“Passing Through” by Dale Cottingham

“There is no answer” you said “to why
in an inquiry because an inquiry is to find out why,”
your voice rising over us like a storm,
a sample of the truth from a promised land
you searched high and low, near and far,
a purpose that everything served:
car rides, reading, even sex.

I write these lines knowing that
you are nowhere for me to find
or ask how to manage words
that course to me through dust, heat, exhaust,
the exquisite air of these plains,
that seem to have a life of their own (don’t they?)
but right now I want to focus
on memories I have of you fixed and projected,
how I imagine what you might say.

I’ve been damaged on my way across.
Today is broad and open and the few trees
are a deepening green meaning that
whatever certainty they will make
they will make it now for they appear
to be experiencing a season of good feelings
like the era when polio ended
and refreshments and new music were enjoyed.

With office towers and helicopters
the sky is suddenly active
and this seems a good place to piece together
a narrative that makes a sense all my own,
like when I was a boy standing
before the blackboard giving my report
of what happened during the long summer.

Perhaps that’s the part of you that called
from Denver delivering a combination
of afterglow, discovery and regret,
so powerful in your shaken soul,
telling me they were trashy, still
you brought them home,
had your first three-way.
It was the last time I heard your voice.

Someday I’ll want to unpack all this
but for now these lines seem held together
by something, I can’t say exactly what,
but it seems like music, one part essential to another
as they sit compressed on the page.

Yet I am alone in these margins
which is neither joyful or sad
but merely allows my mind to niggle itself
through its own scrub trees, past doublewides, over hills
the way we did that day on the open road,
term over, windows down, going at speed
into a vast valley, all the fences in good order, barns new.
You told me, “Someday I’ll own this valley.”
And for that instant you did
as much as any of us passing through.

Dale Cottingham is of mixed race, part Choctaw, part White. He is a Breadloafer, won the 2019 New Millennium Award for Poem of the Year and is a finalist in the 2021 Midwest Review Great American Poetry Contest. He lives in Edmond, Oklahoma.

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