by James Dunlap

It started by the hickory tree in a hollow log that for months
                                                                has been humming and swelling with yellowjackets.

Late evening, wrecked halos of gnats twisting in the last light.
My dad shirtless and lean in the grass carrying two cinderblocks
                                                                                                               plugs each end of the log,
shakes out a rust jug of gas on it, strikes a match
with his front tooth, then another two and it’s all flames and smoke,

his face flecked with yellowjackets mean and dying
and he’s grinning to watch something break apart,
                                                                              his teeth like splinters of burnt glass.


Morning, spider-light spinning in the branches.
The cedars out by the hogpin are ready to bust open with ticks.

I’m in the sty slopping, slapping the backs of our hogs,
                                                                              taking a hog’s joy in the mud and stink.

Sometimes I think my dad doesn’t know joy
and doesn’t understand why I think my body is made of chickenwire
                                                                                              because it bows but doesn’t break.

He’s got another fire going—
                                                               he’s always burning something.


The fire is sucking its teeth and huffing the yard a strange black.
He takes my rocking horse behind the ears
                                                 like when you groom one,
hip-slings it deep in the fire,
                                                 now big-shoulder and long-fingered
and I can’t stop staring at the melted paint dripping and hissing
and the yard smells like it always does: burnt cedar, leaf-smoke, gas.

I can’t stop it now, ash-heavy smoke clotting in my mouth,
                                I can’t stop, even if I grind this poultice of dust into my tongue,
something like a prayer
                                                 or maybe the shadow of a prayer.

Dad says he’ll give me something to cry about,
                                                                                                I’m supposed to be man now.
Put your fucking hands on a shovel, boy—use that son of a bitch.


Who’s to say I’m not still there in the mud squelch and the fangs of sumac
                         in the horse chuffs and scorched dirt, in the burnpit and scabby burnt logs,
                                                                                                                                     the thorns and bullet casings?
I’m still there and I’m just a boy.
                                                 And I think I will always be a boy.
The night of my birth my grandfather christened me boy
                                                                                                                and never spoke my name again.
It seems that I came by it honestly, this thread of winnowing light in me.

JAMES DUNLAP is a poet from Morrilton, Arkansas. He studied English and creative writing at University of Arkansas and Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Other work of his has appeared at Dirty NapkinWeave, and Heron Tree.