Two poems, by Sam Baker


my grandfather was born into frostbitten

fingertips, steaming from a chared pocket of

magma and glaciers for cutting the cord.


his first steps were slick. he found his rhythm in the

crackling cadence of Lake Michigan’s mercy

and the subtle taunts of Chicago spring.


before he learned to read the hands, time was

the amount of ice on the window sill.

when the walls stopped running, it was dinner,

which meant racing—a fork flipped


up-side-down with his pointer finger stretched along

the handle. wrist-flicked, airborne, and

swallowed whole.


he spent his evenings etching the Charleston

into the living room floor, keeping time to the tap’s

drip that saved the pipes and filled the pots

for boiling baths, unwasted.


he made room for pissing contests:

torpedoing toilet paper as the static names of

lost men read under the door—capsized.

he learned to put off flushing


until brown. he learned to hold his mother the day the banks

closed and she first sold spaghetti door to door,

that crying could heave like laughter and fear would have

to be whistled.


my grandfather was born with his palm threaded to his

shirt pocket, pledging himself to a nation

only national for its suffering.


he wore Chicago thin skin beneath

the two shirts he owned, his tongue balled in his cheek

like a look it, buddy with the moxie of the Tribune.


he learned to tilt his head back with that

south side swagger, flipping coins to the paperboy

and remembering the milkman’s name. he said greetings before

they were rhetorical and knew locals who gave directions

relative to landmarks that had long been replaced.


summers were spent in baseball pants or at church asking

God for a new glove. they were spent in the alley fielding

Sunday hops on the crabgrass, making catches he thought

he’d never get out of the fabric.


his Sundays sit in the picture on my wall, a ball cap so bent

you’d think the sweat would drip sideways.


my grandfather no longer smells the meat scraps down

the drain after dinner. he says the disposal will break

if he ever turns it on.


he still vaguely remembers that dinner with

too many spoons and no spaghetti, the night

he cleaned up before the chambermaid arrived

and he settled for a clip-on bow tie.


he clutches his crooked fingers in palms of

oak. the doctor said if he’d had a chair

his back would never have lasted.


my grandfather takes his blood thinners daily

and bruises at everything he touches. he opens

and closes his fists to those defrosting winters

in the Chicago south when the sun peered out in

everything audible.


I am cracking every joint in the bill of my hat

trying to know what it is

about sitting on the floor.



Leaving Louisville

meant arriving by train in the womb / of a womb / of a womb / sharing nothing in common but a

chin / leaving Louisville is familial treason because saying where you’re from has morphed / into

reassurance / Louisville is not the South / is not the coal mines—because the train tracks are

filled with asphalt / and lead to an eroded / sidewalk that asks you to stay / you wish they cut

back on the salt in the winter / you’ll wanna smoke the trail of cigarette buds / like a chimney

and call it / hearth smoke / like you know the shape of tobacco leaves / which everyone will soon

assume you had growing / in your backyard / what they won’t expect you to have is a lighter / or

shoes / leaving Louisville will make you wanna spread your legs and smell the ocean / as if that

was where they birthed you / but you only smell a river / even the water stays still / and asks you

politely not to leave: you think of the girl you said you’d marry / who you leave now for a girl

who has everything in common with you except Louisville / she’ll ask you about Kentucky / and

you’ll confess you’ve never been / to that one / you’ll take her to what she insists must be your

home / and you’ll read the tourist’s pamphlet / aloud to yourself / and she’ll think you’re reciting

/ she’ll be asleep in the back seat when you arrive / because she was waiting for the gravel roads

to wake her up / they’ve paved another layer since you left / she’ll ask you what to name the

baby girl / and you’ll say Louisville / so she knows where she was supposed to come from /

you’ll want to rub your palms with coal / and press your ear to the ground / to hear the train

coming back



Sam Baker is an author of poetry, fiction, and essays from Louisville, Kentucky. He currently reads for the Kenyon Review as an associate and works as a teaching assistant for the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. Baker’s reads have been published or are forthcoming in The Pinch Literary Journal, Polaris, Better Than Starbucks, The Blue Marble Review, The Susquehanna Review, and elsewhere.

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