is walkin barefoot

In new-plowed ground


Daddy always said


Plow early as you can get in the field

Plant corn when the oak leaves is as big as a squirrel’s ear


Knee-high by the Fourth of July

Shuck September till bad weather





“All other ground. . .”

How many were buried to that song?

“On Christ the solid rock I stand”


And the dusk-to-dawn lights snap on

All other ground is sinking sand”

And then it’s dark


I walk, imagining people in their houses

Families gathered, doing

Uncharacteristic things for the camera


Now it is flashing light

Then it was a cube that blued and crackled

And before that


And before that

The older folks remembering

The portraits on the wall





Who was it in mythology

Who tore himself apart

Throwing pieces in the river?

How did he do that

When he got toward the last?


I’ve managed it too

Farmer, teacher

Sick for the past

Flowing in pieces

Down the river





Porch swings and verandas

But I prefer cemeteries


I step over bodies

Dead to importance


They do not haunt me

Perhaps they enjoy the attention


I think of Sargon, Lord of Assyria

Walking over his vanquished


But I haven’t vanquished anybody

I’m only here at a different time


And the mosquitoes are happy


The labor required dropped

It’s the Law of Averages


More left home than didn’t

No one could come back


They’re all dead now


We ate a big Sunday dinner

Back when my family was alive


We ate a big Sunday dinner

Laid down under the shade trees


And forgot—as handless as

The mannequins at Goodwill


The bones will not lie there

My ashes will blow where they will

The poor, the farmers, everything

Even the hills are dead now




[An earlier draft of this poem appeared in Hey, Schliemann, from Mellen Poetry Press, 1990. Used by permission of the author]




Rev. Dr. David Breeden has an MFA from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, with additional study in writing and Buddhism at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He studied with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and William Burroughs. He also has a Master of Divinity degree from Meadville Lombard Theological School. His latest book, News from the Kingdom of God: Meditations on the Gospel of Thomas, recently appeared from Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon. His forthcoming book, Raging for the Exit, is a correspondence in poetry with philosopher and theologian Steven Schroeder. He has published four novels including Artistas (Superior Books, 2001) and Another Number (Silver Phoenix Press, 1998), and twelve books of poetry, the newest titled They Played for Timelessness (With Chips of When). He is on the editorial board of the Virtual Artist’s Collective. Rev. David is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Minnesota.