An Encounter

    I’ve been away all day, and coming home—
I can’t believe it—all the kids are leaping
To tell me what’s transpired in my absence.
They’re at the store together, five of them
Propped in the shopping cart or following it,
Their mother slowly leading down the aisle,
To get the toilet paper, bread, a roast,
And, for the birthday coming on the weekend,
A heaping cake, balloons, and paper plates.
She moves in silence, all her thought consumed
By what is on her shopping list and what
Has been left off—so frazzled, hurried out
The door, and trying to get things loaded up
And back before I come in from the train.
    But then they hear a noise, and all the kids,
And then my wife, look round and see a woman
Who stares at them, then whispers to her son,
A smile of contempt upon her lips,
Then laughs and whispers to the boy again.
    Rehearsing this, the family’s like a flame,
Burning to share their righteous indignation.
But, listening and trying to imagine,
I just grow restless, wishing I had been there,
Had put myself before that gaze of scorn,
That woman—who was she?—and her rank spawn,
To step between them, shame those eyes and mouths.
But it was just a passing episode.
The kids take turns retelling, while my wife
Insists that it was hardly anything.
    Meanwhile, in days to come, I place myself
Again into that scene—again, again.
I write myself into it, stage it over.
I play the whole thing over with me there,
And no one else, to meet those viewless eyes
And turn them back upon themselves in shame.
Rage grows, achieves its pitch, then wears away,
And all within a void of fantasy
From which I scarcely feel myself emerge.
    I find the children shouldering each other,
Their elbows jockeying to reach the front,
To get their fingers on that opened sack,
Which in the clamor now begins to spill
Upon the kitchen counter, then the floor,
In blue, in red, in yellow, pink, and green,
The tight and shriveled petals of balloons.
The children clutch and squawk with such a racket,
Pouncing upon the colors as they fall,
I cannot tell if it is joy or rage.



James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is the author, most recently, of The Strangeness of the Good (Angelico, 2020). He serves as poetry editor for Modern Age magazine, series editor of Colosseum Books, and as director of the Colosseum Institute. He is the director of the MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas.

'An Encounter' has 1 comment

  1. January 2, 2022 @ 1:04 pm Cynthia Erlandson

    This is such a well-told story. The description of the scene told by the children rolls off the poet’s pen smoothly, with rhythm and images that carry the reader along wanting to know what happened, and to understand the children’s interpretation of it. And then what happens as the narrator re-runs the incident in his mind, inserting himself into it, is something with which I can certainly identify — not being able to stop thinking about something and wishing I could have caused it to happen differently.


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