Inside this grave
womb that drums
and groans
as it takes

of my spine

I hear it
seem to say

go             /              you go

don’t       /             you go


don’t go               /                 don’t

go now                  /                 don’t

I’m 52, inside
this calibrated tube, this
picture box
and singing machine

that will tell
my doctors if
the drugs and

marrow have
been killing
the tumors set
on killing me

go             /                 don’t grow

don’t       /               go

The droning
chant of this
temporary tomb
returns me

to Junuh at the ocean
only four
and screaming
into the waves

the two of us
charging, arms
flailing like
the fleshy swords they are

the water beating us
back before
we Charge! again,
roaring the whole time.

We can’t give up. We
have to fight, he says.
And back in we go
wild into the wake.

don’t go               /                 don’t

go                             /                  don’t

go now                   /                grow

grow    /                 you

grow    /                 no

don’t      /                   go

don’t      /                   grow

go                /               no

More by James Tolan

The Forest of My Hair

I'm 28 years old in the flesh
but in a mirror all I can see
is a boy after his first crew cut,
five years old and wondering
what happened to his hair,

disbelieving it would ever
grow back, as the barber
and his grandfather promised,
while he wept, silently,
trembling air through his lips,
pointing at his hair
strewn across a tiled floor.

My grandfather unwrapped
sour balls for both of us, and, 
leaving his Falcon behind, 
walked with me to the woods.

These woods, he said, are yours.
They were mine, but I give them
to you. I am old, and it is only right 
they should now belong to you.

I have lived most of my life
in the absence of that 
gentle voice, and those
woods of mine were clear-cut
years ago, but my hair,
I wear it long in honor of him.

Perfect, Wet with Poison

At Edwards’ Field, near the marsh, ours was the blood 
the mosquitoes in their gangly stealth sought. At dusk 
the city sent a truck, its sprinkler spraying 
a cascade of malathion, foul line to foul line, 
from out past the chain-link fence. Time called, 

we spread our arms and turned like we’d been told, 
spinning slow circles, left field to right 
and across the infield dirt, the chemical mist  
wafting over us, its sting 
like sharp dew settling into the corners of our eyes. 

The umpire tossed a dry ball to the tall boy on the hill, 
who rubbed it slowly between bare hands 
as he peered up at the crowd. The drumming in his ears 
dulling to a drone, he stepped to the rubber 
and leaned in. No runners to check, hadn’t been all game. 

Where but here was perfect even possible 
for a gawky boy with elbows thicker than his arms?  
Glove to chest, fingers to four seams, blow out. 
Fielders pounding their mitts, chanting and swaying. 
The gloam falling across the mound. And in the stands 

his mother done with her cursing of the city and its truck. 
Chapped hands over her stung eyes, she didn’t see 
her boy kick high and hurl one 
sharp-eyed home. Only heard the hush before 
the leather popped and those around her rose. 

Her husband roared with all the rest 
before he dropped a hand 
to her bent back and with the other waved. 
Caught his long son’s gaze, clenched a fist 
and beamed before their boy was swarmed.

Then sat down, leaned in, angled for her ear. 
His right hand at her elbow, she lifted 
her eyes at last to gather in 
the ruckus their son’s left arm had wrought. 
Worry later, Mary Lou. Stand up and let him see you proud.


Is that vintage? they ask.  

It was my father’s, I say and think of a man for whom 
that word meant only a crack about drink—

            Gimme a tall one of your finest vintage!

I found it among tie pins and cufflinks in his top drawer, 
filched it years before I knew the word, 

            knew only that I wanted something I could take from him
            who knew work and the bar better than home, 

            something I would have never called 
            beautiful and ruined. 

Crystal scratched, leather dry and stitching frayed. 
He never noticed it was gone, 

            or else he never said. 

From his dresser to the carved wooden box I buried 
inside my hand-me-down chest, 

            until the no more of him sent me rooting 
            for some relic I could hold. 

Glass polished and gears set right, new band strapped around my wrist.


It’s beautiful, they say.  

It was my father’s, and I let them assume, 

            inheritance or gift, 

that he was a man of taste, who shared it with his son.