Scott Neuffer's Blog: Notes from Cyberspace

October 4, 2018

Raquel Baranow

We’re driving through Nevada memorizing the names of mountains

We’re mapping the ranges rising like shoulder blades from the desert floor

We’re kneeling in the basins tasting the salt of silenced men

Thoughts are carving my skull like water in a canyon

We’re finding a valley of grass as green and sharp as our pain

We’re sitting on the town’s one bench with skin like cracked leather

You, the only woman, are reading our faces as if they were landmarks

I’m licking sorrow off a broken strap somewhere in the sage a wineskin

We’re pitching tents in the ravine sensing night as ice in the aspen

We’re listening to the creek purling through claws of willow

You, my wife, are sleeping beside me our skulls touching like salvaged parts

We’re waking in the dark parched and needing to pee

Water of the Poem was originally published in The Junction on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on October 04, 2018 07:41 • 2 views

August 20, 2018

Joiarib Morales/Unsplash

The old man’s face is a rubbery hamburger bun. The young salesman in the Buick car lot downtown can smell pickles on the old man’s breath.

“Have McDonald’s for lunch?” he asks in a brusque yet solicitous tone.

He believes that old men respect boldness. He wishes he could run back into the office and get his paper cup full of Coke. He wants to show commonality, solidarity.

“Hmmph,” the old man grunts. “I’m sick of McDonald’s.”

Painfully, the old man cranes his head. He squints at the brightly lettered banner above him, which puffs out in the wind like the official flag of the city.

“This is all starting to feel like communism,” he says.

Sick of McDonald’s. Sick of Big Macs. Sick of French fries. Sick of milkshakes… Sick of heaven’s repulsive fare.

I remember my girlfriend and my royal-blue pick-up. Small-town sweethearts. Sixteen and hunger like a vow. The first snort of exhaust. The driving side-by-side. Two No. 2s with Coke, please.

“I’m sick of McDonald’s,” she said one day.

So we went to the park with sack lunches. High school pagans. To watch dandelions like ballet across the grass. The school was far enough away, we thought. But still the golden arches downtown. Kingdom of the greasy gods. The whole nasty nobility….

“I’m done with this,” the old man says.

His hand falls in a bitter wave of dismissal.

“No more,” he says as he walks, limping, towards the peasant-brown sedan parked on the edge of the lot.

No one will mistake that car for sale, the salesman thinks.

“Sir, I’m sorry. If there is something I can help you with….”

“I don’t want any crap,” the old man says. “I’ll break the damn mirrors if I have to!”

McDonalds everywhere I go. Deep-fried sun. Synthetic syrup glistening over the city.

Sweetheart, come back to me.

Sick of McDonald’s was originally published in The Junction on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on August 20, 2018 12:01 • 4 views

August 9, 2018

You write from your heart when the economy has died.
The world cracked open, frozen in cross section, the cold
soil strata, the hard inner air, the infrastructure
sunless.

But look beyond the center. Undulating velvet
hills of wry desert at the end of the valley where
I live, and billowy clouds blown white by a winter
storm gust.

The right way has always lain beneath twisted power
lines and broken barn gables and the swinging silver
of too much space steadied only by the pride of this
ghost town.

— Gardnerville, Nevada, 2008

Author’s note: this poem originally appeared in GFT Press.

On the Outskirts of Town was originally published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on August 09, 2018 13:01 • 2 views

August 2, 2018

Writers suffer from acute nostalgia. This is because we are sensitive to form and thus to changes in form and thus to the passage of time. Even minute changes can drive us insane. Knowingly or not, we constantly write our way toward home, toward that ideal state that first enchanted us. Whether or not we can get there is a question that has fueled some of the world’s greatest literature. The novelist Thomas Wolfe, for instance, believed there was no going back home once innocence was lost. I was eighteen when I first picked up a tattered paperback of Look Homeward, Angel and read the famous introduction: “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

Later in college I read and reread The Great Gatsby, one of the great novels about loss and disillusionment. The writing was so beautiful and haunting as though Fitzgerald had felt something I had personally felt, something we all had felt: the magic of dreams and the horror of their dissolution. I wrote an essay about the book that argued, an exact quote, “the beauty inherent in the expression of loss compensates for the loss itself.”

I’m not sure I believe that anymore. I had a professor of experimental poetry who said The Great Gatsby was one big lie, that what’s past is not lost if we’re willing to bend with the universe in its infinite permutations.

Maybe. I’m not sure what I believe. I’m thirty-six years old. I have a wife and three kids. This summer I was able to visit my grandparents’ farmhouse in Townsend, Montana, with my family and extended family. It’s where I spent much of my childhood. My grandfather has since passed away. My grandmother has one more summer left before new owners take over. At that point the house, built in the early 1900s, may be torn down.

Originally homesteaded in 1889, the farm consists of eighty acres of hay fields. Just up the road from Canyon Ferry (the dammed-up Missouri River), the farm unfortunately holds as many mosquito swarms as it does square feet of fertile soil. And the soil is very fertile. My siblings and cousins and I used to walk down to the lake in the summer. The mosquitoes would make a gory buffet of our limbs.

An old tree in the front yard sports a tire swing. My son quickly learned that the bushes along the fence serve as both swing-brake and swing-throughway. He had to learn to tuck up inside the tire, as we all did.

Watching my own children play contentedly is like putting a foot back inside Eden. In parenthood, if we’re committed, we regain a bit of our innocence.

Electricity from the street harnessed to the side of the house. The old clothesline in the side yard stands like a giant sawhorse, hollow-sounding in the wind.

Metal sheeting has been used over the years to shore up the siding. On the south side of the house a screen door provides ingress to the mud room. It has a creaky hydraulic arm. In my dreams, I hear the door opening and banging shut as my grandfather, clad in flannel and a baseball cap, goes to irrigate the fields.

One of many outbuildings on the property. We used to climb on top of them to look out for other visitors coming on the road from town. In Montana, you can see for miles.

I remember my grandfather watering the yard with this tractor-shaped sprinkler. Farming was my grandfather’s second occupation. First was being the doctor of Broadwater County. Far from the riches we now associate with doctors, my grandfather practiced medicine in a time and place where people were likely to pay their doctor bills with crops. He was never a wealthy man, but he was rich in many ways. My grandmother, a retired nurse and administrator, tells me stories of the patients he lost and saved — the impact he had on countless lives.

The first thing we notice inside the house is the feeling of warmth. This is a house that’s been lived in and loved to the hilt. Somewhere else it might be a cliché — the old farmhouse — but it’s utterly real, still warm with the echoes of all that’s transpired inside its walls. I remember this same pencil sharpener, hung between kitchen and living room. Nothing was ever extraneous in the house. Everything had a purpose.

My twin daughters play with the same toys both my mother and I played with as children. Behind my wife stands one of many book collections, my grandparents being avid readers.

My wife and grandmother talk about something important, I’m sure. The last night in town, my grandmother told me and my siblings to be true to each other and our spouses. She said family’s forever. With fourth-generation cousins running about her feet, I couldn’t argue. What we do in this life branches out into the future in ways we can hardly imagine.

My mother swings down from the impossibly steep staircase that leads to two bedrooms.

I’ve always marveled at how five kids shared two rooms scrunched under the house’s steep gables. We used to sleep up here when we were kids. My aunt’s posters still adorn the walls. I imagine her and my mother and their other siblings huddled in their beds as the infamous Montana snow tumbled outside the window. Their dreams must have been vivid. Like luminous nets cast out from the homestead, reaching beyond the mountains.

My son explores the vintage closet. I tell him of the secret passages in the house. He asks if we can use one. I tell him no because of the bats that have moved into the dark spaces.

The family shared one bathroom downstairs. Pink walls, wainscoting, giant cabinets. The kind of bathroom you want to brush your teeth in because it feels like a significant space, connected to the house in a central way.

The kitchen is the real center of the house, though. Same cabinets as the bathroom. Many of the same appliances I remember from childhood. The kitchen was always the center of activity, the center of cooking and washing, the center of conversation, the center from which the work of the day radiated out in warm spokes.

And because the kitchen table was tucked into a nook at the end of the long galley, the kitchen was the center of dining, too. Granddaddy hotcakes. Syrup cookies. The best bacon I’ve ever tasted. And hours of conversation. Politics, healthcare, books, religion, science, jokes, laughter. My mom’s family can talk forever. And after conversation, cards, always cards. Endless games of bridge over ginger ale and lemon meringue pie. These things I remember first as a kid looking up to the adults, then as an adult, my wife and I, newlyweds, playing bridge with my grandparents before my grandfather passed.

This mixer still haunts me.

The dimpled plastic cup of my youth. The water from the tap tasted different this time. Not sure if the difference was in the water or in me. Perhaps age necessarily dulls our senses so we’re not overwhelmed by nostalgic associations.

My grandma’s famous lemon meringue pie. This tasted the same. Perfectly bittersweet.

***

We can go home again if we’re willing to face ourselves and how we’ve changed. Loss strikes some balance with renewal. As Cormac McCarthy wrote in Cities of the Plain, loss and beauty are one. Maybe someday in the mind of God all will be restored the way it was. Until then, take pictures. Take pictures of everything.

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Published on August 02, 2018 14:42 • 2 views

August 1, 2018

Photo by Toni Oprea on Unsplash

Bradbury saw disaster
In the way we’re absorbed
By garish lights, half-truths,
Burning books for the sake
Of shallow lives,
While outside, remember,
Lawless gangs would race down
Any old brain that had escaped
By thinking too much.

This week Donald Trump proposed
A ban on all Muslims.
My neighbors bought assault rifles.
We checked our phones for information,
Unsure how to proceed.
Outside, the gangs grew quiet.
Lawlessness became the law.
We were left to take turns
Shooting in the dark.

— Gardnerville, Nevada, 2016

A Brief History of Dystopia was originally published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on August 01, 2018 11:21 • 2 views

July 29, 2018

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Can you hear it calling?
Its surface is weepy.
Like a meadow riven with streams.
You can dredge it all night
with the tap of your fingernails,
digging in the sadness for words,
while its heft, its weight,
that unseen inner bulk, thuds
like a block of heartwood,
crunched up mad for an enemy.
But what about the straightness of its legs?
Listen to where they meet the ground:
an immaculate sound, a serene whistling
as you’re able to write, the sound of precision

upon
a forgotten heaven.

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Published on July 29, 2018 11:44 • 5 views
“A countryside field during a pink and blue sunset” by Joseph Barrientos on Unsplash

We were searching for a sentence,
perfect like the moon, but underfoot the grass
grew so tender that words surrendered,
fell like rain and made a rushing river.

Mountains boomed and shivered
as the river ran. We danced like madmen,
flies around us, shit-fed, singing,
as the moon lay hemorrhaging on the hills.

Then strangers friendly as pastures came,
mending the trampled grass, carrying with calloused hands
all the broken moonlight they could hold — 
to put in jars and store in homes of porous stone.

Author’s note: this poem originally appeared in Corvus Review

Prairie City was originally published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on July 29, 2018 11:26 • 7 views

July 25, 2018

“The flag of America stands in the grass with looming sunnset on 4th of July” by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

This American second
with unimportant numbness
in my head, stars winking out
there in the empty black space,
our sun shining only for
us, trusted, if only for
this moment fading away,
other planets so barren
and poisonous, and other
countries barren and pointless,
the seas swell all scowling,
the sky listens, unamused,

a starred flag wrestles the wind
in famous New York City,
a rich man in finery
enters the lobby of a
cable news station he owns,
a poor man across the street
writes a check for a TV
which he knows he can’t afford,

a housewife in Ohio
lets the phone battery die,
her husband is working late,
he tells her each afternoon,
a carpenter in Utah
feels the claw hammer slip, smacks
his thumb blue, framing the walls
of another gas station,

as a child in LA sees
a hotdog in the smart glass,
sees the grease sizzling through:
he makes a decision to
leave the couch and walk outside,
in his mind a single flower,
so brilliant, alone, beneath
the dead sky, the dying sun.

This American Second was originally published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Published on July 25, 2018 14:32 • 7 views

July 23, 2018

“The azure Moraine Lake reflecting nearby mountains during sunset” by garrett parker on Unsplash

Let the cyber dogs have me
as we depart for the land
of milk and honey

the land real in time
rich with analogy
likeness between all things
codeless secretless
where our minds will roar
to the edge of language
and strike the root of fear.

The TSA agents swear
the root of fear is love.
I tell them over Starbucks
it’s really distrust
that makes us afraid,
for we can trust without love
and still be hurt so badly.
Every loveless day
is an act of trust,
and I’m terrified
as they search me with gloves.
Which philosophies won’t work?
Which body parts will fail?
My two-year-old son tells me
to shut up and set sail
from Reno to San Francisco
to the shores of Anchorage.

(The tools we’re provided
we take knowing they’ll fail.
We don’t have enough reason
to control the chaos
we’ve created trying
to live above others.
Forget your family.
Forget your only friends.
Their lives are ruined anyway.
My wife and son remain
only because they’re me.)

2.
The digital clouds are raining
the names of every interest.
The one they can’t get
lives at the tip of the brain,
just beyond the skull.
Come with me, and we’ll name it
something about a free agent.
Why do we care if they spy
on us as long as we have
that inviolate thought of hope?
We can always put our feet
in the ice-cold rain
and break their binary code.

The story I tell my son
as he sleeps against the pane
is the story of the land
of milk and honey.
The setting started sweet enough
with chocolate mountains
and caramel rivers
and lollipop forests;
but with learning slowly soured,
rooted in geology,
water and biology.
There grew two frogs and
a pelican named Pete.
There ran a canal
through a cave of willow
and grass and weeds.
Whenever he asked,
I named the singing things
sitting in the trees.

You have to give yourself
to the airport apparatus.
You have to suffer natural rage
in the glass cage they’ve fashioned
for terrorists and scumbags.
Freedom whistles in the huge bays.
The lights of the cities
you’re leaving behind
race haywire on the horizon:
they twist and arc and fade
into the dark of the ocean.

(You think you’ve plateaued,
but the world just grows crazier,
the stakes get higher,
the senses more invested.
You desire the rip of freedom
but aren’t sure the land will yield.
The naturalist warns not to
mine nature for metaphors
with no regard for ethics.
But you have no pick to bone.
And you left your fishing pole
at home in a box
double-taped for security.)

3.
Love is the root of sorrow,
says the light blooming eternal
at the top of the world.
The TSA agents were right:
fear goes much deeper than pain.

There’s a hole in the cloud-cover
outside Anchorage:
like gauze torn open
to find an old wound.
Fellow passengers on the plane
see it then doubt they ever saw.
The fractured earth shocks you:
ridges black, snows whiter than bone.
The Chugach carries your heart
in its broken sepulcher.
The rivers are regrets running
from the dry judgments of ice.

The tower by the sea
belongs to Conoco Phillips.
Fireweed lines the ditches north:
the flayed purple flowers flourish
in disturbed areas.
Frontier houses sink in birch.
Condos go up in gravel pits.
No one likes the black spruces,
crooked and singed, except me,
champion of misfits.

(At night I touch my son’s face,
cradle his cheek in my hand,
as if he were the only thing
real and solid and bright
in this falling dream of life.
My words can almost hold him
there for myself to stand.)

4.
The fragrant porch belies
the Alaska mud.
The cultivated land,
if left for an eye-blink,
falls to the black-fanged forest.

We climb this strange ladder
of daylight bent back
over the mountains.
We grab the roots of wildflowers
to tundra green and cloven
with streams, swollen tussocks,
rocks covered with pale lichens
and rich golden moss.
If you’re able to let go,
the waters run clear as time,
showing pain diluted
and quickly forgotten
over rounded stones.
There are pebbles in the stream beds
that snap together in your palms
and cry good fortune.

The glacier is the mechanism.
I touch its blue heart of ice.
If it scoured my face,
if it ground my bones
into speckled white,
would you still recognize me, son?
Would you pick up the dust
of me and know my heart
once raged with lines to write for you?
Two frogs and a pelican
plucked from the glacial till?
That I once loved a woman
with Spanish eyes deep and dark
who dressed the stars in bitter love?
That happiness was a promise
we bandaged together
over the Earth’s split tongue?

(We ask these things while washing plates.
We ask these things while shopping.
In the market was a hippie
wearing midnight-blue stockings.
She was holding a magpie
and weeping uncontrollably.
It seemed the world had left
her vegetables to rot
on a table unadorned.)

5.
Hacked from the darkness,
children know the warmest stride.
Come with me, says the light.
It opens and envelops
the staggering mountains.
It teases the supposition
of death every winter,
refurnishes the rivers
and forests of men.
How it fills the skull
is a lesson in patience.
How it leads new song
in the darkest skull
is something less than faith
but more than knowledge.

6.
Fuck packing for the trip.
Always broken twigs
buried beneath the lip.
We can talk the light to death.
We can murder our sustenance.
The orders twine like silly strings
in a brutal skein
that yanks the head off everything.
No more schemes! screams the dark,
clearing spores of cadence
from the clean, grave hearth.

This day is markedly darker.
The motifs have failed.
The chemistry has failed.
United with me
under an alder
is the deep shadow.
It swallows the fish
that fall like thumbtacks
from the broken river.
The falling I weaponize:
don’t fuck with the darkness.

(When we lose our sustenance
we climb the mountains.
We fillet the wind
and gain view of the velvet farms
beneath the glaciers.
I saw an airborne pelican
crumpled in a semicolon;
teetering on the headwind.)

7.
Words hang on the stalks
of certain flowers.
The rain-drenched delphinium
dangles something sallow.
The stalwart snapdragons
stretch freedom from the root.
The tall bunches of daisies,
strapped to a garden rock,
offer strange predicate:
The sallow freedom begs.

Imagination
is the engine of freedom.
You can see with me
the frail, scarred cleavage
of a retreating glacier:
lacerations phosphorescent blue.
You can see with me
the turquoise effulgence
of a sea-bound river:
water ferocious and white-capped.
You can see with me
the lean spruce and limp ferns
of a forest road:
soils matted and tossed with grass.

Penetrate reality
to the windy beach.
Drive our sense of home,
batten-board-and-tack,
with lunches in plastic sacks.
Shadow-dance on the slick
ashen sand studded with white stones
dense and recalcitrant as skulls.
Our recent dream of greenery
disintegrates in the blown silt.
The missed cues, the wrong words
of our vain conversation
sucked to the tide’s tedium.
Emotion like frozen magma
burnished by the subarctic sun.

(We take so many pictures,
but they never suffice.
There was a moment the light
suffused my son’s face,
gilded the planes solidly.
His eyes sharpened with joy:
his eyes bit the world.
The wind drew goosebumps
on his fatty arms.)

8.
The fish is everything
this last afternoon
on the Kasilof.
Imagine the boat drifting
one way and the sun another:
the tension in the sky
thinning our thoughts to a layer
of gold tinged pink at the birches
on both sides of the river.
Imagine beneath the layer
the leaden weights diving downstream
snapping our lines tight as destiny,
and the red salmon eggs
at the very bottom gleaming
like an alien dream.

My son is not here.
The boat carries my brother
and half the flesh of my brother.
Our guide is a failed law student:
the luckiest man alive.
Our relationships are fluid
enough to forgive mistakes.
The river could be an epoch
of tiredness and release.

The pole bends and quivers.
The fish whips the line
beneath the boat and back out.
The failed law student shouts it.
I and all the parts of me
accumulated over hours
and days and weeks and years
compressed in a skull
the size of a softball
fight for meaningless victory
that means everything
in these dire seconds
of arching, thrashing, and begging.
These seconds mean everything:
a vein twitches in my brain.
My arm locks in anguish.
The sky so golden skips
across perception.

(We are weak enough to weep
while devouring the fish we catch.
Half my brother’s flesh
had questioned life and death
when the wild student
clubbed the wild salmon
on the floor of our boat.
Four whacks to the head
and blood flecked my favorite shirt.
Four whacks to the head
and the king’s eyes went wide
like the lakes and rivers
in the land of milk and honey.)

9.
The TSA agents
examine our records
and probe our lessons.
They claim the wicked fear
inherent in freedom.
Knowledge, they say, is pain.
Knowing the world hurts.
I believe them.

My son is at the center
of this bruising drama.
A smile grows on his face
as natural as fireweed
purple in the borrow pits
of the forest roads behind us.
The tall grass leans forgotten.
The cabin where we played
poker for three days
and fished out our brains
sleeps beside the river.
There is a sparkle still
in some of the deep, darker trees
of the peninsula.

Flying away we are
still on the Kenai.
I remember my son
turning into me,
prying my mouth open
with his tiny fingers.
I had sucked the nectar
of a wildflower,
and he was desperate to see:
“I see? I see? I see!”
His words were a decree:
a wedge of light that stressed
and split the stupid air.
He tipped my teeth and drank.
O, the juices on my tongue!
We lived mouth-to-mouth
those days, eye-to-eye.
We were the world.

— Palmer, Alaska, 2013

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Published on July 23, 2018 19:25 • 5 views

July 12, 2018

Traffic signs in Lima, Peru

Speak plainly
to that dizzy need for assertion
in this flower-decked church
on the edge of the Pacific
in the city of Pizarro’s tomb.

Okay, my wife lost her father.
Lima smells like a landfill: seagull
shit and trash, busted brick
streets thick as tacks in your mouth.
I’ve never seen so much rubble.

Okay, this is the developing world.
This is your species surviving.
You are no better or worse than them.
Their parts are your parts, particles
ringing, wild-strewn…

She touches the coffin lightly.
“Papa,” she whispers,
and I want to hide, I want to die,
seeing love’s just another name for pain.
From the plane window Leviathan Mine

gaped like a shotgun wound
to the Sierra Nevada I love.
From the plane window L.A.
was nothing more than a leach field
slag-gray and slack-blue.

Okay, dead bodies don’t look real.
They don’t look like these city lights
harnessed together, turning on
traffic, pulses of car so bright
we’ll never forget

our first layover was LAX,
the international terminal grand
with elegant inner structures,
iconic corporate brands
emblazoned on the walls

in a way we thought
we could finally give ourselves over
to symbols greater than us,
the psychological profits
of progress and refinement but

in Lima billboards cling to chaos,
rivers trickle through trash,
exhaust fumes burn your throat
as you begin to cringe inside,
that feeling of waiting too long

to take a picture
and the image passes,
like from the plane window
when Yosemite vanished,
waterfalls a thin dream of white.

Now my shoulder hard to a point
buckles under her grief.
All I can do’s stand and ache.
Shoulder’s the most articulate thing
I can give her:

flesh to flesh, bone to bone,
not to cry on necessarily — 
that will happen without me — 
but to hold her up
when nothing else can.

— Lima, Peru, 2015

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Published on July 12, 2018 12:25 • 4 views