Curtis Bauer

A Splinter Becoming a Burning Plank

If you run your hand down

the length of a 2˝ x 6˝ piece of age-smoothed pine

to feel the grain of the wood and you

don’t lift it in time to keep the timber

from becoming part of your palm,

like you became part of the girl

everyone had kissed by the end of summer

in a ditch beside a gravel road,

the pain you feel isn’t immediate

like the sky above you or the ground

humming between your feet. So

you might look at the four-inch splinter

piercing the flesh that used to be yours

and consider a word like acumen, or sapience;

you might think of the farmer who fell

from the hay loft onto a pitchfork

upturned in the manger

then walked to the house

to die in the arms of his wife,

but now the pain is rushing

your mouth and can’t wait to squeeze

out, reckless like suffering built

up over time, and you wonder

if words like love and death have

anything to do with a splinter, with

a cracked piece of pine useless like

an image that has been folded too thin

over years to hold a memory of desire or duty

from wandering through

like the steers standing on the lawn

the morning the farmer walked out

of his house to feed them.


They stood as if the feedlot

had a welcome mat

and they’d wanted to wipe

their hooves before stepping back

into the rain-cleansed lot, but chance

left them dumb with new freedom

to track the green lawn a black

that would take months

of rain and heat to erase.

They were out because they could be,

because the posts and planks

that stretched to make a lot

had shattered in the herd’s silent push

out of the barn, and

before they were aware of place                                                         

they stood outside the lot looking

in at the others looking out,


like the night twenty years before

when you sat in a ditch with a girl

and two other boys and waited your turn

for a kiss. The men at the party stood

at a cattle tank filled with beer and ice

and smoked and talked while the women

whispered at the picnic tables. Someone

shouted above the music, above the yellow

yard light creating a line of hidden and seen,

for more rocky mountain oysters,

more beer. Laughter rolled across

the lawn like soft wind through summer

tall weeds, and the cattle nudging through

the dark in the pasture beside the ditch and

the corn across the road standing

in its communal murmur watched it pass.


Each boy was having his turn.

Young enough to feel your heart

leap with each kiss, you were the inexperienced

son of a farmer who would one day hire

you out to her father. Was she responsible

for teaching you more than desire or

was her kindness the agonizing death

waiting on the tines of a pitchfork? If you say

she held your hand while she kissed your

brother and that changed your life forever,


say you have thought about that kiss

every night, and didn’t know how to

remember it so maybe none of this

would have happened. Now

there should be silence and open space,

and dark because it’s almost winter

and you have not seen any of these things.

You are in this poem because I don’t have

the courage to say I’ve forgotten

it was me touching the lips of a girl

in the dark, feeling the stab of a splinter,

or that the man falling on the pitch fork

was really my grandfather who fell through

the floor of a corncrib and walked to his

house on a crushed ankle but didn’t

want to die or be held by

the arms of the woman he didn’t love.


Ninety-seven was the worst year, and I am back

at the barn where I watched my hand                                                    

become foreign. The wind stopped blowing

three months ago, after the night

it mowed the windbreak pine and dappled

the barn and house roof with holes.


The fallen trees are piled below

the cottonwood waiting for someone

to start the fire that will burn the sun-dried

leaves and pine needles, the twigs and branches

caked with sap that will catch and pull the flame

inside and bellow smoke out to lose itself in

the color of bleached sky.

This man sits while I stand; we watch

the fire grow and the air fill with ash

as old as the wind that carries it. The empty

sound of the barn and corncribs, the cattle lots

and farrowing house are disguised as wood

snapping and fighting the fire’s heat, unwilling

to burn before its time—there is no use.

Like the splinter inside my palm,

like this man fallen through the floor, like

the boy after he’d acted like a man, the fire

catches and burns from the center out and

fills the air with sparks that catch the hog house

roof and a pile of planks this man remembers

lay in its rafters. Maybe he knew their worth

and mine, maybe he asked if I would save

the wood because he’d lived his life saving,

maybe there was disgust and despair

in his voice when he’d realized

I hadn’t learned what he wanted.


If the wood was a man waiting to die,

and the flames licking the rafters a man

waiting to forget, nothing would change.

I refused. Fear is easy in the face of fire,

beneath the shingles trickling tar drops,

under the weakened rafters collapsing

and the planks popping and snapping

inside the shrinking walls, but salvation

is a trick to make us think.

We watched, my grandfather squinting

from his chair, me standing with my hands

in tact, wondering if anything turned out

the way it was planned. If I could say

the wrong fire was started by the wind

that splintered the trees, and the wrong boy kissed

the wrong girl, and the wrong man was dying

in the chair beside me I would pray

to the god of smoke and the god of stench

and the god of this man’s thoughts                                            

to become the wind and blow this fire

down to a lingering flicker that won’t burn

the charred bark to cinders and scatter it

across the fields, but leave the fire-hollowed

trunks broken and black, oblivious

to the rain and wind and let them both

creep slowly back into the ground.



From the poetry collection Fence Line (BkMk Press 2004)