Poems by Joshua Michael Stewart


In her arms is a blue-eyed boy with a dirty face. Under her flow­ered dress, she has anoth­er on the way. They’ve been liv­ing out of an ’85 Buick Riv­iera, park­ing all along the Ohio Riv­er. She stares out of the pock­marked wind­shield at a clap­board church. Yel­low fox­tail grass and rag­weed swal­low head­stones in the church­yard. The sprigs’ sway lulls the boy. The graves resem­ble unmade beds. She stud­ies his long eye­lash­es as she hums an old Appalachi­an lul­la­by her grand­ma used to sing. Child Ser­vices had tried to take her son once before. Night­fall, she points the Buick toward the cold voice of the river.

OHIO, 1989, AGE: 14


From the thorny canthus

of his right eye 

to his dag­ger-shaped jaw


runs a yel­low scar

already old and faded.

He drags on a cigarette,


drowns ants in spit,

jok­ing­ly calls his buddy 

a crack­head motherfucker,


a lemon wedge smiling 

from his teeth. And in his eyes: 

the green light of Wal­lace Stevens,


or bet­ter yet, a blade of grass 

reach­ing out for a meager 

amount of rain.





Ven­om in his voice, 

a rat­trap for a tongue. 

A dust dev­il lives in his throat.


He’s kin to the flatted-fifth, 

son of a minor key. 

The har­mon­ic structure 


of his soul pos­sess­es the tension 

of a dom­i­nant-sev­enth chord 

plead­ing resolve, resolve, resolve.





Water bal­loons, he thinks,

slid­ing his hands up her shirt, 

deep in the tool shed. The recipe 



calls for a tan­gle of limbs 

and tongues—her lips waxy 

with straw­ber­ry gloss, neck 


tast­ing of Aqua Net and salt. 

He feels him­self push 

against the inside of his jeans, 


sure his prick will snap 

like a stick. She unbuttons 

him, clamps her legs around 


his waist, digs in her glitter-nails. 

He tells her that he loves her.

He’s glad she doesn’t say it back.





He delights in the smell of talc

as the bar­ber brushes 

the back of his neck. 


It com­ple­ments the lit­tle girl 

across the street walk­ing with her 

moth­er in their Sun­day best. 


How the straight razor

used to dance in his mother’s hands, 

shuf­fling along the strop, gleam 


in the lemon­ade light of summer. 

His dad­dy slouched in a kitchen chair 

set on the porch overlooking 


the chick­ens scratch­ing the yard bare.

She’d tilt Daddy’s head back, 

lath­er his scruff with a horse­hair brush 


and scrape the blade across his face, 

hold­ing the razor like a butterfly 

by its wings. That was long before 


the trac­tor crushed Daddy’s ribs, 

col­lapsed a lung, years before 

she start­ed reek­ing of whiskey, 


a life­time before she stag­gered over 

and snatched the straight razor 

from the boy’s hands, and wheeled


the blade in a stu­por, slic­ing his cheek, 

all before he moved in with an aunt 

he didn’t even know, down the block


from here where the sun paints a square 

on the black and white tile floor,

and scis­sors snip-snip in his ears.

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