American Poets: Joe Bolton

by lizard

I’ve been getting reacquainted with the poets in my extensive poetry collection looking for the second candidate of this series, and by extensive I mean browsing roughly 350 books, give or take a few.  That number includes biographies of poets, over two dozen anthologies, poetry journals, essay collections, and a few rare first editions.  Obviously I’m invested in the relevance of poetry, which is why I will be highlighting some poets not too many people have ever heard of, like our next poet:  Joe Bolton.

First, I’ve got to credit my friend, Dennis Arlo Voorhees, for turning me on to this phenomenal young poet.  Joe Bolton was born in Kentucky in 1961, and followed the MFA/teaching track, publishing two short books of poetry.  After turning in his master thesis (which later became the posthumously published book The Last Nostalgia), Joe Bolton committed suicide.  It was March, 1990.  Joe was 28 years old.

I chose the following poem because it’s seasonally appropriate, and also because it shows how contemporary poets like Bolton have come full circle to acknowledging the allure of using more formal rhyme structures:


How could we think that it would never end?
While each day was a little eternity,
We must have known the leaves were getting ready
To turn and fall—then loneliness again,
The chill, exquisite longings of autumn.
You woke to find it had become September;
I woke a little later to find you gone.
And suddenly what I would remember
Was wholly formed, irrecoverable:
The hundred-degree heat and the trouble
We had trying to keep cool in our shorts
Till the sun went down—me on the back porch,
Sipping Scotch and listening to Sinatra;
You in the bedroom, reading the Kama Sutra

In the master thesis Joe turned in before killing himself, it’s the final poem that is perhaps the most intriguing.  It’s intriguing because even though Joe meant for this poem to be known as the last thing he ever wrote, it wasn’t.  Here is a note from the editor, Donald Justice, which appears at the end of The Last Nostalgia:

“Page”:  the date the poet assigned this poem, March 20, 1990, ten days before his suicide, may perhaps be understood to imply that it should be taken as the last finished poem, though in fact it had been written the previous spring.  The last manuscript poem or draft for a poem, however, was found a day or two after the poet’s death, written out on a crumpled sheet of paper.

After reading the poem, it’s easy to see why Bolton would have preferred his posthumous audience to see this as his final poetic shot before snuffing himself out.  Here it is:


Here is the page, half darkness, half silence, hoping
To find at last the way to you I could not find.

It contains all my boredom, sickness, and desire,
Those things I said in drunkenness, in rage or love.

Like water, it holds its drowned who are without names.
Like time, it was just a way of passing the time.

It lied now and then—I confess—for your pleasure:
Some misguided aim of overcompensation

For what was not only enough but too much.
Reliance upon language was its undoing…

But someday it will be all that is left of me.
Death bothers its margins like gulls along some shore.

For me this level of despair in verse is unsettling.  I’ve had friends who have chosen to go by their own hand, so seeing this inner turmoil put on the page is difficult.

The line Reliance upon language was its undoing… is perhaps the most disturbing to me, because for Joe his poetic language couldn’t exorcise the force that ate away at his resolve to live from the inside out, leaving him empty and vulnerable. I see language as cathartic and redemptive, and even in my darkest poems I try to leave some hole open for the light to leak through.

So maybe it’s a response to Joe’s despair i wrote the following poem earlier today:


a new permeation of thought:
detach from the earth and float
not sculpted by line or color
or trackable by the slow decay of life

if the world is only comprised
of what can be bought and sold
then extinguish the sun in brilliant fallout
for the rise of the fist won’t stop

until our spirit is pounded into fragments

my son, the show is over; your cartoon train
has run its course, and will now
only live in imagination

so let us rise untethered into sky
past clouds where strange chemicals intermingle
with the precipitation of our sadness
and our fear–

may it dissipate into nothingness
where the souls of the ones who lust control on us
are consumed by the endless hunger
of their damaged gods

the time for plots and plans is winding down
so let the desire to blow the song wide open
gather and burst the seams

forget that meaning is a force we’ve lost control of
and within that cultivation of amnesia
seed tomorrow with words to sprout

a language from the honest flesh of earth

  1. kathleen

    I turned on my phone this misty, color-turning Seeley Lake morning and was greeted by Keats’ “To Autumn” from daily poem email and by “Summer,” with your introduction to Joe Bolton. Thank you both! I also recommend checking out Michael Earl Craig and David Thomas, two other favorites of mine.

    • lizard19

      it’s my pleasure, kathleen. Michael Earl Craig will be making an appearance eventually, and I know of David Thomas, but haven’t read much of his stuff, so I will check him out.

  2. Jeff Heinz

    Spooked! There’s a something haunting about the title which feels like it’ll never end & maybe there’s a remorse which’d never be believed bc it can’t be spoken. That of apparent Justice we’re actively involved with @ our day-jobs a that are perceived as such in the darkness. But beautiful,& the impetus& subject of art spawned@4:40 AM on the brink of impending disasters remaining to surface..

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