Stephen Kampa

Ain't Nothin'

Like a snuffling hound after 

                                              game or an escaped

convict, you followed the signs: the toothpaste commercial

               smile, broad and brilliantly white.

The rejuvenating mussing of your remaining

hair. The standard nudge 

                                         assortment. Your own slow growing

               excitement before seeing


her again. Promises. She threw

                                                   ice cubes at your head

and questioned your virility, she told you stories—

               growing up in poverty

just outside Altoona, the time she, quote, copped a squat

in front of a cop, 

                            end quote—and every charged gesture

               shone like a winking nickel


you tucked in your pale porcelain 

                                                       piggy bank back in

the day when a penny meant the world to you, given

               the going price of wishes.

You should have seen the alcoholoquacious love song

about her boyfriend 

                                 coming—yay tall, so many stone,

               she was into measurements—


and you could let go of most of

                                                    your disappointment,

even treasuring some of the, in retrospect, weird

               evenings you spent together,

but for the fact you remember how when she wanted

your attention, she 

                               never used your name, but instead

               whistled for you like a dog.


Emotionally Drained

I found the plastic bags beneath the cellar stairs,

     Stacked in an alcove hidden by some boards.

The cellar tingled with the clean, ethereal smell

     Of gasoline mixed with the sprouty stink

Of mildew, and across the room from where I stood

     Tools hung on hooks in crooked rows like letters

Typeset too poorly for a sentence to appear:

     Claw hammer, handsaw, power drill, hedge cutter. 

The nauseous shock was the first thing I’d felt in months

     Unless you count indifference as a feeling—

I’d grown so inattentive, so withdrawn. Vague. Listless.

     No one suggested anything was wrong,

But sometimes in the mornings I’d feel groggier

     Than one scant nightcap warranted. The bags

Were plump and shiny, full of yellow liquid looking

     Disturbingly like urine, and whoever

Had hidden them had done a hackwork job of it,

     Almost as though he’d wanted me to find them.

The nighttime bruises and the bumps I thought were bug bites—

     Itchy, discretely tucked above my hairline

Or puzzlingly placed between my toes—made sense

     Now more than ever. Everything made sense.

The needles must have been as small as an idea

     Before its thinker knows he’s thinking it.

The bags were labeled in a bold, black script, handwritten,

     Although I didn’t recognize the writing.

ELATION. MELANCHOLY. CURIOSITY.

     DISGUST. SHAME. FEAR. HOPE. They’d been draining me

God knows how long, and as I goggled at the bags,

     I couldn’t comprehend the who or why,

Although I had suspicions; nor did I know where

     They’d come by such advanced technology;

But in a heartbeat I could see the way to end

     The months of blunted affect, how to best

Counter whatever spell had kept me disenchanted.

     I put the corner of the bag marked RAGE

Between my teeth. I tore. Some dribbled down my chin.

     I drank the rest. I warmed inside, and stretched,

And looking at the cellar in a hard new light,

     Started to see what else might be of use.


One of Many Tender Gestures

After he left a notebook in the rain,

He never trusted fountain pens again—

          So many jottings lost!

          Now when he buys a pen,

It has to be a ballpoint. He’ll complain

About the feel but can’t decry the cost.


(Surely some sparkling phrases, or their specters.

Perhaps a page of stream of consciousness

          That, drawing from the wells

          Of what he can’t express,

Held depthless images. An epic’s nectars

Or grist work for a batch of bagatelles.)


Not even gifts he’s given are exempt:

Presented with a pen, he’ll scribble some

          Frippery, think tart, spit,

          And drag his calloused thumb

Across the page in something like contempt.

The rain he writes endures because of it.


(The storm erased so much of what he meant

To say. He pines. He muddles through the murk

          Of whethers and what-ifs.

          He redefines his work,

Swallows the waters of his discontent.

Inkless pen-scratches glint like hieroglyphs.)


Success has followed, like a beaten dog,

His every book, yet nothing satisfies.

          His paragraphs are spare,

          Incisive, not unwise,

But always seem to form an epilogue

To something finer sparrowing the air.


(What he remembers from the notebook: blue

Ink-washes, woods of missing words, a pun

          On pain and windowpane—

          And that was only one

Of many tender gestures, trite and true,

Sharpened by the whetstone of the rain.)


Stephen Kampa is the author of three collections of poetry: Cracks in the Invisible (2011), Bachelor Pad (2014), and Articulate as Rain (2018). His work has appeared in the Yale Review, Cincinnati Review, Southwest Review, Hopkins Review, Poetry Northwest, Subtropics, and Smartish Pace. He was also included in Best American Poetry 2018. He currently teaches at Flagler College.

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