The Works of William Alton

William L. Alton started writing in the Eighties while incarcerated in a psychiatric prison. Since then his work has appeared in Gloom Cupboard, Amarillo Bay and Breadcrumb Scabs among others. He earned both his BA and MFA from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon where he continues to live with his wife and sons.

All Poems © William Alton


I like my music with whiskey and cigarettes.

I like it strong and biting. I like my music to twang. I like it blue.
I like it smoky as hell and harsh. I like my music to hurt
and rattle like a ruined lung.

Where the Words Tasted More of Meat

It’s a house of little noise. I learned to walk
on thickly-padded slippers. I learned to walk
the long way around
when my father was reading. I learned
to stay out of his light.

He smiled when I brought his Guinness. He took me in his lap
and pointed out the words, one at a time.

Words saved my life. My father saved words
like gold and gave them away like pennies.
I ate every book as if it were my first cherry.

I never brightened a lamp. My father liked me in the dark
where he could pretend I slept. I never slept. I was quiet.
And dark. Where the words tasted more of meat than melon.

I became a trap
catching all the clips of day my father flaked off. He had a way of curling
my hair behind my ear and cupping my chin when he looked at me.

My father’s breath smelled of beer and cigarettes and the books he wrote. His teeth were worn with whispering the spells that make a poem.

My father sat at his desk and wrote
or in his chair and read.
I’d never seen him without paper to write on.
My father was never far from a pen.

My pencil drew letters in my journal
like little tombstones. I was afraid
of what I wrote. My father would’ve boomed
with laughter. I was afraid. I was afraid
of the ghosts I’d raise.

My father carried his language like a stick
to close the eyes of the day. He paced in his office, hanging
words on the walls like scraps of tapestry torn to pieces in some foreign war.

I closed my eyes and waited. I waited
for my father to rumble up from his writing
and tell me what to fix for supper.

Bread crumbs lay on the window. It was impossible to plan
for tomorrow. The animals hoard for the winter and starve
in the spring. My father piled his words in stacks on his desk.
He sent them to publishers and cried over rejection slips.

My father was a sensitive man.

In the hush, we all sounded like stone. I could not see
my face in the mirror, only my eyes. I was tired beyond belief.

They said my father was dying. They said he was wasting
from his thundering self to a whisper. He would become a sliver.

My father thought he was dead. His tongue stiffened
and he couldn’t taste the nights. He spit his words like bile.

The cancer sat in the middle of him. The doctor said he had a year. A year
to write his final book. A year to breathe his last poem.

The flies in my father’s study were bored. My father had gone to bed
for a few days with the chemo. He could not think to the end of a line. He huddled
over his journals and pecked out letters one at a time.

His flies never bothered to visit, even when he began to smell of bad meat.
His bedroom was sacrosanct. It’s where we would die. The flies would get to him later.

I sneaked into my father’s desk and traced the words he has whispered there.
His voice went hoarse in the end. Before he died he told me to burn
the work.

The fire twisted a small wind into the trees. The words curled
around themselves and collapsed. They fell into coals. I imagined I saw them dancing
there but it was only a figment of my imagination.