Mudlark Poster No. 119 (2014)

Five Poems by Michael Milburn

Fraternal | Casual | Then When? | Ambush | Circuit


In high school 
we called them 
the Jenkins brothers: 
Peggy and Alice 
aka Piggy and Malice,
twin sisters with grievous acne, lank hair 
and the highest grade point averages in class.  

Today, Googled, middle-aged,
they’re prettyish and elegant,
college professors with smooth skin,
expressions suffused with contentment
in the life that intelligence led them 
both through and to.  

Back then, 
their (outward at least) indifference 
to the cruelty their teenage looks evoked
suggested that they knew 
those looks would be a but not the 
factor in their future fulfillment,
that high school would end, 
more minefield than sinkhole
for two who appeared to have lost 
at what I once heard an uncommonly 
self-aware supermodel call
“the genetic lottery.”


Whenever boasts 
about bed partners
get bandied about
and I inflate or withhold 
my own meager count,

I realize I don’t know how 
sex without love works,
how breast to breast 
and ankles entwined
could not breed tenderness.

My one-night stands 
were drunken and few, 
but I remember 
a provisional love 
being conferred upon us

by the occasion,	
one that we neither 
brought nor took away;
it met us there
and saw us through.

Then When?

Looking at old people
I don’t see insecurity
any more, don’t think
of them getting nervous 
about houseguests or dreading
much of anything except death,  

which makes me wonder at what age 
the truth of life’s-too-short  
and it doesn’t matter 
finally convinces. At fifty, I’m still waiting.
Not that I can imagine 
ever being easy in my own skin, 
but life keeps tempting me
in the person of old folks
who shake their heads
as if shaking off every 
damned waste of time.  

I’m afraid that I’ll get there 
and regret how much too late
my morsel of nonchalance arrived, 
or that the me that feels that way
will feel like a stranger.  

I’d settle for a morning version
of what I’ve lately managed 
to win for myself before sleep—
that is, some progress in the argument 
that whatever’s accelerating
my nerves tonight will tomorrow
give way to a new terror, 
so the whole lot’s wasted worry. Otherwise, 

I’m resigned to moving through my days
as the same emotional wound
I’ve always been, unless age 
earns me the leverage to say 
fuck that to that as well.


He’s got a story to tell
and backs me up against 
the kitchen sink to tell it	
as the other guests edge away. 

Glancing over, 
my wife must be thinking, 
poor Michael, he hates these things,
he’ll never come to another,

while his wife thinks, 
lucky Michael, 
getting to hear Larry’s story,
touched with the drama of war,

lives endangered and lives saved,
and I try through careful questioning
to abbreviate it, 
but it’s no use,

I’m blown back by verbiage 
just as fifty years ago
he was blown back 
by enemy fire,  

until he gets to the part
where it comes down
to rescue or death. 
I envy his options.


There’s an argument to be made,
and the long married
and the mis-married
make it persuasively,

that love is a mirror,
and if what we see
does not shine our 
best self back at us,

we’re not long for it—
think of your worst first date
or the slog toward divorce.
I don’t see what’s wrong 

with someone supplying 
a view of ourselves	
that ought to be the way 
we love ourselves—

that gift of reciprocity
bears no questioning.
Oh, I suppose there
exists a selfless love,

but it’s hard for me 
not to think of it as a matter 
of idealization or patronage.  
The key to I-love-you-

for-loving-me working
is if it runs both ways,
turning narcissism 
into mutual regard.

Michael Milburn teaches English in New Haven, CT. His writing has appeared most recently in New England Review, Poet Lore and Poetry East. His book of poems, Carpe Something, came out from Word Press in 2012.

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