Old Traditional for Chris (and the Joneses), by Jonathan Travelstead

Did he see the farm and the tower in Marion Square,
and think how small it seemed from the bluff, as if viewed
in the rear-view?
There, his business degree and separation papers
from the Army though he was only twenty-two—
did they gleam as the klieg lights promised when he leapt
towards the river’s crystal shores?
Devon’s and Justin’s whoops caught mid-sky
in his leap’s wake, and he on the rise, believing risk
is only a fifty foot plunge through the veil of the Current River,
where a hydraulic held him submerged,
tumbling in a spindrift.

Of course I don’t say this to Randy in the barn’s dark
where he’s been since his son died, where, unlatching the bolt,
then drawing the slat-wood door in its track,
I find him, letting an orange tom and a trouble light’s weak glow slip past.
I see him kneeling
heavy before the distraction of his red Ford tractor
and an oil filter, I see the strap wrench
grasped in his hand like a dead man’s switch,
I see an assortment of parts puzzled beside him on a towel.
Rising on filaments caged in his knees,
when he clasps me I feel his secondhand grief
seat firmly in me though I have no more comfort
than what silence returns from where he looks, rooting for it.

Standing in the barn’s wide doorway, he turns to the treeline’s gouge
where the black walnut once stood, stolen when he and Gail
took a trip to Florida and came back to only sawdust
and ruts left by a pair of dually treads.
Now there is more work than I have hands for. He turns
to the field with its needs—hay bales slumped by decay
which risk kindling to flame, and beyond, windrows of corn droop
almost too late for harvest. At the field’s edge
a creosoted timber floats midair and I think it is a talisman
hanging in the ether—only up close you can see
it has rotted through, the miracle, it seems,
always held in place by barbed wire.

A vee of geese descend to his pond,
and the water does anything but part to receive them.

Starved, he names me. Jonathan,
remember the candle-tree?

Halloween at the Jones’ Farm. Four-wheeling. Mulled wine.
Frigid hayrides, then fold-up chairs
around the perimeter of a sycamore hollow.
Randy waited years for its heartwood to fall away
so he could chainsaw a hole in its base,
then place the kerosene-soaked pine knot.
Tom Andersen, who still teaches inmates at Marion,
confirmation class at Zion United, brought his guitar and,
halfway through the second verse of “Shall We Gather at the River”
we almost knew why we were there
when orange fingers crowned over the sharp crack
of split husk, and sheaves of flame
plummeted to the ground.

In this uneasy, dusty light he returns to the tractor.
Inspects the glow plug, turning its porcelain in the thumb and forefinger
for a hairline crack, too much gap, or white between the electrodes—
anything which signifies where it is that the prayer misfires—
but does not look where I see it in the barn’s dark corner
where the scraps hide, where I see the black Labrador
has the orange tom cornered and mounts him,
each pump punctuated by a yowl.

Who wouldn’t inspect gospel from the parts,
auditing machines for Brother-Redemption-Through-the-Strained-Back,
who, in his infinitude, promises to unhitch for you the tractor’s farrow,
lessening the load? And if the river rises,
who wouldn’t worry their own child up from the bottom
and christen him into a saint, the baby boy once swayed to sleep
in the chimney’s warm light?

Let us place the candle-tree here
so the past comes forward, keeping vigil for what is lost.
Let us put down our grease-bloodied hands
and rise with the words of the gospel song into harmony.
Let us twist together in it. Let us count the man hours
it will take to finish the work of our hands before we let go,
before we can go down
where everyone waits to gather with us at the river,
where the river is what we make of it.


About “Old Traditional for Chris”: “This has been a particularly difficult piece to finish. Between delving back into the traditional hymns of my childhood, borrowing the trope of the river from them as a place of mourning, and making an elegy I am satisfied with has been a long process. The hope I have for the poem is that it occupies a place close to the urgent, bone-perfusing desire to share another’s grief despite the truth that grieving is unique, individual, and solitary.”

Jonathan Travelstead served in the Air Force National Guard for six years as a firefighter and currently works as a full-time firefighter for the city of Murphysboro. Having finished his MFA at Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, he now works on an old dirt-bike he hopes will one day get him to the salt flats of Bolivia. He has published work in The Iowa Review and on Poetrydaily.com among others, and his first collection “How We Bury Our Dead” by Cobalt/Thumbnail Press is forthcoming in February, 2015.



  1. You have once again made a beautiful tribute that made me remember earlier times here in Marion and made me cry! You have such a wonderful gift and I am so happy that you share it.

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