by Jessica Poli
Youth Conservation Corps, Laurel Highlands, age 16
That one summer we spent trying to defeat the weeds—
knocking vines back from trail edges, arms slashed
by thorns, muscles turned gummy from the hedge clipper’s tremor
or the endless pull of a fire rake. There was a boy I liked on the crew
who liked another girl and spent the summer chasing her,
faked a convincing look of sympathy the day she came in crying,
having finally broken up with her boyfriend of two years.
Still—they never got together, and I kept up my quiet pining,
noticed how naturally he loped over craggy maintenance trails,
felt stoned studying his large hands and the way they gripped tools,
only started to name the current that awed through me
when I thought about those hands in other places.
One morning we hiked three miles to the bottom of Grove Run
and found a thicket of greenbrier so dense that one of us turned around
and went back for more equipment, the rest falling easily into a choreography
of cutting and raking, taste of gasoline filling our mouths. As we worked
we spread out, losing sight of one another—far enough, eventually,
that noise vanished too and the woods
seemed to grow, the thorny plants multiplying, swallowing us whole.
At lunchtime I threw my rake down and began the slow hike upward,
taking my time, to where our packs were dropped. Near the top of the trail,
I turned around a switchback and saw him:
his body at an angle, leg slightly bent,
hands held loosely around the root of himself
as he took a piss into the brier he’d been cutting. I backtracked,
holding my breath behind a knot of maples until he’d finished,
my heart a clatter of hooves, trees falling inside my ears.
All summer that moment stayed with me while we continued
not falling in love. His stance, the bald frankness of it—
the soft of him open to the sun. The blush that heated my face
every thought of him, of his hands cradled as if praying, repenting
to the light that poured down, to the glowing sea of green
we’d come there to kill—and afterward, the metallic sound of a zipper
coming through the trees and rocketing into me.
Jessica Poli is the author of four chapbooks: Canyons (BatCat Press, 2018), Alexia (Sixth Finch, 2015), Glassland (JMWW, 2014), and The Egg Mistress (Gold Line Press, 2013). Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Southern Indiana Review, and Caketrain, among others. She earned her MFA from Syracuse University, and is pursuing her MA at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is the founder and editor of Birdfeast and can be found online at www.jessicapoli.com.