J. Scott Brownlee

J. Scott Brownlee is a poet and poetry critic from Llano, Texas.  His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, RATTLE, Tar River Poetry , Front Porch, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Writers’ Bloc, Windhover, and elsewhere.  Involved with several literary journal start-ups, he was the managing editor and co-founder of both Hothouse and The Raleigh Review .  His current writing project, County Lines: The Llano Poems , explores small-town life in the Texas Hill Country.


Four Poems (February 27, 2012. Issue 35.)

Highway 71

She had a way of turning everything
to shit for which blame is pointless.
She was never present when I held her—

despite all my reckless attempts to get her
to hold me.  She used to look at me and say, 
I am not ready to.  Then, I may never be.

Then, I want you to stay and not do anything,
and I always said, Sure.  Distance had a way
of making more distance seem at the time

never-endingly long, unforgettably straight.
Highway 71, here, reminds me of her. 
It goes on forever.  Sometimes I drive it

to confirm I'm alone completely—no one else
to talk to or swap this story with, to explain
what happened.  The first time I realized

she’d leave, we smoked cigarettes late into the night
in a city she told me she’d already left in the same way
a car, on black ice, leaves the road with a swerve

or a veer.  She was no accident—and yet, I swear,
she was all accident—her first strange sprouting up
out of nowhere: bright green through the black

asphalt’s cracks.  Cruelty had to find her, finally,
so that she could be broken and stripped bare by it. 
But that’s bullshit—the kind she could not write about

or bring up on first dates.  No one listened or offered
to help when she did—and that’s also bullshit. 
She had the meanest temper I have ever seen

and would often throw fits about Taco Bell meals
if her order got mashed.  Even so, I loved her—
holding her as the pavement holds heat

even in winter, here—driving anyway,
on and on past all the signs saying, Yield, Stop,
Turn Back.  Pass With Care was one, too. 

I learned the tragedy of rape was the absence it left. 
After it, only open road—what could we do,
then, but accelerate?
—careening for control

neither one of us took of the situation.
Perhaps now it makes sense why I clocked
at 110—even on Dead Man's Curve.  I did it

to feel changed—thought the speed might confirm
something other than her boss's voice after work
Let's get drinks.  We will have a good time.

Let's go back to my place with a couple of friends. 
You can spend the night there.
  Getting caught
at this speed is a felony, right?  I was 40 over.

Her boss raped her—then got away with it scot-free. 
That's so hard to accept I refuse to do it.  I don't care
if you give me a ticket for being a pain in the ass,

and another for not shutting up.  That is not my concern. 
I can pay you right now.  Here's 500 bucks, sir—excuse me,
.  I forgot who you were.  I forgot where I am. 

I forgot how much distance there is between us. 
Will I slow it down?  Yes.  Will I drive safely?  Sure. 
With more common sense?  Sure. . . . Sure. . . . Sure.

Country Western Music at The Rose

I want to teach you how to two-step,
sexy slow dance, Jägermeister
on your breath, my tongue touching your teeth
as we celebrate country western music

at The Rose, where we kissed and first met. 
Don't hurt my achy, breaky heart.
Sweetheart, I'm begging you to not.
Please, don't enjamb me

like the other boys you left. 
Don't sell your soul to beat the Devil
at the fiddle.  You will lose.
Believe my bourbon-whiskey breath.

I am the only pilgrim here 
who can still understand you. 
Wordsworth could never play guitar,
neither could Baudelaire, but I sure as hell do.

I have this hollowness you have to hollow out:
this six-string, sin-stained soul of song
only music can save.  No messiah can come for me
the way your body comes.  (No messiah has come.

That's the Jesus I meant.)  I've gotten lit 
enough by this point to quote poetry to you 
like a Jäger-bomb Yeats“How can we ever know
the dancer from the country western dance?” 

I ask you, giving you a whiff of wet cologne:
basic, two-dollar Brut I bought at Super-S
for half-off.  I feel my feelings everywhere
like a drunk cowboy Yeats.  I forget my own history

tonight each time I look at you, here where
the dance floor fills with petal-drops of sweat,
and the two of us touch.  Let's get drunk and be Irish.  
Let's sing like too-well-tuned guitar strings.

Play me.  Pluck me.  Put your hands on the bridge
of my back.  The only thing I want is you
to slip off your corsage, and, if you feel me
like I feel you, make me smell like it.

Po-dunk Place

Sometimes I am ashamed of it.  I want to claim
I come from better: someplace else.  "I must have
come from someplace else," I say, not even that
convinced.  I was always born here.  Here is where
I am from.  I try to talk around my accent, but I can't.  
I cain't.  I cain't.  I drink cheap Lone Star beer instead,
catch channel catfish at the river with my fishing pole.
I even spit Big Chief tobacco when my mood's right.
I've cut that formal diction free I caught at universities.
My teachers claimed I was "uneducated white trash."
What I'm arguing here is that the usefulness of ain't,
as in, "I ain't got no more words for origins,"
is an elegant line sometimes, depending
where you're from.  "I am from Llano," here me say
in my best John Wayne voice.  We say it Lan-o
even though in the Spanish it's said Ya-no.
Don't ask me why I drop the double-l habitually
because I do not know.  And it's ki-yotes and
not coyotes, let me tell you.  Although the part
about Republicans and oil rigs and textbooks
from the Dark Ages is, for the most part, true—
also the abstinence the high schools teach
in Lubbock where they have more STD's
than coyotes, Texas still loves you anyway.
You can quote me on that.  No matter what happens,
remember: Texas has hippies high on pot plucking
guitars in Luckenbach, where everybody with a t-shirt on 
can be someone.  Texas has Six Flags and a Sea World
and a lot of good sports teams.  Why don't you drive down
for a spell?  Stop here in Llano if you want.  Eat food
at Cooper's, Inman's, Sonic, or the two-tone Taco Bell
with the Drink Pepsi sign.  The motorcycle gangs
and Houston yuppies do.  They're huge fans of this place.
They booze and buy our gasoline, taking more pictures
of the flowers, believing they can understand,
using a road map they just bought,
why we proudly say, "We're from here."

Cemetery Lights

I saw the bright haze
of kaleidoscopic lights
underneath the town bridge.
One installation boasted,

Proof that there's power
in prayer, and that God
answers us.  It was
for Michael Tom McDonnell

who was burned by gasoline
and yet somehow survived.
It depicted him smiling again,
like before the bright flames.

I do not need your praise
to survive after you
I heard the baby Jesus say
from behind the burned boy.

I saw him lying in his manger
made of paint and two-by-fours,
and he did not rise up.
One of the newer installations

held a pair of glowing books:
the Holy Bible on the left,
to the right of that, Sci_nce.
The last seemed awkward,

out of place in a Christmas display.
It was missing an e, which
made my brother laugh
and my mother say, Don't.

Beside these books
another installation
for the soldiers in the war
who did not survive it

marked the end of the trail:
green helmets, blue,
blinking machine guns
and a Pray for us

in cursive, Christmas red
anchoring the display.
There was nothing
to say, and I didn't need to.

All of the soldiers
I imagined floating slowly
over Llano grew white wings,
many pairs of white wings.

And they were beautiful,
funereal, processing
without names
through the dark, rising up.

The Legendary