Poem of the Week | June 14, 2011

This week we are proud to feature Josh Booton’s “Sketch with Yellow Asterisk.”  The poem appears in our current issue, TMR 34:1.  Josh Booton is a James A. Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Texas-Austin. His poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest and the Grove Review. He works as a pediatric speech-language pathologist.

Author’s note:

It’s funny. I’ve spent so many hours contemplating these poems, pacing the room as my Labradoodle cocked her head in wonder, and yet when someone asks me to write a few words about them, all I can say is, “Um, I think they’re about love?” If any attribute binds these four poems, it is their concern, to varying degrees, with the elegiac. Whether the subject is the recovery of a former student through a drawing (“Sketch with Yellow Asterisk”), or the childhood memory of a giant cage full of chirping birds (“Finches”), or my foray into menial labor and the people who populated that world (‘Strange Shapes the Night Makes’), these poems, for me, attempt to both lament and briefly recapture what has been lost. Even a poem about a couple strolling by the ocean (“As One Stone May Be Used to Shape Another”) seems as concerned with the irretrievable as with what persists between two people. But maybe that one is just about love.


Sketch with Yellow Asterisk

for Tommy


What first strikes you is the scale, the man — we know he’s a man

because she’s drawn a black hat–

looms as tall as the house beside him, the woman

in her triangle skirt to his left,

half his height, and stationed slightly closer

to the girl, a self-portrait

with a polka dot rectangle dress and spaghetti hair.

In reality, this girl beside me,

with her consolation of crayons,

has hair more russet, less curly, a nest

of tangles I’ve never noticed.  (In reality, this was years ago,

the last time I saw her, though

I still keep the picture in my bottom desk drawer).

Her figures all float a half-inch above

the grass, grass grown as long as the girl’s legs,

obscuring the threshold

of the door that leads, I would guess, to this very couch,

this room littered with toys, coverless books, therapy equipment.

I’m waiting for her mother, in the other room,

to sign the papers so I can close the file.

The girl hums beside me,

adding a second green to the grass, two windows

though this house has only one,

a few birds just so we know

the sky is there.  Outside, the sky is almost paper-white,

but more intricate, so many gradations

from cotton to milk to baby powder

to that bluish white they paint dead people on TV.

A man is walking his dog, a dachshund, like comic relief

too early in the scene, and I want to follow them

home or out into the streets of Portland

where people are

eating pastries or waiting for the bus

or singing badly a pop song while they drive.  I want

to ignore the box of donated clothes his mother handed me,

each item folded with care

like a memory, to leave this room behind,

one-dimensional as the picture the girl

tells me is finished.  There are flowers now

because, in childhood, it is always or almost

spring.  She’s added a chimney with smoke, I’ll say

to symbolize the fire at the heart of things.

And in the background, atop a small, floating hill, more

chimneys or upright cigarettes,

the same smoke snaking skyward in the same smoke-gray shade,

and one tiny star, an asterisk in canary yellow

off to the side.  I’ll ask her now, for you,

what it’s supposed to be, though I remember clearly

that yellow sweatshirt he always wore,

and how she told me, that’s Tommy. 

Mom says he’s with Grandma and Grandpa now.

And when I hesitated, still unsure of what she’d drawn,

she added, they live in Pittsburgh.

And so I’m writing this

because I found the picture yesterday while hunting for thumb tacks

and remembered him

growing thin, and thinner, and now so thin

he can live inside this picture his sister drew.

And now I can almost convince myself

she’s right: the dead living together in some city

tough enough to make them feel alive again,

pulling double shifts down at the plant

because eternity can get tedious,

smoke blooming from the stacks

because how else could heaven rest on a girder of cloud.

And we, the living, go on

pulling shifts or making love or writing poems and then, done,

stroll the neighborhood

looking for ourselves and those recesses

where the dead silver birches or kindle the throats

of small birds, and sometimes

the scale seems funny, and dusk is a window

flung suddenly open.  And you just stand there,

hearing the wind, a sound like someone sweeping up in all that

grass gone long.