Sample Poems from BREAK EVERY STRING




We were pumping our fists with Springsteen,

chanting the chorus as Reagan galloped

the campaign trail, still pretending

to be a cowboy, and the old man who lived


in the blue house with the white fence

lined with rosebushes was handing out mints

from a bowl made out of a buffalo skull.

Uncle Bob chopped off his thumbs


in a metal press on his first day on the job.

My father returned to Khe Sahn sleepwalking

past our bedrooms, shouting out the names

of smoke and moon. He had a woman he loved


in Saigon, sang The Boss. Across the bay—

Ferris wheel lights and roller coaster screams.

Child Services found my grandmother unfit

to adopt. An ambulance in front of the blue house


with the white fence lined with rosebushes.

A white sheet. The bones and feathers

of a dead seagull—a ship wreck

on a rocky shore lapped by green waves.


On their lunch break, my father, my uncles,

and both my grandfathers, their names

embroidered on their grease-stained shirts,

stepped out of the factory and coughed up


their paychecks to their wives idling in Regals,

Novas, and Gremlins. Out by the gas fires

of the refinery. My father’s handlebar mustache

terrified me. My brother built me castles


out of blankets and chairs, larger than the house

that confined them. Taught me how to leap

off the couch like Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka,

how to moonwalk and breakdance. He’d go on


to teach me that disappointment’s a carcinogen.

My father took cover behind the Lay-Z-boy

in his underwear. My grandmother offered

a pregnant runaway a place to stay in exchange


for her baby. When the plant relocated to Mexico,

my father brought home a pink slip heavier

than a Huey Hog. The rosebushes became thorny

switches. Over ham steaks and mashed potatoes,


our parents poured out their divorce.

We had to decide who we wanted to live

with before leaving the table. I’d go

wherever my brother went: that meant Mom.


My father took a job out of state.

My mother took a boyfriend, who

dragged his unemployment into a bar

called The Pit, then staggered


into our house knocking over houseplants,

and I was the one ordered to clean

the carpets with the wet/dry vac. We’d sneak

out of the house at 3AM to swim


in the neighbor’s pool, or ping rocks

off hurtling freight trains. The city condemned

the blue house with the paint-chipped fence.

My mother’s eye, blackened. We slept in parks,


better than home. She stood at the sink,

sobbed, scrubbed blood-splotches

out of her white jacket with a soapy sponge.

Wouldn’t press charges. My brother bought


a dime bag and a revolver from a guy named Kool-Aid.

My mother was crowned a welfare queen, and drove

a Cadillac assembled out of political mythology.

I smoked my first joint on the roof of a movie theater


with my brother and the stars. An after-school ritual:

stepping over the passed-out boyfriend to grab

a Coke out of the fridge. We spray-painted

gang insignias across the boarded-up windows


of the blue house with splintered teeth. The boyfriend

could whip up one hell of an omelet. We didn’t hate

him on Sunday mornings. My mother’s stiches.

We swiped a bottle of Mad Dog, drank it while eating

peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. My mother stashed

bottles of gin in the leather boots my father bought

for their last Christmas together. Twice they called

me into the principal’s office because a knife fell out

of my pocket at recess. We turned abandoned factories

into playgrounds, busted out the windows with tornadic rage.

Somebody was asking for it, and somebody was going to get it.

I overheard a teacher tell my mother, “He’s going to grow up

to kill somebody.” Thanks to the Black Panthers,

this white boy had free breakfast at school.

My brother waited until the boyfriend was drunk

on the toilet to burst in swinging a baseball bat.

Later that night while taking a bath, I fished

out a tooth biting me in the ass. Backhoes

and bulldozers devoured the blue house

with the collapsing roof. We rewound

and played back the catastrophic loss

that plumed over Cape Canaveral

on our VCRs. The boyfriend slammed

a stolen van into a tree. She’d pour me

a bowl of Cheerios, pour herself a scotch.

The boyfriend’s dentist kept good records.

“I’m sending you to your father.”

Son don’t you understand now? Front-page news:

firefighters dousing the mangled inferno.

Got in a little hometown jam. 

I stood before a judge, pled guilty to

shoplifting Christmas lights, the kind that twinkle.




My father won’t read poetry. He taught

my brother the ways of paintbrush

and canvas, played guitar before I was born


but after Nam, lost interest, saw no sense

in art. I’d like to think, surviving war,

I’d see no better reason to create, proclaim

and praise I am here, but what do I know,


given my armed conflict with the self?

My father once cradled a dying soldier

missing everything below his waist,


and watched a starving boy convulse

after a sergeant handed the child a candy bar—

his body no longer understood food.


My father pulls shoulder muscles

as he masons walls, lays foundations.

He cracks knuckles against engine blocks,


torqueing wrenches. Because the dead

remind him that splinters in his palms

are gifts, he builds cabinets, chairs, houses.

His life is work, no room for self-indulgence


or anything frivolous. But don’t we also live

in rooms not constructed out of lumber and stone?

Art is an alarm clock. Art is a ladle of beauty


lifted to the lips. My father. On the table

he planed, sanded, stained— where we’ve sat

together after a long time of not sitting together,

where we’ve eaten slow—I want him to dance


and afterwards, I want him to see the scuffmarks

on the pine as affirmations of purpose—of loving

the lost with raucous praise, of letting the gone go.




Each night they stare into the sky

and wonder why even with wings

they can never get off the ground.

Good reason for their creator

to take three steps, cock his head

and disown his gift to the world.

Abandonment: a likely origin of anyone’s

lack of faith. And faith: precisely what's needed

to soar in the purple abyss of winter.


We step out into our lives like sun slicing

between buildings and perform this one angelic

act that melts from our consciousness.

We return to our houses to accomplish

something important, leaving behind

the ones who don't know any better,

who see the wings as open arms,

snow as flesh, and are willing to lie back down.




My days are spent keeping a blind cat

from pissing on the rug and nights listening

for the fat in Ray Brown bass solos.


I used to drink coffee with cream, now

I drink it black. I cancelled my gym

membership. Progress. Regression.


I’ve been accused of being flippant,

my banjo out of tune, thoughts deep

as the frying pan my beef-patty’s


sizzling in. Time to be serious.

I’ve an uncle with black lung

and arthritis so bad he can’t button


his shirt. Dear Poets, we’re not sages.

We’re battered spouses of hope—

even when it blackens our eye


we rush back into its arms.

When you have nothing, you depend

on nothing the most. I want Lake Erie


to burn for old time’s sake. Give me

flat fields and grain elevators. Scrape

under my fingernails and find rust


and brick-dust from abandoned auto

plants. Mother, I lost you

long before I’ll ever lose you.


I’m not interested in last words,

but in final thoughts. Do you love

the most the one you think of last?


Are we defined by what shames us?

I’ll work overtime to be a figment

of your imagination. I’ll even moonlight

as one of your psychotic episodes.

We could’ve both been better angels

to one another, but Hell lives in the bones.

© 2013 Joshua Michael Stewart