This week we are proud to feature Josh Booton’s “Sketch with Yellow Asterisk.” The poem appears in our current issue, TMR 34:1. Josh Booton is a James A. Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Texas-Austin. His poems have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest and the Grove Review. He works as a pediatric speech-language pathologist.
It’s funny. I’ve spent so many hours contemplating these poems, pacing the room as my Labradoodle cocked her head in wonder, and yet when someone asks me to write a few words about them, all I can say is, “Um, I think they’re about love?” If any attribute binds these four poems, it is their concern, to varying degrees, with the elegiac. Whether the subject is the recovery of a former student through a drawing (“Sketch with Yellow Asterisk”), or the childhood memory of a giant cage full of chirping birds (“Finches”), or my foray into menial labor and the people who populated that world (‘Strange Shapes the Night Makes’), these poems, for me, attempt to both lament and briefly recapture what has been lost. Even a poem about a couple strolling by the ocean (“As One Stone May Be Used to Shape Another”) seems as concerned with the irretrievable as with what persists between two people. But maybe that one is just about love.
Sketch with Yellow Asterisk
What first strikes you is the scale, the man — we know he’s a man
because she’s drawn a black hat–
looms as tall as the house beside him, the woman
in her triangle skirt to his left,
half his height, and stationed slightly closer
to the girl, a self-portrait
with a polka dot rectangle dress and spaghetti hair.
In reality, this girl beside me,
with her consolation of crayons,
has hair more russet, less curly, a nest
of tangles I’ve never noticed. (In reality, this was years ago,
the last time I saw her, though
I still keep the picture in my bottom desk drawer).
Her figures all float a half-inch above
the grass, grass grown as long as the girl’s legs,
obscuring the threshold
of the door that leads, I would guess, to this very couch,
this room littered with toys, coverless books, therapy equipment.
I’m waiting for her mother, in the other room,
to sign the papers so I can close the file.
The girl hums beside me,
adding a second green to the grass, two windows
though this house has only one,
a few birds just so we know
the sky is there. Outside, the sky is almost paper-white,
but more intricate, so many gradations
from cotton to milk to baby powder
to that bluish white they paint dead people on TV.
A man is walking his dog, a dachshund, like comic relief
too early in the scene, and I want to follow them
home or out into the streets of Portland
where people are
eating pastries or waiting for the bus
or singing badly a pop song while they drive. I want
to ignore the box of donated clothes his mother handed me,
each item folded with care
like a memory, to leave this room behind,
one-dimensional as the picture the girl
tells me is finished. There are flowers now
because, in childhood, it is always or almost
spring. She’s added a chimney with smoke, I’ll say
to symbolize the fire at the heart of things.
And in the background, atop a small, floating hill, more
chimneys or upright cigarettes,
the same smoke snaking skyward in the same smoke-gray shade,
and one tiny star, an asterisk in canary yellow
off to the side. I’ll ask her now, for you,
what it’s supposed to be, though I remember clearly
that yellow sweatshirt he always wore,
and how she told me, that’s Tommy.
Mom says he’s with Grandma and Grandpa now.
And when I hesitated, still unsure of what she’d drawn,
she added, they live in Pittsburgh.
And so I’m writing this
because I found the picture yesterday while hunting for thumb tacks
and remembered him
growing thin, and thinner, and now so thin
he can live inside this picture his sister drew.
And now I can almost convince myself
she’s right: the dead living together in some city
tough enough to make them feel alive again,
pulling double shifts down at the plant
because eternity can get tedious,
smoke blooming from the stacks
because how else could heaven rest on a girder of cloud.
And we, the living, go on
pulling shifts or making love or writing poems and then, done,
stroll the neighborhood
looking for ourselves and those recesses
where the dead silver birches or kindle the throats
of small birds, and sometimes
the scale seems funny, and dusk is a window
flung suddenly open. And you just stand there,
hearing the wind, a sound like someone sweeping up in all that
grass gone long.