Poem: Back Roads

I don’t often write poetry. I’m hard on my work and I worry that my poems can be cloying and sappy. Then again, I myself am attracted to a bit of sentimentality in others’ poetry. I pulled this old piece out of a journal a little while back. It was something I wrote in college when I was feeling nostalgic for my coming of age in small-town America. Reading over the poem, however, I discovered that it didn’t really make sense. (“Isn’t that the case with most poetry?” you ask.)

It was marinating in fernweh, that sense of nostalgia for a place one has never been to1—because, in reality, that place only exists in one’s imagination. Fireflies don’t come out in the winter. And I can’t remember ever seeing one in California. But when writing this poem that’s what my writer’s mind saw. So, over 10 years later, I found myself editing a poem that was never meant to be literal, merely evocative, so that it “makes sense”. It’s called Back Roads.

I had to wipe the frost off my windshield tonight

With a pen cap and my down jacket forearms

Because I couldn’t find an ice-scraper

Amidst the crumpled Chevron receipts and empty Dr. Pepper bottles that decorate my car.


Blinded by my own steam,

I drove down Highway 16.

Its lines were beginning to lose the whiteness earned

From August road workers

Who had held up signs to stop carloads of children

Being driven to their first swimming lessons.


The clear black sky left me feeling timeless,

And, unhurried by a ticking sun,

I turned onto that country road my brother had shown me a few years back

Before he went to school—

That country road that loops in between the timber frames

Of abandoned mines not rife with enough disaster to be considered historic

Like the Jackson or Kennedy,

Where men trapped underneath age-old soil

Put down their pick-axes to hold hands and pray

As they waited to suffocate to death,

Without the chaplain of the mine there to sanctify their blackened skin.


On the way home I forgot which road to turn down,

And I guessed that it was the gravel road past the second mine

Instead of the first.

Its shadows had the feeling of the route I remembered,

But I found myself dead-ended in a pasture

Amongst foot-tall dandelions that had forgotten to wither.


Rather than put the car into reverse

To find the safety of the eleven miles of paved road,

I drove straight through the pasture.

I imagined it was July and that the fireflies had returned to this forgotten corner of California.

They turned on and off like hundreds of cigarettes being puffed out of tune,

The ashes of their falling light showing the scattering dandelion seeds where to land.

Blades of green cut into the exterior

And I rolled down my window to hear it all more clearly.

  1. I talked about fernweh and other untranslatable words in this post []

8 Comments Poem: Back Roads

  1. Josan

    Love this brother. Writings and ideas like this come back for reasons. I hope it fills you with warmth as it has me. Definitely nostalgic, I was lost in this poem.

  2. Bernardette

    Your poem is really good, I felt like I was there. I can see it clearly in my mind and now I am imagining what it might have sounded like.

  3. Patrick Sullivan (U.P.)

    My dear Nephew,
    this reason you cannot get out of 6th place in your Fantasy League is you have never called the person in YOUR family that knows about this shit !! What’s up with that………….? Anyway, DO NOT take that idiot Puig or get caught up with his antics as he will be injured or in jail within 2 yrs. To bottom line-it: I LOVE your web ideas +
    this serialmonography deal, very cool and innovative…………..a 9.5 ! love ya Kid.
    Please talk to your Mom re my med. deals cuz I am sooooooooooooo F___g tired of going over it with everyone. Also, please call when we can shoot the “defecation”…..+ stay in close touch with your Bro>>>>>>>ALWAYS ! Now that’s important !!

  4. Caitlin Mason

    I am really enjoying your blog and I loved your poem too – not sure how I stumbled upon your blog, perhaps through facebook? Oh now I remember, you wrote an article I liked in Inspired Bali. I don’t read many blogs, but I’ll keep at it with yours 🙂 Thank you!


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