Andrew Payton

Failed Light

The winter I spent in the Sierra foothills, I baked bread every day.
Each night I stone-ground the berries, mixed in honey, water, yeast,
and left the bowl to rise on the hearth. I stoked the fire with pine.

In an airplane I flew east over the continent, met my father at baggage,
and spent the first day home in the backyard circling a fig sapling
planted last summer. The neighborhood pavement hissed, steamed.

An old friend told me, You have a lot to learn. A girl at the bar,
You don’t say too much. I borrowed my father’s car and drove south
to the Carolina coast and fished a Cape Hatteras bridge at sunset.

The tide moved in and the mosquitoes born from marsh
grazed my flesh. Two dolphins followed the sun into the bay,
and I caught a flounder the size of my foot. I stomped in its head.

That night I built a fire on the public beach, ate the fish, and slept
in the noise of insects and waves. In the morning I drove north
and tried to find a job in the city. Why should we hire you for this job?

Instead, I took my brother to the Blue Ridge, hiked with sandwiches
to a mountaintop, and we asked, When do we get what we were promised?
The furnace of another day expired, and another light failed to catch.

I spread out my collection of dried mushrooms, red clover, nettle leaves,
dandelion, and hibiscus on the dining room table. My family made tea,
blew steam out of mugs. The slippery elm in the front yard burdened

with spring growth—we waited for the wind to shake it.

Andrew Payton is a Maryland native and MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University, where he has worked as the Poetry Editor of Flyway. His poetry is forthcoming from Notre Dame Review, Fourth River, Natural Bridge, and elsewhere, and won the 2013 James Hearst Poetry Prize at North American Review. Find him at


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