The Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Manhattan last February was packed with attendees. After each day of wedging and jostling, the evenings seemed mercifully quiet, as the off-site events dispersed the crowds into more manageable clumps. Though a storm raged one afternoon, and I was without anything resembling an umbrella, I made my way to a gallery in Chelsea to hear three poets whose work I’ve long admired: Sam Witt, whose Sunflower Brother had just come out from Cleveland State University Poetry Center; John Casteen, whose Free Union will soon appear from University of Georgia Press; and Patrick Moran. Each of these poets is a distinguished practitioner of his art; it would be an unfair task to choose from among them for a title of “best.” But certainly Patrick Moran has been the least appreciated.

I couldn’t call Moran an “outsider.” He has published in well-known journals, and he has been educated, and has taught, at respected schools. But he is not a poet whose work or life fits any of the leading fashions. He plays guitar and raises chickens. Though he can recite Ashbery and Tate from memory, his own poems are more deeply indebted to the music of Junior Brown, Paul Butterfield, and Sonny Boy Williamson.

The collection Moran has been writing for the past three years, “Tell a Pitiful Story,” originates in the language of outsiders, the subculture of itinerants known as “hobos.” Reading the lines and shapes of hobo graffiti, Moran does more than merely translate them—he gives us a glimpse into a world where telling a story can get you a meal and a place to sleep, where “what you trust / gets in the way / of what you feel,” and where the worst fate is complacency, marriage, the house out of a fairy tale. Better to move on, to outdistance one’s own diminishing, to court danger but never to wed it. This is a world where motion supplants emotion, where we continue forward and avoid our own reflection, where one succeeds in life by appearing destitute. It is, in fact, a pitiful story in so many ways.

—D.A. Powell

the sky’s the limit

it is what it is
the lines of an optimist
an unshakable faith
in the futures
of nickel and dime

then again

these may have been

it’s not difficult to imagine

someone like you

the first two lines
scratched on a bridge
not completing the others
that signify
jail or prison

fresh water safe campsite

nothing good
can come of this

a man’s safety
is always one step ahead

maybe you haven’t noticed
maybe you have
but you’ve given it a different name

a name that means
you are nobody
worth remembering

you carry the danger
you make it possible

as for the water
little or nothing can be said

save that it is there
troubled with bitterness

cold as the body
that cares for nothing but itself

leave while there’s time
while there is light

hit the road

the story goes like this
you’ve heard it before
the sound of your footsteps
grows distant in the dark

beneath the star’s peculiar light
you realize you are walking
away from yourself

there’s no pity here
there’s only the body attuned
to its own diminishing

bad water

gives you the shits
or worse

make you wake up
in the middle of the night

make you walk
to the nearest town

make you buy
some new clothes

make you marry a widow
and a bunch of kids

make you spend your evenings
reading a newspaper

clucking your tongue
like a god damn hen

there is nothing to be gained here

what you trust
gets in the way
of what you feel

clouds dragging across this moon

what you see
gets in the way
of what you said

the silence behind the silence
gathers up its things
like someone who can’t sleep

what you know
gets in the way
of what you think

the benevolent
only speak of benevolence

what you touch
gets in the way
of who you are

some hands and maybe a face
moving among the dead

this is a well guarded house

sometimes it feels like a fairy tale
the kind you never understood
the one where nothing happens

the fairies never come
the prince his horse the sun

no one is hurt or put to sleep
the spinning wheel remains untouched
though it moves now and then

there is only what you can’t see
it might as well be stones

or words you once said
when no one could hear them

there’s no use going this way

there’s no use going back
and because you can’t retrace
what you didn’t watch disappear
don’t turn around
don’t try to run or notice the sky
ocher pale blue
don’t pretend the circumstances
aren’t what they are

wait until the darkness is complete
pretend you didn’t see
what you saw
take the first step the only step