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Apr 2018 · 258
The Rose Garden
Tom Conley Apr 2018
Melted glass that bubbles, pops, and cracks
like a laugh, or the slide of shining skin
on porcelain in the bath — you rise and splash — 
you settle and relax, you sigh and glisten.

The smoothness of a thigh like pink petals:
fragrant silk just like the heart of a rose.

Grey moth-eyes of fluttering fog that falls,
fading into the night — why are you closed?

I should have known better. You should have known.

Even honey sours and petals drift
like snow. But there’s a place where love still grows,
row on row, a quiet garden. Be quick — 
before our hearts are hardened, we’ll go and find
the snoring bees, where time has conquered time.
Tom Conley Apr 2018
We stopped to eat at a McDonald’s after — 
I’m sure the counter-girl could smell

the plastic-clean of stitches and nurses’ gloves
and medication hanging over him

while we ordered fries and burgers to fill
our guts before we made the long drive home.

And when we found a seat I thought that things
were fine. We sat there talking about the family,

until he spilled his drink and lost his ****,
real bad this time, and he stood and said:

“I was alive when Carpenter’s was still
the biggest bus maker around — your grandpa

lived in Tunnelton and drove to work
across the cliff to crank them out. He smelled

like oil and the dusty river all the time,
and he used to never let your mother out

at night, because he thought that cougars
were thick around his farm. You bring her back

before the frogs are calling, he’d say, you bring her
back before the cats get at her face —

my daughter there’s worth more than your life — 
she’s a queen and that’s a real queen’s face.”

He paused to **** a piece of ice and smiled,
and then he looked at all the busy people

bent up over their plastic dinner trays
looking at him, and he bit the ice and laughed.

“I never saw a cat like that. It was
the cliff that got her, and he should have watched

the river, driving by it all the time
the way he did to go and build those buses —

lots of things were rusting in the river,
and I guess the busses rusted, too. I didn’t see

a killer cat around the farm, but I saw
a thing or two that’s worse. I saw the light

they lit over her grave — you were too young
but you saw it, too: a propane thing we filled

together. You can’t buy one like that today — 
today it’s all electric and plastic stakes,

and you never have to see the grave again
after you’ve planted one of those solar lights.

It stays for good. Those lamps outlast their names — 
as long as the sun remembers to pay respects.

But I remember liting the little flame.
I remember how your grandpa’s face

lit up like a ghost’s, and I could see the scar
something large carved in his cheek one night

when he was hunting raccoons by the riverbank
out near the mouth of the Tunnel. It’s all

gone now — even the river’s lost the way
it used to smell like pines from on up north,

and only ghosts walk through the Tunnel — gone.
All of it. All gone. I guess he should have watched

the cliff, because it’s all gone now. All of it.
Even the buses rusted away, and there’s

no flame to mark the ghosts that’s left to stay — 
all we’ve got are lights that last forever.”
Tom Conley Mar 2018
A pile of rotten maple leaves
looks like a granite mountain
after the fluttering confusion
of confetti-cut whirling snow

but do you remember when your
lemon-scented hair was plastered
across the icy sleeve of my coat
like the leaves around my porch?
Mar 2018 · 508
An Unfinished Axe
Tom Conley Mar 2018
I read some beautiful poetry,
and I thought that I would write a poem

as if I was making an axe handle
I could use to free the feelings stirred

like termites in the roots of my chest,
which is to say my ribs —

even though that’s not quite
exactly what I meant to say.

What I really wanted to say
was something more elaborate

like, “all the birds sing
spring, they don’t sing for the spring —

they make it suddenly spring
by singing.” But then I got selfish.

And I decided not to write
a poem. You don’t get to know

what I felt, and what a joy it is
to keep these feelings to myself.
Tom Conley Feb 2018
You see where the city trucks sprayed
all the roads with salt this morning?

It was supposed to snow. The news
said we would be snowed in, but then—

you see these lines of salt? It's not like
they're doing much to keep us moving.
Feb 2018 · 257
Tiresias
Tom Conley Feb 2018
**** and fire. The smells of food and drink:
desire. Small handprints on the rocky womb
mark where we began to want — to think — 
before we left our ignorant stone tombs,
tossing rocks behind us, where thoughts arose.
Memories awoke to chide us. Confide
in me: who was the third, the thornless rose,
you held between your teeth? Don’t try to hide
from me. There are some things the blind can see,
and I have known them all — and told them all.
Flowers grows where tears flow like a stream,
and soon, if you don’t speak, these vines will fall
across your eyes. I recall a stolen kiss:
tasting the words before you could confess.
Tom Conley Feb 2018
The snow has let go of the leaves
it held mached with ice beside
the western stairs of my back porch
like-half forgotten valentines

it tried to mail before the sun
cooked the corpse of our Christmas tree,
releasing all those mint-sapped scents
like the presents I forgot you gave me.
Feb 2018 · 364
The Last Bell
Tom Conley Feb 2018
It wasn’t the stirring songs of night-bound birds,
which hid in the blooming apple tree to rest —
or the mellow drums and bronzed music we heard,
or the cloudy-red aroma your roses left.



It wasn’t the dancing, the soft-stepped unfurling —
the twirling or the gold champagne after,
swirling in our cups, or when I said, “Your girl’s
so tired. Your girl’s all ready to go,” and you laughed
at my bluntness, or at the way I tripped and fell
through the swinging silver-***** glass doors.



It wasn’t the way you picked me up, or the swell
of your arms as we pulled apart — or how you snored.



But when the church bells cried midnight, I sighed
in surrender to a surreal host of lives.
Tom Conley Feb 2018
The difficult thing about a love poem
is that it doesn’t want to be one.
You see! I’ve already let the meter go
wherever it wants to roam, for the sake of fun,
and to make my point. It’s sort of like the way
our feet get tangled when we sleep, and we trip
into each other’s dreams. Poetry can’t contain
how gently you kissed me — even when I was sick.
This type of love requires an honesty
that poetry can’t express. A careful glance,
chocolates, red wine and all the rest
can’t capture the drunk-in-love ways we’ve danced — 
or the magic of long plants. But who’ll blame me for
trying to count the ways that I adore you?
             
                                           —and in fourteen lines, no less.
Feb 2018 · 301
Parity No. 9: Lotus-Eaters
Tom Conley Feb 2018
We slept on rocks, chased pink flowers
and brushed our teeth with ***** fingers
while hitchhiking back in time
on a pile of your stuffed animals:

the next time we find each other
let’s be children again, eating
strawberries and chocolate kisses — 
not these half-slurred hateful words.
Tom Conley Jan 2018
You know we used to go swimming
down in the quarry holes all summer
out near the bend in ****** Creek
on Highway 60, where the trees were wide
and the woods were thick. These weren’t the Bahama blue
pits you see in the movies and on TV —

they were deep dark-green pools like the holes
in your great-grandma’s gums — been around
forever too. If you swam down deep enough,
you could see the scars still carved into the stone
where they pulled all that white-rock
out with axes. But I went deeper once,
way down where the water was black and cold
and you could feel it crawling in your ears.

We were in a large pit called Half-Moon,
one so deep it had no bottom, and it’d been
around since who knows when — it seemed natural
anyways, not something man-made,
and my father used to tell me that it was
the first hole to flood, back when they didn’t know
how deep was too deep to dig, and they hit
Bluesprings Caverns or the Lost River,
one of the two. I’m telling you though,
that I know different after tasting
all that salty water near the bottom —
it’s not ripe for life down in that pit,
the way it is, so deep it’s like swimming in ice.

I was fishing with a friend on our day off,
throwing ****** chunks of rotten-smelling
week-old chicken liver out as deep
as we could toss them, when I got snagged
on something fifteen feet or so from
where the shoreline dropped off a cliff
down to the water. And I had fancy hooks
tied on my lines back then, so I jumped in
hoping to get myself untangled and save
the new tackle strung up on my line.

I must’ve been in ten feet of water,
just past where the algae sticks like tape
to the back of your knees, when something that felt
just like the biggest fish there ever was
took hold of my foot and pulled me down
even deeper than where the divers
training in their sheriff’s scuba gear
to dredge the bottom for a pruney body
say they’ve seen catfish the size of cars
or bigger — I could hear those big fish grunting
as whatever-it-was pulled me deeper,
moaning just like diesel engines — and we kept
going further and further, like we were in
the caverns now, or lost like the river,
until I couldn’t see the sun at all,
just the foggy glow of an old oil lamp
half-tied with a rusted chain around
the broken axle of an upturned buggy
rising up from the red sediment where
the horses should’ve been before it sank.

And there beside the drifting lamp, wrapped
in tattered clothes that waived like seaweed,
was the bleached-white skeleton
of some boy, with his head turned backwards
on a broken neck — and he was looking at
the largest pile of gold I ever saw,
which filled the whole buggy and looked
as new as yesterday, it was so bright,
but it could’ve been pyrite or spray painted
for all I know, because I never touched it.

And if I did bring that gold back with me,
you can bet I wouldn’t be here today —
or at the very least, I wouldn’t tell a soul
about how I came across it all
in the bottom of that pit — that’s how you know
I’m telling you the truth about it now.

I woke up on the other side of the lake
with my tackle in my hand, and the start
of a headache that lasted two weeks — but I would’ve
jumped back in to find that hoard of gold
if my friend hadn’t called the cops, and if
I knew for sure exactly where it was
and how to get there without drowning
before I got to that endless stretch of water.

But listen, if you’ve heard about this place
and know the things that happened when it was wild,
you’d say it had to be the gold Sam Bass
and his gang of bandits got off the train they robbed,
and I don’t know what evil kept it there
just to tempt a kid to drown, but
there’s a reason everyone is filling
all the quarry holes with limestone,
because I’m telling you, what flooded them
wasn’t a river or some cave they cracked —

it was a dead man’s greed that dragged me down
like all the other kids that have drowned since then,
and those jealous waters don’t end until
you’re **** near through the other side of the earth
or more, if you believe the stories they tell
about the Donaldson Cave at Spring Mill.
Tom Conley Jan 2018
After you spilled hot cider
on the opal-purple plastic

sequins of the dress our great-
grandma bought you, we ran

down a cigarette-smoke
saturated neon alley

that dripped red blues and greens
between ivy-wrapped cracks

in the antique-brick buildings
across the lopsided street.

Carnies barked over plywood
counters draped in tablecloths,

shouting, “Prize every time!”
at kids grabbing pink ducks

from a foodcolor-blue model
of the White River, while other kids

popped balloons with darts like
the syringes our town is famous for

stabbing like stakes into undead
methed-out arms, and we hid

behind a coffin-shaped green porta-
***** near the chain-linked swings.

You held your nose in a gloved hand
and tried to dry the steaming cider

with a napkin I found hanging
half-out a yellow trashbag

full of skunked beer and flies,
and you said, through mascara-

poisoned bubbling black streams
and sour-pink lips, “Mamaw’s probably

mad enough I only won
Miss Congeniality — just imagine

how mad she’s going to be when mom
goes to the hospital tomorrow

and tells her that the cocktail-
dress she worked to death to put

her spoiled great-granddaughter in
smells like rotten apple pie!”

— The End —