Charles Atkinson

Meditation and writing arose together for me forty-some years ago and have seemed, ever since, to be interwoven forms of mindfulness practice. Both coax the mind to inhabit the present—which then takes on a richer, deeper hue. Most of my poetry, in fact, tracks a more or less distracted mind in search of momentary clarity, or at least some equanimity. Sometimes the mind/poem finds its way to an insight—Ah, this is how things are. Sometimes it records just the groping. The “object” can be anything—plant, animal, lover, loss. After this many years, I can’t imagine unraveling the two practices: it’s all for mindfulness.



Desert Retreat

brought me to the Mojave—
broken rubble, barbed
plants, venomous creatures
that slither, buzz, sting—
its searing days, bitter
nights, blister-winds dusting
grit into the scalp. 

Sat still for weeks, 
until the mind began to
slow its jitter-dance of  
loathing, craving, day-dream. 
Saw those tics scatter, 
dust-devils over the alkali. 

Sat till heat was simply
heat, gusts threshed and
eddied again—till stars
arced through another night, 
sunrise swelled into sunrise,
cactus wren poked out
from its invisible nest.

Sat until the words
I use to blame, cajole, 
distract, cured in the simmer. 
Breezes whisked them off.
What was left: domed sky, 
bee-drone, durable breath, for now.


Traffic School

Good thing I saw him
          coming: ignores the red, blows   
                    through a four-way stop.

Leans on his big horn, 
          never looks back, not even
                    through smoked-glass windows. 

What’s this? His raised fist, 
          the finger salute—at me, 
                    the almost-victim!

Spin the wheel, give chase—
          then veer to the curb and brake, 
                    vibrating. Roiling.

Black SUV—Ford? 
          California license—
                    already gone. Damn!

How do I track down
          this hothead? . . . Breathe deep. Lean back. 
                    Glance in the rearview


Spilled Milk

The neighbor’s dog hurls its loneliness
at the forest and some far kin and I want
quiet . . . Why does saying so help it pass? 

A milk carton slips from the hand—God-damn!
So who’s been damned? Surely not the milk.
Burn in hell, clumsy self! Really now.

Sop up the still pool. How about this—
azure sponge drifts on creamy pond! 
No milk, but the pocked linoleum shines.

The dog’s still howling—jilted, forlorn lover . . .  
Lasts all day, until the owner’s home and
croons her baby talk. It’s patronizing. 

It’s dismissive. Ignores the dog’s distress—
the neighbors’ too. About to turn my back, 
wait—beneath the cooing: she’s crying again.


Charles Atkinson

Charles Atkinson’s first collection, The Only Cure I Know (San Diego Poets Press), received the American Book Series award for poetry; a chapbook, The Best of Us on Fire, won the Wayland Press competition. A third volume, Because We Are Men, was awarded the Sow’s Ear Poetry Prize. His most recent collections are Fossil Honey, from Hummingbird Press, and World News, Local Weather, from Finishing Line Press. He has also received the Stanford Prize, the Comstock Review Prize, the Paumanok Poetry Award (SUNY Farmingdale), the Emily Dickinson Award (Universities West Press) and The Ledge Poetry Prize.

"Desert Retreat" first appeared in Southern Poetry Review.