Back to Issue Twenty-Six.

Riding the empire builder



Progress makes its white way
through hills chiseled out to tracks,
the long history of the double-stack

bringing everything we need, everything:
listen to the night, O wise ones, sleep is coming,
a woman mutters as we pass.

There is no church here
but I see steeples, I see bones
and burials, all that is America

in stumps and the shimmering miasma
of the reservoir under the dry hills,
a speed boat’s single wake

rocking the water
like geese in motion, the water
we all must drink, or die.

The same train that took me
from Portland to Chicago when I was young:
ticket to the metropolis, to follow my ancestors

back the way they came out,
when passage was protected by army,
treaties nullified where they found gold.

Through the window the summer sun
tears the color from the wooden tray
and leaves it sandy, bleached bone:

America is in these rusted spokes,
white-peeling trailers. Fire
in the sage brush, a mattress

propped up backward, catching flame—
America, you’ll die trying. Railroad tracks
and hand-ties. Some inheritance

passed from the men before me
to the man in me, a singular desire
that burns this land down.






We sail through Iowa
as if it is meant for us, our passing:

miles and miles of corn
a canvas to be painted against,

Jesus thrown into relief
on the brick drives, flagpoles

calling out against the radio noise.
We push through rainstorms

flattened on our windshield,
through six tanks of fracked gas

hauled up from dinosaurs, mastodons
pressed into carbon,

turned into speed. Signs urge us
to choose life. We’re sure we have:

grocery stores amazing
again, Spanish olives stuffed in jars

and bright whoopie pies. At night
we sit under the ruined stars

as if we still belong
to their myriad pings of light.



Cradle of Silt



When blue rose out
from the horizon & purpled
into diamond, dusk,

that hour when sunslant
illuminated each thin
stick & fenceline, I’d walk

surefooted again
to the end of the dock
where the burned plank

hid a small dead fish
& stare out toward the water
swirling with petals

some house-boater had dumped out,
roses the color of milk
tinged with blood on the green

solid surface moving turgid
with oil, where once
they’d found a car, gone under,

mother & child
caught on metal, kept from the river’s
gentle carrying, the muck’s keeping—

there I’d stop & stand,
the unstill part of me
crawling in the skin of my jacket,

toes pressed against
the single two-by-four,
curled space of my body’s

lean returning & returning
to this kingdom of clay,
of under-water wire & roe,
mess of aluminum, algae & ruin.


Anna Tomlinson grew up on Sauvie Island, Oregon. She is in her third year of the University of Virginia’s MFA program, where she teaches poetry, first year writing, and summer transition classes.

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