Venus in Retrograde

The girls and I drive east,
Sunrise like a creamsicle,
spread only the way a desert
can make it, edged between jagged
mountains and the freezer blue
of a sky, failing before day. The half-light
ripples the frost on the dry lake,
and Venus hangs a punch hole in the dark sky.

We travel to see my father, whose heart
is battered with decades of cigarettes,
industry, and the working class diet
designed to keep the body burning
through the long shifts of mining ore,
hauling the nation’s freight, or the rejection
of a first born son. The space around
his heart has filled with fluid like so much
sweat and tears of a lifetime of work,
compressing it until it struggles to beat,
to do its job.

My daughters sleep as I drive and regard
Venus through the windshield, fading
with the sunrise. How the son always
feels the pull of the father, no matter
how far away he travels or long ago
the last civil word.
Venus maybe in retrograde,
but it always returns along its frozen
ellipsis, not to the heart, but close enough
to see its light at its brightest.


When We Last Rode East

We left in the dark, as dark as Los Angeles
can be at 4am with the city lights filtering
through the smog and the marine layer
ushered inland by the offshore breeze.
You hung onto my waist. A warm embrace
in the cool morning as I threaded
the motorcycle through the streets. Later,

years after we’d broken apart, you’d
say, in those hours – encased in jackets
and helmets, muffling the engine noise,
rolling out of the city into the high desert
darkness, before the back breaking sun
rose, forcing us off the highway for water
and shade as you lost your grip – you’d
never felt so close to me. You’d say,

it reminded you of our teenaged selves
when we clung together in the front yard
after the layoff notices and our families
moved their separate ways. It was the same
way you felt when you picked me up
in downtown when I rode the bus after
our long exile. We hugged on the street,
afraid to talk, afraid to let go. Afraid
we’d lose a future we couldn’t know.

But somewhere west of the Colorado River,
the daylight laid it all bare.


Jerry Mathes is a writer, a filmmaker, an artist, a dad. He has been a Helicopter Rappeller and fought wildfire for too long. He has worked as a martial arts instructor, an armor crewman, a construction worker, hotel auditor, car salesman, repo-man, delivery guy, cable guy, went logging, worked in forestry, crewed on several types of fishing vessels, and even haunted the oil fields as a minion of Mordor. He is also the author of Shipwrecks and Other Stories, The Journal West: Poems, the memoir Ahead of the Flaming Front, about his experiences fighting wildfires, and the essay collection Fever and Guts: A Symphony. More of his writing can be found at