Joe Bolton

“The scene is twilit, the mood existential, the outlook tragic.” Joe Bolton (1961-1990) described his poetry as we might describe his life, which ended at his own hand at the age of 28.

Joe grew up in the hardscrabble environs of western Kentucky, eventually becoming a sort of perpetual student in various college writing programs. All I really know about him derives from his evocative poetry, which delineates a bruised world radiating eerie beauty.

Ordinarily I grow bored when a poet’s opus sounds a single tone, and Bolton’s, almost uniformly, sounds a tone of lament. Yet I don’t tire of it. It's piercing work, free of bitterness. As Donald Justice notes, his poems “are always edging toward something emblematic.” It’s the “edging toward” in that statement that rings out to me. The persona Bolton created walks on an edge, sings from a liminal place between the present tindery moment and total combustion.

If he’d lived just a few more years, Prozac might have saved his life; the effect of the “happy drug” on his work can only be surmised.

The Ohio

Seven miles south of anywhere
You’d rather be, it is autumn.
What sweetened shrivels,
What shriveled falls,
And what fell is leaf-rot,
A sick rich scent on the air.

You are paling, you are bored.
You are zipping up your jacket
And walking into a dynamo
Of twilight and raw wind,
Tossing your hair as a brief bruise
Of pink scores the horizon.

Seven miles north, below the lights
From the bars and dance halls
Of small towns, the Ohio swells
With a cargo of barges,
And catfish twist through the bones
Of what never bothered to rise.

Song to Be Spoken, Not Sung from American Variations

Say snow drifting through some small town at dusk,
And listen to the syllables die in your bare room
Like snow drifting through some small town at dusk.

Say Fall, rain! as the rain falls down on you
But know it would have fallen anyway.

Say this world and let it be enough, for once.

Say the drunk dancing in the middle of the intersection
At three in the morning didn’t have to go on
Turning green, then yellow, then red, then green again.

Say you didn’t have to feel the one you love
Grow distant in the parentheses of your arms.

Say this life and let it be enough, for once.

Your Sex An adaptation of a poem by César Vallejo

       I think about your sex.
My heart simplified, I think about your sex,
       As the hind flank of the day ripens.
I press the button for good luck; I touch the bud
       Of happiness—it’s in season.
And whatever grief I might have felt before
       Simply dies inside me.

I think about your sex, that sweet furrow,
       Womb-shadow of harmony,
Though there’s no denying that death
       Exists in the same world.
Sometimes I think it’s best just to take pleasure
       Wherever we want and can.
Look: the twilight is alive with wild honey.

A Wreath of Stars:
Symsonia, Kentucky, 1914

They’d caught me skimming cream off the top of the churn,
So half that winter I had to go upstairs
Right after supper without any dessert—
No thick-comb honey Mamie stored in jars.

No muscadine, no sunset-colored cake
Sweetened with molasses, no piecrust plumped
With apple or blackberry. Still, what made me ache
The most was missing that music my brother thumped

Out on his guitar while Pap’s fiddle whined
Along like some hurt thing—like the bitch retriever
Hung up in barbed wire for hours, who tried
To eat me alive when I came to uncut her.

I’d climb those stairs like somebody going to heaven
Before he was ready, the loose boards creaking, then breathe
On my frosted-over window till seven
Cold stars shone on the dark sky in a wreath.


The night Pap and my brother didn’t come in
For supper, Mamie told me to go ahead
And eat their peach cobbler. We waited, then—
I watching through my window while she read.

And along towards midnight I saw two figures weaving
Down the road: one tall and lean, the other
Much the same, singing and carefully passing
A thick glass jug between them—Pap and my brother.

They must have saved a month to buy that whiskey,
But leaning together, their sweet breath rising like clouds,
One passed the jug, the other didn’t see,
And the glass broke open on the frozen ground.

They stared down at the spill as at a grave,
Then at each other—with hatred for a minute;
Then knelt down as though praying to be saved
And lapped up every star reflected in it.

The Lights at Newport Beach

If there were time for everything
(And there is); if that phosphorescent light
Stunning the Pacific meant anything
(And it does); if all this world of worlds might
Become more than the museum for something
We have lost (and it will) . . . but not tonight.
Tonight, love, Newport Beach is simply on fire,
The buildings blazing up under the sky,
The streets running headlong into the sea.
If we were more than the sum of our desire
(But we’re not); if there were a language I
could find to get beyond the opacity
Of zero. . . . But I’m tired of words and all we turn
Away from. I just want to watch it burn.

American Tragedy

The Chevrolet fires past two blond children
Eating mud in the ditch by a dirt road.
Kentucky, midsummer, sun going down—
Day like an empty shotgun shell, still warm,
Fragrant with dog shit and honeysuckle.

The skinny girl inside the white trailer
Is drinking gin and torturing herself
With a cigarette: nipples, navel, crotch.
The screen door hangs by one broken finger.
Past dark, a light comes on. Nothing happens.


I dreamed of nothing; I would rise at dawn.
And you’d still be asleep when I got back,
The air conditioner humming against the hundred-
Degree Houston noon. That summer, even now,
Is a haze of silence, a haze of sweat,
Interminable afternoons when, lost in my long
Alcohol, I’d wait for the sun to burst
In the high window facing west, sometimes
A bluebird fussing on a black, dead branch.
And yet the plum trees flowered through the heat,
Putting out livid petals, and the palm
Sat squat and stolid across the street, dry fronds
Lifting a little, then subsiding. I’d stand
Under the skylight in the Rothko Chapel
And feel nothing at all, those huge
Late canvases like panes smeared dark with blood.
If there was any holiness, it was
The thrill of resembling madness that I felt
Making the change from 59 to I-45
In heavy traffic, downtown towering
So near the overpass it seemed as if
I could leap there. Later, too tired to sleep
Without whiskey and pills, I’d lie awake
With a towel over my eyes, touching
The soft backs of your legs below your panties.
And when I couldn’t touch you, couldn’t respond
To even the simplest of questions, it wasn’t
Any reflection on the desire I felt
For you, though it must have appeared that way.
If anything, it was a profusion of desire,
A longing so inarticulate I almost
Broke down once in the Safeway, watching
A plain-faced housewife pushing a cart
Past rows of fruit. It’s humorous, but true.
And what I remember seeing under the towel,
Eyes closed and waiting for the chemicals
To darken my blood, was how unreal the sky
Had looked that day just before the hurricane
Finally broke, and the hard rains began.
When it was over, the sun exploded
Through the dripping trees, and we walked the block,
A slaughter of pearls decorating each lawn.

Ballroom Dancing in the Barrio

South Tucson wind would blow away the stars
If they weren’t nailed in place above the night
As we arrive in loud clothes and loud cars
That slink like dealers in the parking lot
Where bulldozers muscle up to mangle
What’s left of the barrio. Here, a girl
Could lose it all in one serpentine tango,
In the Scotch-cigarette-and-salsa swirl
Of this lit synergy, this dying to live—
Heat of black silk on flesh, a slow burning
In the slick bilinguistics of desire.
Coming to get what we can’t come to give,
We shine and shine on, querulous, turning.
We weren’t just dancing, see. We were on fire.

Seascape: Destin, Florida

The sea lifts in small blue arcs,
as if full of dolphins
who will rock soundlessly
all night
in the moonlight far offshore.

A pink sky drags the darkness
westward over the Gulf.

Along the highway
to Panama City,
the lights have staggered on,
their color frail
as the idea an orange has
of itself
before starting to grow.

It is this way,
It is that way,

the sea says—
only song it can remember
in the dark.

Amazon link to The Last Nostalgia, Poems 1982-1990 by Joe Bolton

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