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Four Poems by Joe Mills

The Bruiser

By the time my dad took me
to see him at the Coliseum,
he was old, with sagging skin,
a big belly, arm webbing,
but still growling and threatening
the way he had for decades.

The Bruiser didn’t wear a mask
or costume, but he had a patch
on his forehead that was filled
with cow’s blood.  When he got
hit, the liquid would spurt out
and send the crowd into a frenzy.

We all knew about the patch,
and appreciated it, recognizing
it was a type of guarantee that
those who had gathered would
have a blood offering even when
his own body didn’t break open.

That was the Bruiser’s appeal,
the way his flesh was covered
with scars, bumps of badly healed
bones, his body a testament ,
not to the pain he could inflict,
but what he could take and keep

going, and this is why men
brought their sons to see and cheer
the cigar chewing, ugly old man,
The Bruiser, the one who showed
how you could make something
of your life if only you could stand
enough punishment over the years.


We would take turns asking him
about the government, gasoline
and food prices, crime, just to hear
those expletives, the damning to hells,
the putting of people in places,
and positions we couldn’t imagine
on our own.  Once he got going,
he would slam his hands against
his wheelchair, and if he lost steam,
all you had to say was “Really?”
to get at least five more minutes.
If there had been a coin slot
we gladly would have dropped in
our allowance for the chance to hear
those fantastic arias, those seemingly
infinite variations of contempt and rage
at how callous human beings could be.


At 5 am, my son awakes and cries
at the top of the stairs.  I crawl
into his bed to keep him quiet
a few more hours so his mother
and sister can sleep.  He rolls
around trying to get comfortable
on his belly, his side, his back,
my belly, my back, finally calming
with his head wedged into my hip
as if trying to ram me from the bed.
Balanced at the mattress’s edge,
I watch the cows of his mobile
emerge as the light changes
and with his breath pulsing
into my side as regular as iambs,
I remember lines of your poems
and wonder where you are now.
Do you have children?  Are you
writing?  I had thought our lives
would interweave like lines
of a sestina, moving together
and apart through the stanzas
of decades, the repetition of jobs,
marriages, kids, no less pleasurable
for their obvious fixed patterns,
but instead I find my life consists
of a juxtaposition of fragments,
cries for comfort from ones
who cannot speak, shards of poems
left by those who choose not to.

The Guardian

I don’t think my brother realized the extent
of the responsibilities involved in being
her guardian, not just the financial paperwork,
but the trips to the dentist, to Wal-mart,
the making sure she has underwear,
money to buy Pepsis, the constant calls
because she has no shampoo even though
he brings her a new bottle almost every week.
At one point, we talk about how he might
bring this up with the staff, how to ask
if they’re using her shampoo on someone else
or maybe just allowing her to use too much.
“You only need a little, Mom,” he says,
“Not a handful.”  “I don’t have any,”
she shouts before hanging up.  Later
he finds a bottle stashed in her closet
and two more hidden in the bathroom
along with soaps, spoons, a sock.  Afraid
of thieves, she hides things then forgets
not only where, but that she ever had them.

Hearing this story, I wonder how much
of her children we are, how much we lose
in our attempts at protection. I try to joke.
“You always wanted another kid,” I say,
but he doesn’t laugh because diaper changes,
tantrums, negotiations for ice cream
and later bed times are like an investment
you’re making for the future.  Here,
he’s paying on a loan he didn’t know
he had taken out and with an amount
of undefined principal, and because she
hated her father, now in this second childhood,
she resents the one who takes care of her.
She complains to me when I call about how
badly my brother treats her or how she hasn’t
seen him in years, and when I explain all
he’s doing, she admires the way I stick up
for him.  Doing nothing means I do nothing
wrong.  This is love’s blindness, love’s injustice,
and although I listen closely to my brother’s voice
for resentment, bitterness, anger, I hear only love.

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