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John Palen

John Palen’s poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Delmarva Review, Ocotillo Review, Sheila-Na-Gig, and Off the Coast. His most recent book, Distant Music, came out from Mayapple Press in 2017. A memoir about his father’s clothing store in a small town in Southwestern Missouri appeared recently in Flint Hills Review. He lives on the Illinois Grand Prairie.

Pop. 2,422

A gentle breeze at dawn
stirs the catalpa grove,
a rustling of old violence
hushed for a hundred years.

The sharp smell of hot asphalt
at mid-day on the main drag,
diesel exhaust at the four-way,
the bar’s wooden floor, stale with spills.

No shade for a man in his own shadow,
no place to go, finally, but home.
All night the air conditioner
shudders on and off, on and off.

Pop. 546

Tracks cut the town in half:
two bars, a store and a church on one side,
shady homes on the other. Elevators
that once rumbled with cascades of grain
store only echoes now. Children play
red light, green light on an abandoned spur
where grass goes to seed in the rail bed.
Villagers have made peace
with having no Interstate access,
no dependable route across town:
Amtrak never passes through on time;
freight trains run when they’re ready,
block grade crossings at will.
“No clocks in the mountain monastery,”
says the man who keeps the produce stand,
a refugee gardener who washed up
here from Saigon in 1975.
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