top of page

Michael Milburn

Shelter in Place, 2020

This would have

been mid-March,

just as we realized

we didn’t walk well together,

me striding ahead

for calories burned

while she scanned

puddles for frogs,

and once, I couldn’t believe it,

sat on one of the iron benches

to just, apparently, be.

That’s when she saw them,

shell to shell along a log,

bodies retracted

to look like bark or moss

or round stones

a kid placed there

or a giant his coins.

She called me back

with a glint in her voice

of knowing I’d glance, grunt,

and as if late for something

start to edge away,

but this time I lingered

to see if the shut-ins

would stir. None did.

It was still early days.

Everyone was safe at home.

The Medium

after David Jackson

This poem isn’t mine.

­ –James Merrill

I met him at a reading Merrill gave alongside

the actor Peter Hooten,

the younger lover

who’d supplanted him

and now voiced spirits

at performances

of Merrill’s Ouija board epic

on which Jackson

had shared séance duty

but neither authorship nor fame,

the latter poison

between writers,

one prolific, then popular, the other unpublished, then blocked.

Merrill introduced him

after being introduced—

“And this is David Jackson,”

as in “The Honorable So-and-So and wife,”

the wife a bored-seeming,

ravaged, Waspy-looking guy, dashing in old photos,

now pure entourage,

unlike Hooten,

fit, loud, confident,

declaiming lines

the dead had spoken

through the teacup-tracing

hand of Jackson

as Merrill transcribed,

begging the question

of whether he faked it

for love or poetry or getting as close

as he could to both.



Parents embody it best, though less in the sense of knowing anything extra than what gets one through.


My father followed his

with a suit yourself sniff

like the saved resort to.

Dad and religion— you gotta love

their conviction.


Sages don’t have answers so much as say them well, which is what cults

come down to, too.


As to whether one accrues it just by living,

it’s more that you’ve run your experiment

longer and with more mice

than the other guy, which doesn’t make ignorant instinct any less profound.

The Arborist

He can tell by looking which limb

will fall or

trunk cleave

more than it

already has,

which trees

a gale like

last month’s

might bend

to the point

of roots rising

up from earth as the mast lies down

in its bed of branches.

He diagnoses

my entire yard

using knowledge

that experience

bores inside us,

acquired by all

who go around

appraising houses,

bodies, weather,

landscape, lives.

Give me a student comp

and I can do it

or when my son fears

that his unborn child

will steal his ambition,

independence, time,

all dangers I dismiss,

disproven by himself, who took

everything but what

I worried he would.


Michael Milburn lives in New Haven, CT., where he teaches English.


bottom of page