Letter to My Unborn Son Concerning Time, Fear, and Impending Fatherhood

Almost ominous,
the corn lifting grain of loam by loam
above the fields,
the sudden russet streaks
ambering the tomatoes. Violent,
is a better word. The inexorable blaze
of becoming.


First Rain

From the thin, high limbs of the black oak
the sparrows watched the man pause

beneath the eave. Then step into the rain.
As this was the corner of the season

the rain came cold and hard
and was the color of certain stones—

it was an ordinary day. It’s true
the rain fell hard, but after a time

it slackened and stopped, and the light
slanted then through the oak. The only reason

we speak now is because of all the many
possible moments this was the one—

as he quick-stepped to the car
the man kept his face on the rain-cut mud,

but tucked in his arms
the child opened slate eyes wide

to the sky. And some of the sparrows lifted
in the child’s eyes and like miracle stones

flew darkly through the first rain.


On the August Eve of My Father-in-Law’s Incarceration, I Make a List of Wishes

For all the football players in my early morning composition class to be big as pre-fab
            houses & not afraid to raise their hands.
For back in Baltimore & Alabama their dentured, squint-eyed grandmothers, that they
            may know I will be hard as they were on every muscled one of them.

For my department chair happily composing another diatribe to the dean when at 3 pm I
            close my office door & tiptoe down the hall, the saint of my own days.

For on the way home the dappling shade of maples & oaks & straight-backed pines, the
            hackberry’s thousand-thousand blood-shot & useless fruit.

For sunflowers nodding on their stalks, the great, green lengths of zucchinis, tomatoes
            feeling their flesh.

For the door opening & the door closing.
For half-ovals of ice chunking from the refrigerator.
For a glass of gin & grapefruit juice on the back porch.
For harvest dust filling the sky, laving the late afternoon light.
For the last light falling as it will now through the kitchen window while I scrub the
            dinner dishes.

For the dark, & the lamp I light against the dark, & the woman I call my wife with her
            back to me, unclothed & asleep, slender ribs winging around & disappearing
            beneath shadowed skin.

For streetlights & stars & the mothering moon, for the way all over Iowa we have laid
            ourselves down to sleep.

For a bright-cool day, once this heat has lifted & my first papers are graded, given to
            ambling & gathering rain-wet sticks of a good length, bark sloughing off & the
            wood beneath ochre & gold & with each step the weight of this sky-eyed,
            exclaiming one I call my son strapped to my back.

For down from the woods those miles of fringed brome & prairie dropseed, the way the
            world there is light & sky, riffle & sigh.

For those hundred dark & sundrop monarchs, all sail, stream, & stumble.
For whatever wind sweeps down the hills & across the ancient plains & us.
For his fat, tiny hand fisted around a grass stem.


Clear Lake

Say the wind pulled the day away. Say lake sand
scalloped into sails and faces, the way the child tried
to wrap his arms around the watery horizon. Or, failing that,
how with his flailing hands he tried to push the wind
into his mouth. Say the child crawling hand over sandy hand

for the wave-cut lake. Say they were happy just to rest there
in the sand. Maybe in the wind they envied him
his elemental heart. Or they were tired—
the drive along the water longer than they thought,
the bleared day a thing with angles, the way the world

always drifts and falls. Say the one missed the look of the other,
or the other didn’t want to sound reproaching, or each was lost
not in waves but in some said or unsaid thing, the way in a slanting
light all faces seem true and false, the way we feel
and never see the wind. Say wind, say the slap water,

say glisters of trash & sand, the fading lace
of lake foam. Say they fall to their knees. Or they have been always
on their knees, the day closing down all other possibilities.
With his hand here & her hand there they pull the wet, raging
child from the water, pull the child from and into the world again—

say what is between them then is wind-wracked
and bright as sandy diadems. But say, too, in a moment’s drift
and wind, the child quits coughing water, begins again to yammer,
and like this day offers on his tongue a dappled lake stone.


Today, the Neighbor Girl Wore a Blue Dress,
and Her Doll Was Naughty at Tea

So as if there is nothing
else to do

but this—

swings it hard against the fence.


Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry (Counterpoint Point 2012) and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward, winner of the 17th Annual White Pine Press Prize in Poetry, and Killing the Murnion Dogs (Black Lawrence Press 2011), a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and the High Plains Book Award. Wilkins’ poems, essays, and stories have appeared in a host of the most vital literary journals and magazines in the country, including: The Georgia ReviewThe Southern ReviewThe Missouri ReviewHarvard ReviewMichigan Quarterly ReviewEcotoneBeloit Poetry JournalThe SunOrion, and Slate. Deborah Kim, editor at the Indiana Review, writes: “The most striking component of [Wilkins’ work] is its awareness of ‘the whole world.’ What is ordinary becomes transcendent.... In places derelict and seemingly unexceptional, Wilkins compels us to recognize what is worth salvage, worth praise.” Though born and raised on the high plains of eastern Montana, he now lives with his wife, son, and daughter in north Iowa. You can find him online at: joewilkins.org.