Winner, New Ohio Review Poetry Contest
selected by Tony Hoagland
By Michael Pearce
Featured Art: In the Valley of Wyoming, Pennsylvania (Interior of a Coal Mine, Susquehanna) by Thomas Addison Richards, 1852
The old barrel warehouse across the street
had a ceiling so high there was weather inside.
Henry Gutierrez lived there—they said
he’d been there since before the war,
though they never said which war.
He worked at Anger’s garage all day
rebuilding engines, then came home
and slept a few hours, and when
he woke up after dark he’d knock back
a bowl of cereal and a couple beers.
If you looked over there at midnight you’d see
brilliant flashes coming from inside,
silent explosions, like lightning
trapped in a thunderless cage.
But it was only Henry’s arc welder,
he worked all night fusing together
sheets and scraps of steel until
they seemed to breathe and shake
and prance and strike a noble pose.
He built animals, mostly horses,
and he said he knew he’d finished one
when he found himself talking to it.
One time Uncle Jack, my father’s brother,
invited Henry to his church, the one
where they forgive you for anything
as long as you let Jesus into your heart
and drop a twenty in the basket.
But Henry knew there was no forgiving
his sins, and it made him sick
to talk about the people he’d injured
then listen to the other craven souls
tell him he was absolved. He said
he had his own way of atoning that
was mostly about wrestling with steel.
For some reason Henry liked being around
my father, and he was one of the few
who could make Dad smile.
Henry saw something in him,
something decent and funny and odd.
He was the first to call Dad the Pale Man,
and he was the only one
to call him that with affection.
He said he saw through the Pale Man,
literally saw through his colorless skin:
there were the slender birdbones of his legs
and there were his spidery arteries
that never glowed a full rich red
and there was the lonely lung that kept up
its wheezy bellowing after the other one
had withered with consumption. And there
was his heart with its forty-two scars.
The Pale Man acted tough and carefree
with Henry Gutierrez but they both knew
that he was neither. Henry liked him
because he talked about science,
and because he gave Henry a place to stay
when the authorities torched his warehouse,
and because he was gentle and
told the truth about everything
except his own sadness.
Michael Pearce’s poems and stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Threepenny Review, Spillway, Epoch, The Yale Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere, and have won several national prizes (New Ohio Review, Dogwood, Oberon, Bosque, and others). His collection of poems, Santa Lucia by Starlight, won the Brighthorse Prize in Poetry and will be published by Brighthorse Books in late 2020. He lives in Oakland, California, and plays saxophone in the Bay Area band Highwater Blues.
Originally appeared in NOR 20.