The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature

Thom Brucie: Three Poems




Wounded Woods, Healing Trees


What do you get if white pine

and redwood hang on the same wall?

They both smell of rutting deer

and spring thaw, splashing aroma

against cathedral ceilings

blended into hypnotic nostalgia by

ceiling fans decorated with rattan and painted ducks,

their blades slicing smells like

mill knives de-heart the pine

and the monstrous, silent, ancient

redwoods, thick as twenty horses,

tall as a galloping herd.


Some of the old mountain men

with dull gray beards and liquid memories

like early floods say you can’t mix white and red,

instead you must

give each its place, like seasons.

I’ve met two of these old men, and I’ll

tell you this, they fear to watch

the cutting of the trees.  To them,

the ax and wood are like thunder and darkness –

when they join in a capriccio echoes and dense

silence, no man can hide from the injured spirits which

inflate the leaves and stretch new branches from nothing.

The old ones don’t make fire on such nights

because the equilibrium of plant and

planet in rare instances balance breathing with

moments of insight some people laugh at.


Once I wanted to remodel an abandoned prospector’s cabin

with a dirt floor and a history.  General Ulysses S. Grant

shot a rifle bullet into a thick round log

which forms part of the east wall.  He

was a fool, the old ones say.  He had no ear

for the quiet life which licks the air at

temperature changes.


You didn’t know that, did you?

At 47 degrees fahrenheit

the manzanita bush fills the

air with fragrance enough to tempt small

red foxes into their secret mating dance.

This happens only at elevations above

thirty-one hundred feet and below forty-seven hundred feet

and only during the months of April and May.

When the old ones saw this, they celebrated

because below the fertilized legs of the foxes

gold spilled from the red earth.


Once I dated a geologist who threw scrambled

eggs into my face at breakfast the morning

I told her this secret.

She didn’t believe.

She is one of those women who will put

redwood and white pine on the same wall,

miracle and science into the same back pack

for observation.

But the old ones knew better.  They didn’t let me remodel the cabin.

I replaced the shingles with slabs of beveled cedar

I split myself, and I patched the walls

with mud from the mound of a beaver family

so that spirit mixed with my hands and

the cabin prayed for me.


I asked the geologist to marry me and

the old ones stopped talking to me, but

they burned small chips of aspen branches so that

the smoke might open my eyes; it’s full

of fingers, you know, aspen wood, but you must

burn it on nights of darkness and thunder

in order for its science to operate.


The geologist went to work for a lumber company,

and I bought a tent.  I hiked

against the rapids flowing from the mountain’s stomach,

searching for the old ones who left a map,

drawn on white birch, using the burnt

tip of maple sticks to stain mystery into bark,

and beyond the solitude of forest

and the quiet of sunset at equinox

I seek the magic of love and thunder.




Night Train Serenade



I don’t mind the sound of the train at night,

its lonely whistle drifting through the walls

passing through my ears

like slender memory.


I don’t mind the steady rumble, either,

of the creosoted ties

reverberating within the crush of sharp granite stones

calling forth the throaty echo

of iron rails.


I don’t mind the bouncing springs

which flex like box-car suspenders

balancing rolling loads of lumber

and piles of captured wheat,

even though their images appear to me like ghosts.


In childhood I arranged

rusty nails on the track

and after my paper route, after the coal cars passed,

I spliced the flattened nails to oak branches with string

from an unwound baseball I hit so often

that the stitching of the cover tore.


The little rubber ball inside bounced higher than trees

if I threw it hard

against the new asphalt parking lot behind the bank.

Mary Louise grabbed it once

and threw it hard into the night,

but it crashed Mr. Stover’s kitchen window,

and we ran all the way to the dike

where we hid somewhere between

the silver September moonlight resting on the tracks

and the watery gray darkness of the August river.


Somewhere in the weeds of the river bank

frogs made those short little croaks with long silences between,

the ones they make in late summer

so that when you lay in the grass on the city side of the dike

you can’t hear the frogs when a train goes by,

but if you lay on the river side you can.

I guess because we were scared

Mary Louise let me kiss her

one of those eyes-closed kisses

that makes the outside and the inside of your skin tickle.


We never kissed again, and I’ve tried to forget it,

but sometimes, at night, when the sounds of the train

slide through the walls like ghosts

and jiggle wispy images lose in my head,

I discover that

I don’t mind the memory,

and the warm blankets holding my skin

soften the rumble of the train.




A Carpenter’s Legacy


Virgil always signed his work.

Somewhere hidden in a wall

or the back of a cabinet

we signed our names and left the date

so one day another carpenter

would find us,

and we would pass our legacy

to another generation.


He wanted everything we built

to last one hundred years.

Some of my work has not lasted.

Some of my early work

was built on sand, some constructed in weeds;

only after many indignities of carelessness

did I learn to seek foundations of granite

and attention to time.


I look back upon the number of my days,

the walls I stood,

the roofs I framed:

I have spent the expanse of my body

in making things,

calling forth structure from wood and steel,

amassing a fortune of memories making

cabinets, doors,

windows, floors,

walls and ceilings.

Do these monuments justify my energy?


I wonder who, for instance,

sleeps under the roofs I built?

Are they dry?  And safe?

Are the foundations of my family steady and robust?

Are the walls of my friendships plumb?

What is my life made from

if not the corridors I have built

between my burdens

and my loves?