The Little Towns of West Texas

know all the roads go somewhere else
and never come back. They know
Heaven is directly above them
and from it comes great suffering.
In their fierce localities they suffer
without complaint. They believe
in their names and in the Holy Ghost
whose tongues of fire surround them.

They are covered with cotton silt,
insulated from the cold and the world
as if wearing a coat of frost all year.
They are mirages of mica shimmering
in the distance, moving always ahead
of the traveler. No stranger
can enter them, no native can leave.

Their seasons are summer and winter,
the hot wind and the cold. Spring
avoids them and goes a different way.
At night the wind spins them upward
into the darkness. At dawn it drops them
back to earth in no particular order.
If a house is found closer to the road
or at a different angle, nobody notices.
The horizon is always the same.
The wind flays everything equally.

Near the graveyards of the little towns
of West Texas beer cans are crucified
on fence posts and shot full of holes
The wind plays them like flutes. Coyotes
answer with voices that could wake
the dead. But the dead sleep on,
having everything they ever wanted,
a cool, dark place to rest where the wind
cannot rattle the lids of their coffins
and the sun no longer torments them.

Their mouths are pale crescent moons
drawn down over teeth they paid for
and intend to keep. They await
no other transfiguration, having heard
a voice roaring out of the desert
and it was not a comfort to them.
Now they sleep without dreams,
rocked by the rhythm of the pump’s
heartbeat and the faint susurrus of oil
sliding like from beneath them.


“The Little Towns of West Texas” from The Last Person to Hear Your Voice by Richard Shelton, © 2007. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.