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.
“…And I dream of her always / even when I don’t dream.”
He sounds like the desert
northwest to me,
every night, somehow, still.
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,
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.