Rumpus Original Poetry: Three Poems by Michael Mlekoday





from I Think I’m Almost Ready to See the Ocean

I’ve got a map I can’t read
and a jar of raspberry jam
in the passenger seat.

The Polish nicknames
of the constellations
escape me. What was it

my grandmother called
her sweetheart before
she met her husband?

What about her first word,
or the name of the boat
that brought her here?
I christen the old Buick
Emily, or Emerson,
depending on the forecast.




We are, of course, at war.
Black men murdered in their yards.
Pastors genuflecting the flag.

They gave my little cousin
a scholarship and a rifle,
not in that order.

Where am I going? Is all this talk
of God and grandmothers
merely escape? Can escape feel like

changing your middle name
and unrolling the clouds inside
as carefully as nylons?




Dream: walking into Mass
right before the opening prayer
and thinking every old man on his knees

is my father. They all carry
the smell of hospital rooms,
cleaning fluid, canned peaches

on their breath. I leave the church
its old men, its purchases.
I leave the faith its disinfectants.


from I Think I’m Almost Ready to See the Ocean

All these years, I thought
the Great Lakes were oceanic
enough. The human eye,

the human heart, crash
of synapse and electrochemistry—
it’s all still animal,

too small, I thought,
to fathom the distinctions.
But if breath and awe

make up the animal,
they must precede it.
They must have climbed,

or wriggled, or been
washed ashore, to meet me
as I scramble to the coast.




What is the relation
between the God we name
and the God transcendent?

What kind of animal
knows God made microbes
and galaxies with the same attention

and decides a place of bricks
and bad lighting is the one
true house of that God?




I am asking these questions
here, at this wild and rocky
beach governed by a cliff

of cypress trees and moonlight,
a place my love and I named—
and I will not tell you the name.

Sea pups and tides attend
my questions, curious.
I arrive at no conclusions.



Bo pulls a cold McChicken sandwich
out of his camo backpack
and asks if I want one.

I got ten of them, he leans in and whispers,
they don’t got anything this good
in Afghanistan.

We’re in a rural Kansas parking lot,
skipped over by a Greyhound driver
with a full bus, with four hours to kill.

In my memory, it is always August
in Kansas, the locusts buzzing
like a power plant in the late sunset,

the air thick and wet with history,
Bleeding Kansas and all that,
but it could have been early April.

I was on my way north
for a paying poetry gig,
and Bo was just back from the war,

hoping to surprise his family
for a birthday or baptism,
I forget.

After the bus drives off without us,
Bo asks if he can borrow my phone,
which is my least favorite thing

about cross-country bus rides,
because I do believe
in being helpful to strangers

who grit their teeth
at the same stress I do,
but my phone is expensive,

and mine—even though I hate
the idea of private property and recite
an old Steinbeck quote to myself

sometimes, something about
I vs. we, and owning,
and freezing, I forget.

I spend forty minutes trying
to cancel my show and find
a friend to pick me up

before Bo convinces me
to wait it out with him
at the bar across the highway.

And then whiskey and the jukebox.
And then the old lady bartender
who let everyone smoke inside

and told stories about the year
there was an explosion
at the natural gas field.

And then a sweet hangover of strangers,
and then the best pool I played in my life,
three balls sunk on the first break,

and then bar close
and a gas station open all night.
Some kids call us faggots

and Bo lets out a lazy curse
in their direction, says
we’ll fuck you up, fuckers, we…

Then he tells me about the war,
about the six men he’s killed, how strange
it was to look through a scope

and see a person oblivious,
a person who doesn’t think but knows
their heart will keep sending blood

to their limbs, at least for a while,
and is wrong. Bo doesn’t know
I’m a writer. I wait

until he steps outside to smoke,
pull out my notebook,
and quickly scribble what he’s said.

When he returns,
I feel like I’m looking at him
through a scope, the distance between us,

something only I can see.


Photograph of Michael Mlekoday by Rossy Tzankova.

Michael Mlekoday is the author of one book of poetry, The Dead Eat Everything (Kent State U., 2014), chosen by Dorianne Laux as winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. A National Poetry Slam Champion, Mlekoday was a founding editor at Button Poetry and currently serves as Poetry Editor of Ruminate Magazine. Their recent poems appear in Third Coast, The Southampton Review, Sonora Review, and Hunger Mountain, and their work has been translated into Polish. They live in the Putah Creek watershed of California, where they hang out with the plants and teach classes on hip-hop, Gothic literature, and Transcendentalism. More from this author →