The Interstate Spills

As Stevie’s captor sets up
shop to sell bibles or broken
TVs, his real dad stops
fishing at the lake and camping
with his kids near Bear Creek Bay.

The target moves whenever
a lawful neighbor smokes out
Kenneth Eugene Parnell.

Who can say what a boy hides
between stones in his pockets.

The barred owl’s baritone gives way
to the tiny engine of morning cicadas
in Del’s village of grieving, waking
his rooms truer than steamed coffee
filtering the black and white photograph
of his boy in Wranglers and cowboy boots
outside of Charles Wright Elementary.

Door of an ear against a cool sheet.
There might as well be asters in his
feet. How long? What is soon
but a country with open borders:

impossible to know who will pass through.
Or when. For now, a cardinal trills life-life.
Soon the wind through honeysuckle,
hornets shying outside their paper nests
next to a ladder set out since yesterday’s rain.


Click here to read Eileen Cleary on the origin of the poem.

Image: photo by Myznik Egor on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Eileen Cleary:

“The Interstate Spills” is part of a larger manuscript, The Wild Pack of the Living, (Nixes Mate, 2024) which contemplates the abduction of a child from his hometown in Merced, California in 1972. When I was a teenager, Steven Stayner escaped and returned home after seven years missing, rescuing another boy in the process. To me, he was a hero because I had been seized from my family by the state, in what felt like a legally sanctioned abduction. I never thought to escape. My brother also went missing (stolen by his foster family) and he was lost to us for forty years.

This book holds Steven Stayner — that boy from Merced who has lived in my chest for forty years. Once a person has been forcefully taken, there is no going back to being fully among the living.

This poem considers Del Stayner, Steven’s father, and his despair. It explores simultaneity, and how the actions of each person affect others. Because Steven was kidnapped, Del relinquished his role as traditional father. Because Del and others are searching for Steven, his captor is on the run. Steven, meanwhile, is holding onto awful secrets “between stones in his pockets.”

This verse uses imagery rather than exposition to narrate.

As Del’s depression deepens, he becomes more fixated on his lost son, sees him everywhere, and grows less engaged with his other children. It feels like dying. A physical manifestation of death is the purplish mottling of skin occurring in the hours before one dies. “There might as well be asters in his/feet.”

The poem closes with what isn’t known yet to its subjects. For the time being, they are alive. Del cannot know that he will be reunited with his boy, only that the wind will carry itself through honeysuckle, that one more tomorrow has arrived, and sometimes the rain lets up.

Eileen Cleary
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