Three Poems by Rick Mulkey

Discovering an Abandoned Orchard Near Bluefield, VA

Some think it’s in our best interest

to prune fruit trees of watersprouts and sideshoots,

thinning the canopy to let in light and increase

the apple crop, but I believe the right course

is to follow the northern wind to its own conclusion

down a worn deer run where like an old white-tail buck

we stop to savor what ripens before the frost

consumes it all. And be thankful for the time

we had to wander the abandoned orchard,

bed down in the shade-cooled grass, relaxed

and unfettered from any human task

the world, fortunately, never imagined for us.


Spam Sushi

Sounds inedible, but my son, home for a visit, makes it

for his mother and me who sit at the table pretending

eagerness, but still devoted to him, ready to try

a roll he fashioned with his own hands,

hands which at 27 possess little resemblance

to the ones that gripped my fingers those first months

of his life when all that kept him from harm

were my hands and his mother’s, and our fear

we’d screw this all up, his life, his future,

the hopes we had for our family, all of it rolled up

in those small fists opening and reaching for us.

Now there are callouses on his palms, scars where knife

or guitar string sliced, evidence of a life

I know less and less about each year.

He joins us at the table, selects a piece,

lightly sprinkles Bonita flakes, then passes it to me.

It’s such a simple dish, the salty meat,

the rice he washed and steamed, the deep umami

from soy and mirin he added just for us,

which somehow takes me to my mother’s kitchen

where she’s frying spam because she can’t afford

beef or chicken, the crispy slices placed on white bread

slathered with mustard for our lunch. And tonight 

my son prepares his version with its own history 

of struggle. I lift it to my mouth, this offering 

of love and remembrance. I take a bite.


Spring Fishing

The air rings with riffles 
and diphthongs of roiling pools, a melody 
we’d nearly forgotten. We’ve arrived,

my nephews and I, after a year of pandemic 
isolation and distance, to fish Crooked Creek. 
With only a few brief greetings,

a handshake with the oldest,
quick hugs from the younger two,
they go straight to it and begin to cast 

but the river doesn’t bite.
One, the middle boy, trips and falls
against the stony bank, his knee

scraped raw from gravel whorled
and washed up from recent floods.
The oldest brother reaches out a hand.

Later they’ll likely fight,
as young brothers do, and slam their bodies 
together with abandon, but not now.

I’m nearly 60 and they so very young,
one day they’ll find memory unable
to travel the future, recall this morning

or how I helped them tie the bloodknot,
slip grubs on hooks. Their skin tender
and easily pierced, mine calloused 

against sharpened barbs. I love
how eager they are, especially the smallest boy
who casts then reels, then casts again,

confident as only the youngest of us
can be, and how patient he is
for the tightening line,

how thrilled when, finally, he and his brothers 
realize the explosion of fish rising in air, flinging
its coiled flank at the endless sky.

Rick Mulkey is the author of All These Hungers, Ravenous: New & Selected Poems, Toward Any Darkness, Bluefield Breakdown, and Before the Age of Reason, and with Denise Duhamel he has edited the anthology Ice On a Hot Stove: A Decade of Converse MFA Poetry. Previous work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Poet Lore, Shenandoah, The Literary Review, Poetry East, and Still: The Journal. He currently lives and works in Spartanburg, South Carolina.