Tunes on a Broken Harmonica cover

Tunes on a Broken Harmonica

Britton Shurley

Copyright © 2010 Britton Shurley. All rights reserved.


A vase on the table
filled with red fists of tulips.
They are straining
toward the screen door's sunlight,
toward the sparrows
that are nesting on the porch,
and the tidal hum of traffic
rolling home through land-locked streets.

Eleven Steps to Becoming a Poet of the T'ang Dynasty

Scrawl your frail, black bones of poems
on the backs of junk mail envelopes.
Use only pens you have stolen
from banks. Let the lines of old poets
hum like late-night traffic through your head.
Write letters to your long dead friends,
and dream of bright, pink azaleas.
Walk for miles with gravel in your shoes.
Every year, dig a hole in the yard
then bury some small thing you love.
At least once, you must fall to the ground
in a rainstorm after midnight;
you must crawl toward a puddle's white surface.
You must drink the moonlight down.

Among the Tastes to Recall This Winter

We had golden, Belgian ale
and plates of fresh tomatoes.
Tomatoes sliced
into thick, orange moons,
tomatoes covered in greens
from the garden—
chopped handfuls of spinach,
of basil, of deer tongue lettuce.
There was red wine vinegar, olive oil,
and chunks of crumbled feta.
We had sea salt, black pepper,
and seven small raspberries
picked from our yard at dusk.
They were sweet and slightly warm.

A Plot Against the Robots

—after Wallace Stevens

First Girl
When I hear their metal boots
clacking through the garden,
trampling down the tulips,
I will dance by this patch of violets;
I will call down hours of rain.
Their rusty knees should halt them.
Second Girl
I will set the herbs ablaze—
the lemon thyme, the chocolate mint,
the blooming pineapple sage.
I will hand them fistfuls of lavender;
they will not know what to say.
Third Girl
I will play them a tune
on my broken harmonica;
I will write them the words for a song.
If only one would start to hum
like the sweet, green legs of crickets,
even you and even I
would begin to come undone.

Poem in a Time of War

We gather what we need
from the cupboard—the bags
of flour and sugar, the salt, the cinnamon,
the cups and spoons for measuring.
I pull the milk and butter from the fridge,
and in a large glass bowl,
she stirs these things in by hand.
I fold the blueberries in with a spoon.
What could I tell you of war?
Except that we're here together,
in a world we find hard to fathom,
trying not to rush the days,
in this house with a warming oven
that will soon smell faintly of cinnamon,
whose counters will fill with muffins,
their tops inked blue by sweet juice.

Tonight the Dead are Nothing More


Tonight the dead are nothing more
than they always are.
They are brown scraps of leaves
clawing in the gutters.
They are a family's faded bed-sheets
left flapping on the line.
They are an unseen squall of dogs,
the ones that wake you nightly,
barking sharply down the alley.

Two Haiku from the Cumberland Mountains

Last night's rain like a thousand small fingers
drumming on the old tin roof.
Today the sunrise and haze
pooling softly in the mountain's cupped palms.


—after Georg Trakl

Late November evening, and the wind chimes
ring their hollow, four-note hymn.
A freight train brays through town.
The crickets start their gossip in the garden,
and the ginkgo's fallen fans fade to rust.
Down the street, a dog barks wildly at the stars,
while in a puddle's mirrored surface
the scythe-like moon sits silent.
Tonight, I would like to set the maple aflame,
to watch my dim shadow dance by its light.

In the Story Concerning the Ice Storm

In the story concerning the ice storm
the trees are dripping crystal,
and the wind snaps their branches
like glass. There are ink-black birds
pecking pinholes in the puddles,
and an early, purple crocus
huddles frozen in its blossom.
The evening sun sets its pink on the yard
while a swollen, brown-mouthed river
bites its tongue and waits to rise.

With Winter's Long Drag Behind Us

Our mouths begin to blossom,
and we speak with words long dormant.
We speak of red sparks of cardinals
and of the paper-white blooms on plum trees.
We speak of jaybirds, of wrens, of finches.
We speak of robins that are nesting
on the porch and of their blue
clutch of eggs that will follow.
Most evenings, we stroll the backyard,
and I call out the flowers by name—
wild aster, white violet, and pink, spring beauty.
Some nights, when I know
she's sleeping, I lean to whisper in her ear—
red yarrow, blue bonnet, bright bee balm.

Conversation in the Hills of Southern California

He said: the bougainvillea's pink, paper petals.
And she said: the night's bright scent
   from an orchard's orange blossoms.
He said: a ripe avocado, spread like butter on toast
in the morning; my fingers and the hint of ginger.
She said: a handful of freshly picked berries, my lips
 stained red by their juice; my tongue and its sweet-bud tip.
He said: all those peppers, all those chilies in the valley;
all that flesh growing hotter every day.
And she said: the taste of peaches. You've forgotten
that fruit so sweet, the way it drags the tears from your eyes.

Fugue with a Robin & Dogwood

Just that lone robin preening. That lone robin preening
in the old dogwood's branches.
  Just the rust colored chest
of that lone robin preening
in the dogwood's bud-tipped branches.
Those branches
whose buds have just opened. Just the rust colored chest
of that lone robin preening
    and the pink of those just-opened buds.
Those buds on the dogwood's old branches, that robin
still preening, those branches
still pink with young blossom.
Just an old dogwood's branches and that lone robin preening.
Just its rust colored chest
   in that dogwood's old branches,
those branches so pinked with young blossom.


"A Plot Against the Robots" and "In the Story Concerning the Ice Storm" first appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly. "Eleven Steps to Becoming a Poet of the T’ang Dynasty" was published in Whiskey Island.

Britton Shurley

Britton Shurley holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University and is currently an Instructor of English at West Kentucky Community & Technical College. He is co-founder of the Rivertown Reading Series and the recipient of an Emerging Artist Grant from the Kentucky Arts Council. His chapbook Johnny Depp Saved from Drowning was the winner of Permafrost’s Midnight Sun Chapbook Competition, and his poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in such journals as Bateau, Epicenter, Passages North, Salt Hill, Whiskey Island, Painted Bride Quarterly, Plain Spoke, Crab Creek Review, and Natural Bridge. He is married to the poet Amelia Martens and has a dog named Hoosier.