Two Poems

Poetry / Reilly D. Cox

:: Robert the Gardener ::

My father, always the artist, loses employment
and begins digging holes for a hilly college.

Each morning, he wakes from the same dream:
he’s back in his youth and gliding down the lane 

of an endless pool, his long, hairless limbs 
moving through the water silently towards a Cracker Jack 

salvation, and he wakes. Each morning, he finds 
he has sunk into the covers a little deeper, his limbs 

a little more tired. He rises as his children are still
in their troubled sleep, brews a pot of coffee,

and pours a river through his magnificent mustache.
He eats three raw eggs, chewing the shells

until they are a fine powder to protect his poor teeth—
holey and golden—and wipes the loose strands of yolk

with a slice of rye bread sporting only a few dark blossoms
of mold. He wraps himself in the emerald-green uniform

with his name embroidered over his heart like a target
and heads into the sun-shy morning. With little fires

burning in his pockets to keep himself warm, he plumes
beautifully—smoke signals trailing behind on his walk

to the Great Garden. He’s given up on disciplining the smoke,
ignores the incessant beacon of O-S-O drifting past his shoulders.

He makes sure to arrive before the other creatures, gathers
hundreds of flowers in his battered cart, rides up

and down the many hills, and only opens his eyes when he senses
a good spot. The college wants to draw in new blood

and my father knows how to arrange color to attract
anything. Sometimes, he grows bored, creates a trompe

l’oeil by a hall, a nature morte by a campus gate, but
he is mostly good, cares for the little blooms,

remembers the lessons his father taught him: sees
that their roots are good and watered, that the sun

won’t hurt them or grow estranged. His coworkers—
younger, cut from nylon—keep themselves entertained

by eating little animals whole. One man claims to have
a family of chipmunks nesting in his belly; another,

a whole pond of goldfish. Each lunch, he tilts
his head back and drops little flakes down the length

of his throat, smiles, says it always tickles
when the fish are feeding. My father sits alone.

He worries that he’s mixed up his eggs, that
he has a brood of chicks begging in his belly,

hatched and angry, so he won’t eat today.
He keeps himself warm with clear liquids,

doesn’t dare to light a match. He imagines
how much warmer it would be, to fall in,

a whole ocean to pickle him into summer.
He knows he’s a good swimmer; he won’t drown.


:: Robert the Gardener (Tent Caterpillars) ::

My father is setting fire to the trees again. 
He drags us from our play this way.

My brother and I, split body, jerk awake
at the coughing of a chainsaw in our wood.

We leave our shallow of mud, with so many good
sacrifices buried to the neck, and skulk 

towards it. In a clearing, our father has downed
a dozen trees bearded with tent caterpillars

and is lightly shaking a delirious tremens 
of gasoline over the many nests. He says,

If you leave anything too long, it grows.
He then takes a rag torch and lets sing

the good water. I had never heard such a choir
before, it was like the sound of marrow. 

My brother and I watch our father disappear
in the cracking smoke and barely see

the rag pointing across the crown of trees, 
with so many beards waving terribly.

Leaning over, it looks as if the smoke is born
from our father’s beard, and pours angrily 

from it. May one day I be so giving. May 
one day my beard grow so long 

that the holy spirit come flying out. 


From the writer

:: Account ::

My grand­fa­ther passed away this past August, well over three years since my father passed away. At the time, I had been want­i­ng to write about my grand­fa­ther, and the process of dying that was hap­pen­ing so rapid­ly yet slow­ly, and all the things that were slip­ping away as he did, but I was wor­ried that to write about it would make it hap­pen. Then he died, and, start­ing with a nap­kin at a restau­rant counter, I start­ed putting down every­thing that was then slip­ping away.

I imag­ined my grand­fa­ther as some­thing myth­ic but dwindling—a sto­ried fig­ure who, while once mean­ing­ful and revered, had been reduced by time to hearsay and jokes. I start­ed refer­ring to his myth­ic coun­ter­part as Sar­gon, after a Mesopotami­an emper­or who was the child of the roy­al gar­den­er. I start­ed the process of unmak­ing by incor­rect­ly refer­ring to him as Sar­gon the Gar­den­er. In my imag­in­ing, Sar­gon tend­ed to toma­toes in a dilap­i­dat­ed palace out­side of Baltimore.

Oth­er mem­bers of my fam­i­ly began find­ing myth­ic ver­sions of them­selves in the poems—the Witch­ing Daugh­ter, the Son’s Wid­ow, the Blood­less Daugh­ter, and the Son’s Ghost. The Son’s Ghost, my father, was always trapped in a process of dying or being dead; he, hav­ing died long before my grand­fa­ther, in his dying, became Sar­gon. He is one of the few mem­bers of the fam­i­ly to be named in the col­lec­tion, in part because he was already gone, and in part because he shared a name with oth­ers who had passed away and could serve as a greater evocation.

My father was a gar­den­er, some­times by choice, some­times not. He had dif­fi­cul­ty main­tain­ing jobs and worked, for a time, as a groundskeep­er, know­ing enough gar­den­ing to be qual­i­fied for that. While the focus of the Sar­gon poems were on Sar­gon, I was being reminded—more and more intensely—of mem­o­ries of my father and gar­den­ing. So though I wrote the first “Robert the Gar­den­er” as a one-off poem to turn the myth­ic towards the real and to play with un/making, I found myself fix­at­ed on more and more mem­o­ries of my father and plants. Because I tend to be an iter­a­tive poet, I began an iter­a­tive sequence to find my father again, in all his burn­ing glory.


Reil­ly D. Cox is a MFA can­di­date at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alaba­ma in Tuscaloosa. They had attend­ed Wash­ing­ton Col­lege and the Buck­nell Sem­i­nar for Younger Poets. They have work avail­able by the Acad­e­my of Amer­i­can Poets and by Iron Horse Lit­er­ary Review.