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Eric Nelson

Clearing the Air

He’s drifting out of the woods, head bowed, 

right arm raised and waving slowly, 

the way someone in church reaches God. 

About my age, he’s dressed as I am—cargo shorts, 

t-shirt, low rise hikers—a version of me approaching me, 

and I’m touched to witness his communion, 

the summer foliage an eternity of tunnels and arches, 

the sun-mottled trails scrolling through trees 

like illuminated script. 

As we near each other, he smiles a little sheepishly.   

Lowers his arm and says, Don’t worry, I’ve cleared   

the air for you. Now I see he wasn’t praying

but shielding his face from webs. On his sleeve 

an orb weaver scrambles toward his neck. I don’t 

tell him. I feel wronged somehow. Not that I care 

about the webs or spiders. They’ll be back 

tomorrow, but floating from the woods that way, 

head down, arm up—I wanted a seeker returning 

from wandering, answer in hand. Then a branch 

snapped me back to me in the woods with the dog 

as I am every morning, thinking to-do’s, minding 

the poison ivy, urging the dog to his business. 

No epiphany in sight, no holy whispers in the canopy. 

Yet I keep yearning for them, and already 

I’m envisioning tonight—spiders stringing the trees 

not with sticky traps, but with an array

of harp-like instruments tuned by wind and dew. 

from Horse Not Zebra (Terrapin Books, 2022)

Bus Real

The best time of our time in Madrid, love, 

was not the Prado, the Palace, the Plaza Mayor,

not the Reina Sophia, the Rastro, Retiro Park—

but the night we decided to ride the bus 

through every corner of the city, the lively and bright

as well as the shadowy and still, the people

boarding and leaving in a gush and clamor—

families fumbling down the aisle, young couples

with their mouths all over each other, old women in black 

with fans, old men in black with bags, all the dark-haired, 

dark-eyed Madrilenos who siesta by day 

and take the bus at night to street cafes for olives and tapas,

Real Madrid’s stadium brilliant in the distance.

Remember how we moved forward whenever

seats opened up until we were eye level with the back

of the driver’s head, staring at the corkscrews of hair 

on his collar as if they were another attraction?

When the bus stopped at a corner where no one was waiting 

we listened to the shuffling behind us, faint footsteps down 

and out the rear exit while we waited for whatever 

was next, the whole city thumping in the pulse of our held hands.

The driver turned to us and we saw his face for the first time, 

how tired he was, how much older than we thought.

He pushed the lever that opened the door, made a sweeping 

after you gesture, and we realized we were the only ones

on the bus, that we’d reached the literal end of the line. 

He turned off the headlights, ceiling lights, engine, the bus 

groaning into its final stop. We smiled and wished him both

buenas noches and buenos dias as he waved us away toward sunrise. 

The spotlit monuments led us to our hotel where we devoured 

warm rolls and café con leche before we fell into our bed 

and slept deep into the day, all the way through our tour 

of the Basilica, which we’d heard is stunning, not to be missed.

from Horse Not Zebra (Terrapin Books, 2022)

Horse Not Zebra

When med students are learning

how to diagnose symptoms, they’re told

think horse, not zebra—the common, not the exotic. 

Which is good advice even if you’re not a doctor.

Like when your phone rings at 3:00 in the morning,

think wrong number, not who died? 

Or if your love is over an hour late 

for dinner and hasn’t called to explain, think 

gridlock, not head-on; dead zone, not dead. 

When the guy in the truck doesn’t slow down

much less stop when you step into the crosswalk, 

think distracted, not son-of-a-bitch. Recall the time

your mind was still at work, how shocked you were 

to see in your rearview a woman in the crosswalk   

flipping you off with both hands.

And if you’re steaming in a mile long backup   

because protesters have blocked the bridge again, 

don’t think where are the damn cops 

when you need them, think how, 

when popping sounds wake you at night,

you think firecracker, not gun.

from Horse Not Zebra (Terrapin Books, 2022)


Those who are gone from us—

I hate calling them 

the dead. It makes them seem 

so serious, if not symbolic, so heavy 

with the knowledge they carry.

Let’s not forget that those who left

were lighthearted and surprising: 

my mother at the dinner table 

pulling a derringer from a hidden pocket 

and shooting her grandson in the forehead

with a single, sharp bullet of water. This 

after a day of the boy sneaking up 

on aunts and cousins and drenching them 

in rapid fire super-soaker. He was pleased 

with his mischief but not as pleased as 

the family when Granny meted out justice.

The boy, she said, had been a horse’s rosette

her vivid euphemism for asshole. 

This morning I woke early in the dark

with a terrible ache to talk to her again,

thirty years since she went to her Great Reward,

a term she favored for its irony

since she believed that the Reward is a choice

between going up in smoke

or lying deep in the dirt, both of which

sounded better to her than pearly gates

and eternal perfect boredom.

I don’t know why I wanted so badly

to hear her strong voice, her robust laughter.

Or why it was suddenly important to ask her

about the origin of horse’s rosette since I’ve never

heard anyone but her and all of her descendants,

including me, brandish it like a coat of arms.  

Of course, she didn’t tell me, but I heard

her voice, heard her say, Scouts, call us scouts.

And it made sense, the ones who go ahead 

to make sure the trail is clear, the water safe. 

The ones who leave signals for the rest—

a white ribbon tied to a cactus, an arrow 

painted on a boulder with beet juice, a secret

word carved into a tree. When I ask her 

if she left signs for me, her laughter ricochets 

in my head like a bullet echoing across a canyon. 

from Horse Not Zebra (Terrapin Books, 2022)

Live Like a Bear Is Near

I sometimes tell people I pass on the street 

that I just saw a bear a couple blocks back. It’s a lie, 

but true to the bears I have seen, like the one 

that hoisted itself over a privacy fence and landed

on its front legs, back legs waggling the air like 

someone learning to dive. Steadied, it drifted 

to the middle of the street, tracked the white line 

to the playground where no children played, slipped 

behind a hedge and disappeared. No one saw it but me 

and a black cat that fled, hackles up, Halloween style. 

I love the sudden thrill that flashes on their faces.

They pull their earbuds out and scan the area, deciding 

if they’ll go the way of the cat, or stay the course. Most 

keep going, fully alert, maybe for the first time 

noticing both the brilliant green moss filling the sidewalk gaps,

and the highest limb of the sycamore stretching 

like a tightrope to the cracked attic window across the street.

They listen like they haven’t listened since they were teens 

sneaking out of the house. They listen for the thunk of a trash bin, 

for tumbled cans and bottles, for a shout or a howl. They squint 

at every dark shape and shadow, become themselves as silent 

as bears, attuned to smallest vibrations. When they don’t see 

the bear that was never there, they are equal parts relieved

and disappointed, aroused by the force of mixed feelings. 

They stand on the corner waiting for someone to come along,

eager to warn them to beware, a bear is near. 

from Horse Not Zebra (Terrapin Books, 2022)


Even the bluebird fades 

to gray as summer burns out.

The hawk’s fearless screech

sounds more like grief exhausting itself.

I spend the afternoon deadheading

daylilies until my fingers numb, my back 

and knees petrify. I remind myself that 

new blossoms will blaze the path tomorrow, 

and the stressed sugar maples I planted 

in spring are tipped with new growth.

I lift a handful of mulch to my nose, breathe 

the trees inside. And here comes the old couple, 

climbing the steep street. He’s frail and stooped 

but setting a steady pace, one arm reaching 

back, hand open as if waiting for a baton 

to be placed in his palm by the woman 

following him. She’s taller and stronger 

looking, her beacon-red hair piled so high 

I think at first it’s a hat. Arm outstretched, 

she slips her hand smoothly into his and seems 

to glide to his side. As they pass me they wave 

as if they are the liberators of Barnard Avenue. 

On the man’s red sweatshirt is a silkscreened face

that looks familiar, but I can’t place it until I see

the single word above the flowing black hair 

and dashing beret: Che. No last name needed.

I think the sweatshirt must be as old as the man

himself, throwback on top of throwback, embers 

of revolutionary fire. But then I realize it’s new,

unfaded, still a little stiff. And the look on his face 

isn’t wistfulness or irony, it’s devotion

to a future he won’t see any more than I will 

see the struggling maples grow tall enough to shade 

the house in summer. How can I not raise my mulch 

encrusted fist in salute, my flagging will surging 

like a relay runner reaching out to hand off the baton?

from Horse Not Zebra (Terrapin Books, 2022)

Asheville Sonnet-and-Two

Can’t walk a block here without coming to a box

of free books or pet supplies or folded affirmations.

At the dive called Burger Bar they don’t serve burgers.

But the carrot dog is top-notch. On tap is dark and hopped.

I take my visiting friend, meat-and-two guy, to breakfast—

all he wants is toast and two eggs fried

but his only choice is poached on a hill of greens

with vinaigrette. He does the Jack Nicholson scene—

orders the poached on a hill, hold the dressing. Hold the hill. 

Side of toast. Not possible. But at least he gets the toast. 

For sunset we drink a beer beside the railroad track

beside the French Broad and listen to a sweet-sad cello solo.

Above the greenway across the river the homeless hide 

behind a curtain of kudzu that will disappear come winter,

the tents, bedrolls, blankets, strewn trash appear.

Engraved along the greenway, eco-poems on pedestals. 

previously unpublished

Asheville Sonnet with Turkeys 

Jackson Park never was a park, was the west

slope of a small mountain, wildlife

and Cherokee, a handful of hardscrabble farms,

then a prosperous, rolling orchard.

Now my house and my neighbors’ stair-step 

from the bus stop at the foot 

to Ace on top, not an apple tree to be seen.

Every morning I walk past a last stand of pines

and hear a couple dozen roosting turkeys 

send wake-up calls to each other. One 

by one they hurl themselves into the air, spread 

their wide wings and glide right over me

landing as softly as the last note of a hymn. 

They fall in and patrol, all day, block after block,

stopping traffic, rightful heirs claiming what’s theirs.

previously unpublished



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