Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 15
Fall 2016

[Four Poems]

by Rick Mulkey

Cheerleaders at Forty

They’re in love again
with the old language of lunge and kick.
While others rush to work,
they’re framed in windows at the local gym
training in Pilates, their children preened
and packed off to school, their husbands, former quarterbacks
and point guards, huddled in insurance office cubicles.
Even now their school girl voices overheard
in grocery stores and shopping malls
could rile the marching band’s tight-lipped clarinetists
who hated them, their rouged cheeks,
mascara-lined eyes, their big moussed hair,
how each sweater hid little from the crowd,
how they’d bend on hands and knees then rise in pyramids.
Despite the talk, few boys ever loved them
in breath-fogged Fords, desiring them most
haloed by stadium light in late September
before adolescence burned to cinders in factory fires.
Now at the gym they’re pedaling stationary bikes,
swimming laps and hovering above ellipticals,
attempts to stop their universe from flying into entropy,
anything to halt the memory of their breath ghosting
in the cold of those Friday nights when the final whistle blew,
and the frost, without warning, began blooming all around them.


Gender Studies: How Men Fail at Small Talk

“The Southern Right Whale has a penis 10 feet long,” she tells him. He’s
not sure whether he should be impressed or embarrassed. On another
occasion, she points out that the male dragonfly, after mating, severs its
body from its prick leaving it in the female. “O.K.,” he offers, “I’ve read
around. I know about those castrating female characters of the 1920s’
novels. I’m a product of the Carter years. I understand some men have
become pacifists, that Camille Paglia wants us on occasion to act like we
really do have balls. But what are you getting at?” “Nothing,” she says.
“Just thought you’d like to know.” “Listen,” he says. “I watch football some Saturdays,
especially the SEC, and I’ve been to a hockey game or two,
and when I was younger I could put away cheap beer, you know the kind
you’d use coupons for at Kroger, with the very best of them. And hell, I
used to hunt, never actually killed anything, but I might have. So, just
because I know what cheese goes with what wine, and just because I’ve
got this thing for Martha Stewart, especially when she’s up to her elbows
in compost, and just because I make the best damn scones this side
of Ireland, don’t think I’m not as much man as any whale or dragonfly.”
“I just thought you’d be interested,” she says, her voice already distant,
her face already turned away. “Well, I’m not,” he says. “I’m not.”



Above plowed rows, the sun turned hot and sour
while she tested the shade of maple leaves.
Pregnant and sweating from her morning’s labor,
bushel basket of beans to snap and freeze,
she rocked the front porch glider.
Its song, phrased more with rust than metal,
suggested all days are brief and passing.
Flies hummed in fresh turned compost and manure
which each spring constructed her garden.
Corn and squash she’d can and shelve, would soon
come on, then later she’d pickle crocks of beets.
Meanwhile, the child inside her wrenched and kicked,
and, years before they’d wake, cancer cells deep
inside her breasts cleaved to their fertile sleep.



Always there were stories of it
crouching in the stream-side laurel,
padding across dew in moonlit grass.
Maybe a cocker spaniel out for a piss
in the back yard would go missing,
or there’d be a muffled chime
of a belled collar from the mountain pass.

And often, as old men gathered for morning
coffee at White’s Diner, stories would be retold
about the little girl missing three years now.
How her father swore he’d heard a cat-like squall
weeks before when hunting Skillet Hollow.
All of this raising questions none of them
could answer about the town, the country,

when any last saw a service station attendant
in a white cotton uniform, or buzz cut boys
beneath the barber pole outside Etter’s shop.
Had they ever really known the smell of lilac water
or the straight razor sharpened on the leather strop?
The sound, the oldest of them recalled,
was like a tooth scraped across bone.


SHJ Issue 15
Fall 2016

Rick Mulkey

is the author of five books and chapbooks including Ravenous: New & Selected Poems (Serving House Books), Toward Any Darkness, Bluefield Breakdown, and Before the Age of Reason. Previous work has appeared in Poet Lore, Shenandoah, The Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Poetry East, The Georgia Review, Serving House Journal, and The Southern Poetry Anthology: Volumes I and III. Rick currently directs and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury