Two Poems by Seth Till

Seth Till | Poetry

Black Lung

Over 50 years have passed
since the charcoal cracks of earth painted
your father’s lungs black as the void
of funds that pushed him away from a wife
and seven children and into the mines.
Black without the whites and grays filling gaps
like the photo portrait on our non-functioning electric fireplace,
of the grandfather I never knew,
The patriarch you knew briefly in flesh
and forever in abstractions.
He stands proud in a presumably green
field, in a presumably pastel flannel.

Now, 52 years after you became five and fatherless,
insistent murmurs creep from the closed captioning
on this McDonald’s TV. “Coal mining brings jobs.”
Have they ever met a single mother of seven?

Have you told them about the crowded buses,
the dozens of strangers playing a collective surrogate
for the four hours to Wrigley because your father
was two years decomposed?
A dirt-covered fleeting memory in the cheapest available coffin.
Buried without a ball and mitt, but a son
bouncing a ball off of the headstone.

Do they share your experience
of drunkenly chasing their four children through a Toys “R” Us?
A shape-shifter stuck in the uncertainty of what
fatherhood is. Just grasping at torn Polaroids of air
breathed in with once-pink lungs.


Brief Conversation at a Bad Party with a Casual Acquaintance Who Committed Suicide Two Weeks Later

The bass dropped on some shitty dubstep song,
and as my LSD-dipped friends went on about the wobble,
or whatever the fuck they call it, I stumbled past
sweaty bodies and incense smoke onto the rickety back porch.
After I downed a Budweiser in hopes of becoming less aware
of the way my glasses slid down my nose and the sweat glued my shirt to my skin,
I noticed a vaguely familiar young man smoking under loosely hung Christmas lights.
His frizzy blonde hair went all the way down to the inverted
pentagram on his ratty Slayer T-shirt, thick-rimmed glasses sliding
down his double pierced nose.

When he saw me slip out the sliding door, he gave me a nod
before taking a drag, and I couldn’t help
but ask, “Did we go to high school together or something?”
“I don’t know, probably,” he said. It was enough
to quell my curiosity. As I lit my own cigarette, I motioned to his shirt,
“If you’re waiting for ‘em to play ‘Raining Blood’ in there, I got bad news.”
He smirked before joking, “Man, I didn’t think hippies could like anything shittier
than the Dead, but this EDM trash makes Jerry Garcia look like Bob Dylan.”
Laughing, I opened my fourth beer of the night, and said,
“Right? You can always just drink until it’s less annoying.”
He looked down at his hand and fidgeted
with the band on his ring finger, spinning and sliding, as he said,
“Had to quit,” his nervous laughter gave in to a violent coughing fit
before going on, “Wife says she’d leave me if I didn’t.
Still get dragged to these dumb fuckin’ parties though.”

I took a close look and it clicked; we did go to school together.
He got a varsity cheerleader pregnant junior year.
They both dropped out, and the rumor was that they got
a courthouse wedding and ditched town. Florida, maybe.
I thought about bringing it up,
giving him some well-meaning shit,
as if I had any room to talk life choices
after spending the last two years working minimum wage
and drinking myself half to death
so I just said,
“You gotta be what, twenty? Pretty young to be someone’s husband.”
“Someone’s Dad too. Shit you not.”
“Goddamn, that’s gotta be rough, man.”
“Yep.”

He pulled a box of Marlboro Reds from the pocket of his leather jacket,
and opened it to see that he was all out. “You mind if I bum one off you?”
I obliged and warned him I smoke menthols.
He took one anyway, “As long as it’s got tobacco in it, I don’t care.”
We both sparked up at the same time, and with a
shit-eating grin I joked, “Those things’ll kill you, ya know?”
He took a long drag and exhaled, the smoke working
with the cloud cover to filter the dim starlight,
“Isn’t that the point?”


Seth Thill is a fourth year English major at the University of Northern Iowa. He has been published in Into the Void, The Scene and Heard, Inner Weather, and various anthologies.

Image Credit: CDC/Barbara Jenkins, NIOSH