From the Sierra Madres to The Milky Way: New Poems By Kathleen S. Burgess

Image of Monterey coast by Charles Cramer

He’s So Fine

I hum with a radio tune on a dirt road detour
through the Sierra Madres. Despite swerves
and potholes, most riders sleep. It’s clear
the Chiffons’ doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang

underlies George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord
in the way magma lifted these mountains.
The driver urges the bus around sharp curves
with no guardrails. Stars shine for attention.

George pleads, I really want to see you, lord,
but it takes so long, my lord. And as if on cue,
the headlights flicker. Flicker. Flicker. Fail.
The radio mutes. Suddenly blind the driver

searches, jiggles switches. Runs off the road.
Our hearts pound like pistons. Brakes squeal
their rabbit-voiced panic. We’re lurching
toward the cliff’s crumbling edge. We stop.

Alleluia wings of doors fold as our driver
steps off-stage to a short-lived applause.
Men follow him out looking into the gorge
with flashlights. Laughing afterjokes.

He opens a matchbook, cups the bright halo
of the match, and exhales his thanksgivings.
He lifts the hood, bends to nerves of the bus.
Fiddles and tightens loose wires. Drives on.

Soon a Milky Way of lights sprawls below.
We merge into beetling traffic. Our driver
pounds a door till a man roused from his bed
yields to our hero’s voice, insistent gestures.

We grab our gear to board the new bus. Once
on the road most passengers sleep, but I watch
bright constellations, the spinning stars, and
a meteor flaming as if to disappear the dark.

Recipes from a Colombian Kitchen

In a smoke-darkened kitchen, an Andean guinea pig
wheeking ¡cuy, cuy, cuy, cuy! is named by its cries.
I lift and cradle the highlands rodent, the cuy pup.

Oversized teeth, rapid breathing, inquisitive eyes,
like any third grader entering a new school year.
Wood flames beneath a full, bubbling enamel pot.

Though American experts will say, Never boil coffee,
the coffee cherries grown, roasted black on this finca,
make a brew smooth as cocoa. A kitchen blade carves

a corner off a brick of panela, crude sugar, to sweeten.
For lunch Custodia prepares a stew of potatoes, garlic,
onion, carrots, tomatoes, a flank steak, salt, cumin, and

a bunch of cilantro added to an ever-simmering stock.
She flings peelings into a corner where the cuyes nest
on a swept dirt floor. There’s plenty for all. Custodia

wields a machete with her right hand. In her left,
purple-brown yuca, a cassava tree root. Quick chops
from end to end, and the skin slips off. Potassium

cyanide concentrates in the rind, so she must wash
the creamy flesh, grate, dry, and grind it into flour.
Like onions or coffee, it’s not for cuyes. Housekeeper

Felicia mixes salt, baking powder, panela, egg, anise
flavor, lard into the flour. She kneads the dough and
flattens it with a rolling pin. Cuts apart the rectangles.

Sets them on a cookie sheet. Scores each with a fork.
I make full moons, crescents, diamonds. When I leave,
Felicia reshapes my efforts. Some of the crisp cookies,

the baked panderos, she saves for the household, then
walks to town, dozens nestled in a basket linen-lined.
At the market, her customers take all but the crumbs.


Under a lantern’s hiss of white gas, at a small bar
on a river, the owners challenge Ted and Yukihiro
to gamble on an Inca game we’ve never played,

Sapo. A brass frog, the sapo, tops a console box.
It’s Peruvian tornillo wood overlaid with leather.
A tropical sky flashes veins of fool’s gold and

rumbles all night with fools’ wishes. From seven
meters the players pitch tokens to twirl the brass
spinners, zing into holes, or the wide brass mouth

for a win. The coins channel and collect below
in square pigeonholes numbered with scores.
After a practice round, they start. And Ted’s bet?

Enough for us to live two months. That burning
water, aguardiente, empties into flushed faces.
We get the hustle. Confident they’ll outshine

these tourists, the local hotshots toast to spirits.
Swell with their coming fortune. Ted and Yuki
miss the sapo, the two- and four-sided spinners,

most holes. Mala suerte, a hard mouth grins.
Too bad. Emilio’s moustache curls upward.
Carlos slaps Yuki’s back. Offers a new game,

new chance. Taunts, Doble o nada, gringos.
They begin. I watch for bottles and knives.
Who wins last matters in the fog.


Long days, short rides. Ted and I trudged Atacames flats
close to the equator, and just past sundown we topped
the estuary bank. Below, on the beach, silhouettes
erupted: coconut palms, tents, compadres about a fire.

Later, fiddler crabs probed at leftovers. Sally lightfoots,
reddened by a Coleman lantern, skittered into holes—
theirs or their neighbors’. Too dark to put up our tent,
we lay all night in a shack sieving rain onto our heads.

By daylight we raised our pup tent in sand. Stakes bit
and let go, too short to hold. So Brad and Joanna helped,
wrapping the guy ropes around stones. When the poles
toppled anyway, we strung the lines between two trees.

Around us legs and claws, the remains of crab wars,
littered the shore. We climbed eucalyptus-scented hills,
descended to a one-dock fishing port where we lunched
on fresh catch—luscious and round, tasting of lobster,

and tropical fish pulled in by Ecuador’s trawlers who vied,
three miles out in waters our northern nation contested,
with industrial ships that caught, cut, packaged, iced fish,
and threw back. Sharks trailed in water so reddish gray

all hours that local men feared to swim along the coast.
The sea held them all: blue, lemon, nurse, whitenose, bull.
We didn’t know sharks hunted in shallows, not yet.
So we body-surfed to shore. Tumbled, heads down,

feet up, choking and laughing, skinned, crusted in sand.
Most afternoons we walked to a café and store for beer
and Manicho bars. The chocolate was as full of peanuts
as the sky of stars that night when phosphorescent waves

washed around us. Suspended in stars, we whispered
with the Pacific. The slow sea pulse was the rhythm
of our bodies, the rocking of the whole world,
as we floated, disembodied, invisible in umbra.

Kathleen S. Burgess About Kathleen S. Burgess

Kathleen S. Burgess lives in Chillicothe, Ohio, and writes narrative and lyric poetry about the American experience in a variety of voices. Her work has been published in North American Review, Evening Street Review, Main Street Rag, Atticus Review, The Examined Life, JMWW, r.kv.r.y, Central American Review, and others. Shaping What Was Left, a chapbook, and Reeds and Rushes—Pitch, Buzz, and Hum, the anthology she edited, are Pudding House publications.
Gardening with Wallace Stevens, a chapbook, was published in 2017 by Locofo Chaps, a site for politically oriented poetry, with cover art by Linda Holmes.


  1. Roy Bentley says:

    These are representative of the range of an exceptional writer–“He’s So Fine,” is one exuberant life-song! My thanks to Kathleen. And to Will Ray for continuing to champion the work of this fine writer.


  2. Jack Burgess says:

    “He’s So Fine” is a favorite of mine, from this favorite poet. Kathleen doesn’t toss these poems just out of genius…she works them, kneads them like bread dough until she has the beautiful object she wants. They bake awhile. Each one unique and beautiful when done..

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