Sample poems from James Fowler's THE PAIN TRADER




the Sultana disaster


Nathan seen it first, that first body

driftin’ downstream just after sunup.

Wasn’t nothin’ new, specially in spring flood.

Then come a dead mule, then a horse,

then a couple more Feds. We knew

Bobby Lee’d folded his hand a few weeks

back, and thought maybe bushwhackers

was gettin’ in some last licks.

Then Jeb called from a patch of shore

trees with water ten foot up their trunks.

It was tangled in the branches, so we

fished it out with poles from

Ole Man Jenkins’ raft. “Goddam,”

Jeb muttered, “this Yank died hard.”

He was part burnt, and a mite swole,

with a rag of bandage over one eye.

Not to be outdid, Nathan nudged me

and pointed midstream, where a clump

of blue and river trash whirled past.

We couldn’t quite reckon it, till

Jeb slapped his leg and declared,

“That steamer yestiddy mornin’,

packed to the rails and sorta leanin’

round the bend.” Hit like gospel truth.

Maybe right after Vicksburg fell

we might of whooped and seed

the hand of Providence payin’ out.

But now when nothin’ but thorns

is reaped, and bullet for bullet

stretches murder out to kill

peace itself, a floatin’ charnel house

like this don’t count for good.

Must be all that death ain’t quite

draint out of the works just yet.


Mountain Airs



I: Homecoming



Wouldn’t die

without seeing Europe.

Saw it and lived:

moon wallow,

potter’s field,

banquet for rats.


Came home and lived

through influenza.

Found remedy

in morning fogs,

creature calls,

walking the mountain

in many weathers.


Came home and married

a girl from school

he never fancied

but now found



She’d looked for more

but gratified

his second asking.






II: Settling



She has her father’s violin

for keeping, just for keeping,

and his pocket classics in

their worn leather skins.


Once he lived in Boston

before freefalling times

brought him to meager

Ozark village barter. [break]


Now she in turn learns

isolated mountain ways

with a cloudy man

most at home in silence


as a boy at heels wants

all she knows on lions.

Come sunset there’s a breeze

and Robert’s dobro waxes sweet.


The strains of joy and sorrow

don’t part too readily

is what the music says

and what her days repeat.





III: What He Recalls about

His Second Child’s Birth



The doctor arrived in a chariot of fire,

a wonder on wheels made in Little Rock.


Its oversized tires, its oversized everything

enchanted and awed him together.


A Climber for sure, a yellow behemoth

for conquering washouts and ruts in style.


Just picture it rumbling on stumps, on shale,

taking the top of the mountain by storm.


Not normally given to envy, he thinks

it a lesser man’s summons to larceny.


Such as himself must fall back on the line

of angling for heavenly blue tipped with green.


• • •


From the bed his deflated mate held up

a puckered tomato airing its griefs.



IV: Clara’s Vision



They’re under down south

in the great delta lake,

out of their depth,

over their houses.


Depressions cross the sky,

soaking the poor

on their bottomlands.


This rain that pours

pours in dust

and pours in locusts

and pours in soup.


Though perched on high

she feels the flood,

the drying jobs,

the drowning debt.


Seldom less than hard,

now a sight harder.

A use for every scrap,

and a second, then another.


Tacked to her wall

the Taj Mahal,

tribute to a woman

after she’s gone.


Some preacher says

a carpenter fixed things

once for all.


Emmanuel. The people

get their hands on Him.



V: Mr. and Mrs. Trask



He’s seen the type enough before:

the country pair at modest best [no break]

taking a portrait for posterity.

Between them they can dance,

mend a pump, kill a hog,

or treat the croup. Beyond that, though,

he sees the man’s slight shake

–mustard gas–and his ring

finger’s missing joint–sawmill.

His wife was pretty once

and probably likes Brahms or Keats.

For all their common memories

both occupy a sovereign space

and side by side negotiate.




VI: Times



Then he caught a chill

and labored on

to catch his death.


Twenty years with Robert,

forty more without.


She’ll leave the mountain

with its sumac trails

and sudden falls

for some college town

with plays and picture shows.


She’ll be a widow

at a glass display

or reference desk.


By luck or grace

her firstborn fighting

among islands

will live to make

the story branch.


The times are one way

so long, then something else.


Twenty years with Robert,

forty more without.