Jon Tribble.jpg

Poetry from Jon Tribble

followed by Q&A

Midnight Rainbows From Devil’s Kitchen

The lantern dims and sputters the little light

we need to wait in the dark for the lines

to pull, release, pull, and—taut at last—


set the hook and play the catch around

the other four lines waiting, their purpose

to weigh the night in against our careful


measurements and patience. A constellation

of baitfish scatter like some new universe’s

primordial moment, the crappie and shad


bumping the nearest poles slink into green

shadows beyond us, and now the headlight

floating in its foam ring illuminates the flash


and run of this twenty inches of muscle

straining against its life’s breath burning

up the blood. We’ll net and ice the fish


soon, cut the length and spill out what’s in

back to dark shelf of oxygen layered cold

below us in the table of the lake, but now


the splash and dash, the leap of color

our eyes can only hope to prism holds

us here until the limit, and brings us back.



Young Wife, Bathing

Her body is her own now

because it has been someone else’s,

the embraces no longer punctuated

with the hesitant comma, 

the question mark of the ’50s,

a decade before Bo Diddley’s 

then-present plaint “Who Do You Love?”

becomes a ’60s imperative, 

a picket line between the old and new.


But now her revolution 

is his hands the night before

on her unwrapped shoulders,

her hands tracing the line

of the curve of her breasts that was

the trail of his desire, lips and fingers

finding their way in the dark.


This morning she undresses

in the basement of the church

they’ve come to Des Moines

to raise back up together,

the black Hudson crossing

night and day on the highways

from the South, with the soaped-on

“Just Married” still a palimpsest

shadowing white the rear glass.


The sunlight slips no warmth

through windows more for letting out

the mildew and musk, but she needs

this shower despite the dank air,

she needs to know what washes away

and what remains. The shock

of the water from the jury-rigged hose

strung with baling wire above her

from the ceiling—there is a freshness

to the electric cold—it startles her back

to his hand taking hers, the ring,

the magnolias, and all those faces.


As she rinses her sensible hair,

she sees them above her.

Grimy-eyed boys peering

through the screens that keep out

skunks and other trespassers.

She does not want them to see

that she sees them, makes her own eyes

anything but available to theirs,

but she has caught their almost-smiles,

that look of need, a country

between desire and awe, an open

door into a dark and empty house,

an address their lives and scars

and calloused hearts won’t

allow them to inhabit for long.


And though she knows she should

feel something else—the expected fear

or shame or violation’s bitter tang—

what she recognizes in this moment

is the power to hold them

where they bend and crouch,

quiet supplicants before her

as long as she deigns to entertain

their audience, as long as she chooses

to not acknowledge their presence.


Finally, when she meets them

with her eyes, the blush is theirs,

not hers, and they scatter from her view

like wrens from her mother’s backyard

when a black dog would bound in

across the summer grass,

and, for a moment, she wonders

if they will return, she wonders if

they will look at a woman

in quite the same way ever again.


And then she thinks of her husband.



Blue Crabs

As we walk by the sandstone gate,

I admit you were right about this trip—

It seems we’ve gone too far again.


Goose Island long out of season,

its shore and pier empty except

for snowbirds from Wisconsin


and two teenagers working

surf rigs. The boys’ beat-up

VW sits right on the water,


its splotchy shell some great

sea turtle depositing its eggs

in the hard sand. No danger


of tide here and the boys don’t

stand a chance in this stagnant

lagoon, but they continue casting


into the black-green algae

clotting the water, cursing

when their sharp red and silver


torpedoes snag and drag back

a blooming mass. The couple

from Wisconsin has a better idea.


Lounging halfway down the pier

in their straw hats, they raise

and lower crab traps they’ve


tied to the aluminum chairs.

The old man cuts perch for

bait while his wife rotates


traps in and out of the water,

depositing the catch in a green

ice chest situated between them.


When we reach their spot, exchange

pleasantries, the man lifts back

the cooler’s lid and offers us four


from the squirming tangle

of brown-white-turquoise claws.

He says they have far too many


despite his wife’s glares; but

we have nothing to hold them

so we thank him and decline.


The pier stretches out toward

the lip of this shallow bay

and we follow it past herons


and egrets flanking the wooden

pilings with stoic reflections,

gulls shimmering down and back


in the bright wind. A fisherman

left a ray drying on the planks

and we must step carefully over


its bedeviled leather. Crab shells

litter spots we pass, green bottle

flies swarming around the eyes,


jaundiced organs and deadman left

behind. You speak of softshells

your father would boil back in


the Bronx, steam whistling from

them like a warning. We find

ourselves far from home on this


brackish South Texas shoreline,

no sense to the migrations that

have brought us here, jobs no


better than the traps the blue crabs

scuttle into—some scraps of food,

an illusion of security. Our single


consolation comes from being

together—more than your parents

had when they left warm islands


for the chill of England. The rocky

land in Jamaica, cattle and goats  

on the hillsides of Carriacou


offered little promise for a future,

far too late now to second guess

if Britain, Canada, America made


better choices. My parents crossed

state lines, not oceans; leaving

the red clay of Alabama for Iowa,


Nebraska, Arkansas. Our journeys

might go short or long; it doesn’t

matter. Beyond us, in the open


water, two pilot whales breach and

blow spouts of sparkling mist into

the sunlight. Their dark backs


break the waves before diving, and

we know as we imagine maps

and routes they wander, wherever


they head toward is home. As

we stand against this constant

wind, we still know the way.



Jon Tribble is the managing editor of Crab Orchard Review and the series editor of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry published by Southern Illinois University Press. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, and The Jazz Poetry Anthology. His work was selected as the 2001 winner of the Campbell Corner Poetry Prize from Sarah Lawrence College. He teaches creative writing and literature, and directs undergraduate and graduate students in internships and independent study in editing and literary publishing for the Department of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.



Q: Tell us more about fishing…

A: I have fished almost all my life, though mainly I grew up catching channel catfish in lakes and ponds in Arkansas. When I moved to southern Illinois, a friend, Rodney Jones, introduced me to night fishing for rainbow trout. You had to wait for nighttime since the heat in July and August keep the fish very inactive during the daytime. We would lower our lines to measured depths and try to find the cool, but not too cold, water the trout will feed in at certain times through the night.


Q: Seems like most states have a Devil’s Den, Devil’s Hole – in North Carolina, we have the Devil’s Stomping Ground. Where and why is Devil’s Kitchen? 

A: Devil’s Kitchen Lake is a man-made lake created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It was the result of damming Grassy Creek in a steep valley about 8 miles south of Carbondale, Illinois, and is part of the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, the Crab Orchard Wilderness, the Panther Den Wilderness, and the Shawnee National Forest. The lake reaches depths of ninety feet and is extremely clear water. One explanation for the name is there was a black rock ledge overlooking the valley and cooking fires set up on and around the ledge by hunters and pioneers gave it the name “Devil’s Kitchen.” Perhaps, the year-round cooling effect of the steep valley with the creek at the bottom also created a mist that might have looked like smoke from above, giving settlers the feeling of a connection to an underworld from the place.


Q: “Young Wife, Bathing” is such an evocative moment captured in the midst of a great movement - would you discuss the genesis of this poem, and is it part of a larger historical work? 

A: This poem grew from a story my mother told me of her experience upon moving to Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950s. She and my father had not been married for very long and they had begun to work for the United Methodist Church as home missionaries providing social services in communities with the U.S. Her background was as an elementary school teacher and he was in the process of training as a social worker. I have been working on a family historical work that would explore my parents’ experiences during the late 1940s through the early 1980s. My mother also worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama.