CLAY CANTRELL

Stray Dog Blues and Others

for Robert Barbour

He littered his biography with Spanish wine bottles
to prove to his ex-lovers he could follow a thread
through a narrative of muted strings and wrecks,
each chapter title a love note to a different era,
handwritten in wild cursive. A hanging judge
would have believed every word.

He’d wake from whiskey dreams and look at the hills
brooding in the east with their blue crests.
He found sentences in their inertia.
Their immense silence gave him context.

Weeks would go by without phone calls
when his only words were branded on paper
or spoken in short notes to his dog, Custer,
who laid like an artifact by the wood stove.
He wondered what his isolation meant
as a bookend to years of dead roads.

On the night of his birthday, he drank red wine
and listened for voices in marginal atoms.
Diesel brakes whined in the spiritual distance
between Cherokee Creek and Jackson.

He followed his shadow in the moonlight
past ditches of insanity and empty mailboxes
with names he didn’t recognize, thinking of endings
that had already taken place. An evening spent
cooking catfish with his mother

or a long breath of harmonica taken
when he played in the house band at King’s Palace.
He wanted to be remembered as a man of taste
and not as a hermit listening to spirits.

Chapters One through Fifteen were synonymous
with wives and lovers but he had no one
he could name an ending for.

He lit out across a galvanized culvert, seeking a story
in which he would rise from the slow death
of muteness and Army pensions
to the status of someone like Moses,
come down from the mountain with the Law.

When he woke in the hospital he was deaf
and his wrists were jelly.

***

A sunspot wrinkles in from an unmapped region
as I piece through his papers,
looking for a way to make his voice kick.

The transitions between marriages wail like blue notes.
I cannot account for the gaps in his story
or the surface tension he never explains.

There are no clear Band-Aids
to mend the silence.

I don’t know what it means
to lose the song before the last verse.

One chapter begins in the pastoral:
a day spent riding horses, his kids by his side,

and the rosy fields of June
swaying with idealism in the distance.

Twenty pages later, the hospital breaks the narrative.

The story gasps and dies
like a dirt road veering into nowhere.
Because aren’t all biographies eventual let-downs

when the subjects begin to dissolve?

I live here now, where moonlight shines off his cabin’s tin roof
and the joy of his words propels me to song.

I think his best ending lives here, too.
He walks onto this porch in early spring
and notices the horizon blurred
in sky and fog. He forgets for a moment
he’s responsible for this story.


Clay is an MFA candidate at the University of Memphis.

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