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C.N.P Poetry 

  • Writer's pictureCathexis Northwest Press

To my Wife, on the Train; John Prine; The Dead Birds Found in Jim’s Ceiling

By: Matthew Burns

To my Wife, on the Train

I should tell you 

about the view I have, 

of the way I can see 

from my seat 

the headlamp of the engine 

shining into the night 

ahead, of the slice of black 

sky appearing above the cut, 

around the bend of track 

that bends above the Snohomish 

that, in turn, bends 

through the northern reaches 

of the Cascades 

like an endless white string 

or strand of hair laid down 

among rocks and trees.  

We have been here before, 

but not in the night, in winter; 

not wrapped in the black 

weight of mountains 

that makes us feel alone.  

I feel alone and I 

should tell you this.  

This would erase that weight

and leave its gray ghost 

to sit beside me, 

on the other side of the window 

like a reflection 

dragged across the last 

visible piles of snow.  

I should tell you all of this 

and that, as we roll through 

the giant, unknowing night, 

through some crossing 

in Glacier or Whitefish or Libby 

and you are lit 

by a passing streetlight 

or the highbeams from some car 

waiting, heavy with loneliness, 

for the train to pass, 

I can see for miles 

and miles ahead.

John Prine

“…And I dream of her always / even when I don’t dream.”

He sounds like the desert 

northwest to me, 

every night, somehow, still.  

Central Washington, 

if you’ve never been, is hot 

then cold then hot then something 

vaguely resembling February 

before the wildfires light and burn 

into the round red orb of late-summer, 

then lonely.  

For two blank years, I drove to work 

or to the store for beer or to the quiet, 

holy train yard on a Sunday morning 

to write the name, the one I’ve said 

to fewer than a dozen people, 

on as many cars that would hold 

and carry it to someplace I believed 

I would never go to or return, 

and played “Christmas in Prison” 

on my car radio, no matter what season, 

and thought of the sweet hot brush fire 

of my wife who came with me.  

She was home, and I was not.  

That was not home, but she was there.  

I still feel bad about that. And I don’t 

usually sing other peoples’ songs, 

because I can barely sing my own, but 

there is one lonely line that keeps rumbling 

like some little freight train 

making the same run 

through the high desert night, 

and, for the love of everything, 

I can’t get it out of my head.

The Dead Birds Found in Jim’s Ceiling

I first think of their brittle, fragile skulls 

when I hear of the rotten presence and wonder 

if they look anything like the ones we saw 

in that old knitting factory that, months after we broke in 

and wandered every dark floor like wads of yarn 

blowing in the miraculous breeze, were stripped 

clean of flesh and feather and somehow bleached 

skull-white.  They must; a bird’s skull is a bird’s skull 

no matter where it’s found: the hard balloon of bone 

riddled with holes, the point of beak still clinging 

and true as flight.  I am sorry you landed 

in that dark space above my friend’s head 

and had to stay there until your fragile bodies met 

forever—but who has the kind of say that says 

how that will happen?  If I did, let me tell you 

long-gone pile of bones, featherless siblings, 

it would be different—it will always be different—

as I know it would have been for you: there would be 

an open sky; it would all be open and endless: 

a fragile ceiling of sky; dark then, miraculously, bright.


Matthew Burns teaches and writes upstate New York. His poems have won a James Hearst Poetry Prize from North American Review, received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations, and have appeared or are forthcoming in RHINO, Posit, ellipsis…, Raleigh Review, Camas, Spoon River, Quiddity, and others.


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