Literary Yard

Search for meaning

‘Building a House on the River’ and other poems

By: Douglas Cole

Building a House on the River

It’s amazing he thought of it at all, believing the possibility,
the outrageous engineering involved: stanchions down
into the muddy river bottom. How to get them in
in the first place and how to get them to hold is a feat in itself.
How many times in those early days did the whole thing fall apart,
a structure that looked good on paper collapsing and sending him
literally back to the drawing board?

And think of what he had to work with, the materials available,
whatever was lying around at the time. Yes, the time—
imagine that, too, which is why I shake my head in sympathy
picturing it as he pushed his hands into those stiff gloves,
laced up his boots over feet so bruised the toes had gone numb,
and kept at it every day, rising every morning like Sisyphus
happy and heading back to the construction site.

In the process, finding pieces of an older structure left behind,
ruins of another effort: a lump of rusty razor blades, old fashioned
knob-and-tube wiring, a bag of counterfeit money if you can believe it
that made him smile imagining a 1930s outlaw hiding out out there.
And what, as time went on, was he supposed to do with those parts
that inevitably broke away: the plank here, the shingle there,
the opening through which things disappeared into the rushing water:

heirloom tools, journals, histories, all that theoretical architecture,
orchard summer bicycle ride, blackberry trail, bank forest, trapper’s shack,
mist morning, engine block in the weeds, and roads, infinite roads
like divine arteries. Waking up each day and feeling another thing gone,
mending what was left but never sure exactly what was lost,
in an absurd and never-ending kind of identity shell game,
until sitting dockside he looks down and sees his own legs floating off.

What survivor, what castaway doesn’t know how we live through this
and what sad loving gaze we give it when the time comes,
when we run out of replacements and makeshift building materials,
that moment we stand watching it all go piece by piece
then finally down in a dramatic splash, nothing left, not even desire
to rebuild it all again, as we turn and walk away?

Chasing the Muse

She gives a little shimmy before the curtain opens up
and throws me back a smile. I’ve followed her to cities
I never thought I’d be in, wrecked by war
and political turnovers, but she goes right through.
The most murderous tyrants give her the best
rooms in their villas. They think I’m an assistant.
I stay in the shadows, if it’s known I’m there at all.
I’m often flat out invisible. She’s got the world by the tail.
And when I show her my latest attempt, she says, Oh,
that’s nice, I like it—but generally seems unimpressed.
So, I go round and round. I’ve blown myself up.
I’ve wasted away in far-off villages. In disgust
I’ve thrown my atoms into the sun, and yet I come
again with hope and another plate of visions.


I’m up to my elbows in black oil grease,
sitting on the curb in front of the apartment.
I can tear down most of this engine:
water pump, electrical, valves, you name it.
It’s good to tend to your own machine.

Music, voices, television in the rooms above,
rock and roll circus deck and stairs,
crow pecking away at something on the roof,
streets twisting into infinity loops,
man spraying down his driveway with a hose,
sun brutal rainless spell to the point of prayer,
to the point of lying on the black floor midnight
like a sailor on deck crossing the equator.

It’s like a code that crow’s pecking if you listen,
a code, a bit of information you can use
to rebuild civilization after that hot flame
flows up El Cajon Blvd and we scatter off-world
like deflated life rafts at the bottom of the sea,

beautiful gods strolling on with frothy margaritas,
that crow pecking as I wrap my tools in a towel
and put them in the trunk and head to my apartment,
yank open the refrigerator and grab myself a beer.
I’ve done my part now to keep the thing running.

Grandpa with the Spider

An apartment frugal and small with his wife Silva,
and believe it or not a box of toys for grandkids—
that he expects any visit at all is a belief in miracles—
the amount of hate that surrounded him those late years—
my uncle, my cousins. But my mother, too young
to remember the horrible times, took us to see him—
there, where it’s always Christmas Eve with cotton
on the window ledge and little lit, snow-covered homes,
the old man sitting in his chair, his head bristle bald—
the black plastic spider is my favorite toy—
then he’s gone to Redondo Beach, house o’erlooking the sea,
boat for fishing, fading pictures of the big one,
dead of heart attack, no funeral I remember,
no image of love in anyone’s family book—
a few appearances in dream—and yet a victory, I say,
one of those eternal Sundays, clear sky, sun over all,
a door opening over the water like an elevator in midair,
a square through which God rays flow, and he asks, now?
And hears only, yes—and that’s it—all you could wish for,
faced with a miracle carved out of wishing,
a child looking into tiny, in-lit Christmas windows,
a spider dropping a ladder to the least among us
to climb at last into heaven.

Wild to be Wreckage Forever

They move like stone with dry light on them,
hillside backed up in rows, carved into tractor tracks,
a metropolis of devastation, stacks,
all metal warped by wreck or sun heat.
Some windshields still have blood on them,
seats soaked. I move through struts, gears,
steering wheels as big as barrel hoops.
Forget the make and models, forget the years—
I keep my vehicles going with scavenged pumps
pulled from the carcasses, hush of almost reverence
as if the wind slowed itself to listen,
passing through many minds to reach your eyes
and look around, mouse in a wheel well, snake in a tire.
Imagine a kingdom, a world, assembling itself
out of spare parts, junk DNA, dreams and wishes.
Imagine the canopy rising from nothing but a heap.
Then, everything a black hole swallows it spits out.
Matter is never destroyed, only changes form,
even you a first mover in your distance,
in the movement of piston and blood-seep of oil,
the snap of ignition and the ultimate engine hum
in this junkyard of devastation, leftovers, bones,
the dead drivers signaling, take me with you…as
at last remodeled we take a wheel and drive.


Douglas Cole has published six poetry collections and the novel The White Field, winner of the American Fiction Award. His work has appeared in journals such as Beloit Poetry, Fiction International, Valpariaso, The Gallway Review and Two Hawks Quarterly; as well anthologies such as Bully Anthology (Hopewell), Bindweed Anthology, and Work (Unleash Press). He contributes a regular column, “Trading Fours,” to the magazine, Jerry Jazz Musician; edits the selections of American writers for Blue Citadel, a department of Read Carpet journal of international writing produced in Columbia. In addition to the American Fiction Award, his screenplay of The White Field won Best Unproduced Screenplay award in the Elegant Film Festival, and he has been awarded the Leslie Hunt Memorial prize in poetry, the Best of Poetry Award from Clapboard House, First Prize in the “Picture Worth 500 Words” from Tattoo Highway, and the Editors’ Choice Award in fiction by RiverSedge. He has been nominated five times for a Pushcart and seven times for Best of the Net. He lives and teaches in Seattle, Washington. His website is

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