Buffalo Bill hung
three feet above my head.
His spade-cut beard and arrow-eyes
tilted down at me from below
the wide lips of his hat brim,
spread around his head like eagle’s wings,
his horse’s backside reared upwards,
kicking at the sky as if to punt
the sun into its half-past-noon position.
He hung down the hall from James K. Polk,
from model combines, thrashers,
“Votes for Women” flags,
the bones, oxidized and dark
as tobacco spit,
of a ground sloth who milked
the land millennia before Bill
and his movable Wild West.
“I think the Beatles wrote a song about him.”
My dad’s voice jars me, even at a whisper,
in the halls of the museum,
empty but for us below the poster,
escaping the dry electric buzz
of heat lightening in Nebraska
that summer my eleventh year.
“Hey, Buffalo Bill, what did you kill, Buffalo Bill…”
Those weren’t the words, but this was our story,
the one for where we stood.
The one we could place
within the smell of wet corn,
the rot of wood we’d known.
We’d climbed in through the window
of the family house that morning—
not what once had been the family house,
now boarded up, a danger, overgrown
with poison ivy, thistle, nettles,
but what would always be ours,
even as it sinks each year
deeper and deeper into the ground.
The house was not curated,
its artifacts not organized
into a theme or a progression
of a narrative that you could walk through,
its aging documented and spelled out in plaques
and neat chronologies, preserved
and vacuum-sealed in hypoallergenic
This house was wild.
Time had dumped all relics
randomly within its rooms,
as if the roof had opened up
and books and bottles had rained down,
not nourishing the soil but crashing
down to bury it.
It was kill or be killed.
Only the strong survived
The stained musk of fraying fibers
in a pocket-sized A Dog of Flanders;
dirt-caked blue glass mixing bowl;
report cards, spelunked
out of the caved-in crawlspace
of an attic, reading, Evelyn’s a bright student,
but talks too much in class.
These were the things I removed.
Their decay both sickened and alarmed
me like the birds that flew out startled
by my footsteps from within the old piano had,
while at once the living they embodied
thrilled me, comforted me,
overtook and toppled me completely
like an old story does,
like the place you always set it in,
existing in you for as long as you recall,
a spot you’ve never been to
but that somehow you are homesick for.
Like the smell of dwindling mesquite smoke
as it stirs a loneliness in you, the kind you relish
as you feel the world begin to swallow
you, alone without a compass while home
within your skin.
Like all the breaths I breathe in
as my own today, that hang
suspended in the condensation,
in the cracks between the bar bricks:
words that once were spoken there
that fill my head and swell
with the swelling ring beneath my glass,
my sour mash of corn.
Like my father’s mis-singing of the Beatles.
Like the heat in summertime Nebraska.