December 2022 Poetry Feature: Kevin McIlvoy


Editor’s note: In October a friend told me about Kevin McIlvoy’s recent passing, days after I had read and been deeply moved by the following poems. We are honored to offer them to you here. 

—John Hennessy


Kevin McIlvoy, known to his friends as Mc., published six novels, a story collection, and a collection of prose poems and flash fictions. A long-standing faculty member in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, he was my colleague but, more importantly, my friend. Mc. loved books and, like many writers, he loved them so much eventually the only way to love them more was to add to them by writing. These poems were sent out prior to his death on September 30, 2022. He is missed by many, but thanks to his work, his voice is still with us. 

—C. Dale Young

Table of Contents:

            —Where does the tree-of-heaven grow?

            — I write

            —Sycamore, Golden Shovel



Where does the tree-of-heaven grow?

On mine spoil. In debris fields
of asphalt and concrete and brick.
Upon sites of chemical spills.
Along lifeless riverbanks.
In clonal groves so hardy you
have to steel yourself for years
of killing to kill one acre.

Where construction crews rake off
the surface anywhere near
unquiet graves, the trees return,
identically weedy, wild,
their rattling seed profusions
exploding in rippling flight, their
oldest spreading scissoring shade.

They are the landscape architect’s
repeated, regrettable mistake.
Though they grow with tall-tale speed,
nothing can be made from their wood.
Nothing sturdy, nothing handsome,
homey, good for the lathe, right for
stake or fighting or for fire.

Before appearing here, these trees
grew—everywhere—in heaven.


I write

to you with no
address for you—or name.
Somewhere we will meet, at some juncture
to which we will unexpectedly return.
Maybe I’ll give you this letter then.

That tree at the trailhead: you said you were the two
who carried the sapling in and positioned it there,
that you had tried and failed to sell that one and
the others you’d grown, but you couldn’t bear to burn
it with the pile of galled and cankered other scions.

I formed the impression that because I’d
met your tree you felt you’d met me,
and could—should—share the story.

I was glad to know of your work in your trade even as
children, and your developing passion as growers, your
efforts in wet and drought to find the right home for
every sycamore you could not sell.

I write to you, my weird sisters, and realize that I miss you.
How to explain that? We have no actual acquaintance.
We never once looked at each other’s faces, since the
tree was our focus, since our gazes were fixed upward, since
our voices were not ours but were the tree’s intimate sighs,
since the flickering crownlight stirred us in its simmering brew.

They grow, you said, higher in one year than
any full-grown human in a lifetime—they thrive
practically untended, dress in downy, golden gowns in
autumn, change their mottling bark and scale their scaling
trunks back by whim—even winter-naked, they’re overproud—
they’re a hot item until they fall out of fashion for no good reason
other than folks’ boredom with anything thought common as a broom.

We talked for less than ten minutes, only for
the singular topic of conversation. We three—we
four—were there together for that sole reason, I guess.  

I’ve never forgotten that the long journey in and
the longer journey back began and ended under the
accidental influence of moon-spilled, sun-cast spells
you caused with your irrepressible will to share—
thirty-seven years earlier—Platanus occidentalis.

The slender strong limb that I
found under the tree later that day—
I write to tell you that I made a
walking stick with the wood:
at the touch, my mind recovers
the ensorcelled entirety of how
I have roughly held and been
held tenderly in this world.

I have walked other
trails since, have 
traveled back into
the wilderness inside
my self-abusing fears,
but I have never left
for long the candling
calm of that morning
encounter with
your heir opening
the ways for me,
and for everyone
who walks there.


Sycamore, Golden Shovel

Waiting Christless day after Christless day there
in the sycamore tree Zack and B knew they had just
missed what they had come to understand might
have been a kind of joyful coming, but could be
only a cold Barton Springs sunrise when time
is owned by the blackbirds who watch, who wait to
signal what will swim the air each hour without a catch
and what will rise with the early light and drift up
and stir the fumes above the water and send them on
like the dying watching, waiting to give praise.

             In his warning voice B’s dad had told the two, Oh
nothing on earth is like the boiling, radiating life
and the combustions of song and light at our spring. How
will you need or lose the slow-growing need of the Great I
Am? How will you find how much you are loved
without loving yourselves the warming light on your
cold arms and faces and on the sycamore’s cold
sleeves when your eyes fill with coin-flowers that spring
from dark mounds broken by the golden spades of mornings.

             So I will have all the time I need?
asked B, asked Zack, reaching up again for
the highest hands reaching down for them, budding.



            I cemented together the broken
clay cup, twelve pieces except for
a missing diamond-shaped chip
halfway between the bottom and
the lip, a second opening
pouring forth half of
the fullness poured in,
half of the air breathed
down, half of the last
sunlight, half of
the snowmelt,
half of the first
perfections of starlight.

Thirty-one years ago the potter
had lived in a monastery
on an island of roots and trees
and no land—a place that I,
who sent him, had always
dreamed of going.

The trees gave no fruit and
nothing of their limbs
or bark or roots was edible
though the leaves purified the
unending rain and the
roots sweetened the taste.

The monks put their dissolving
nails and teeth and the
hair falling from their
faces and heads
and bodies into the clay slip
and they brushed the paste over
the cup’s smooth skin.

They sipped more
slip, thinned it with
their spit, spat inside to
coat the cup’s throat.
They swallowed the
mud in their mouths
and smiled at the thought
that they could make
more cups with their
own porous, mineral shit.

When they were brought
out of the kiln the surface
of them would not
stop sparking, would
not start cooling, would
not stop living.

            Leaving the island after
eleven years there, he chose
one cup that no monk could
remember creating. He
crushed it underfoot, the
the habit of their order, and he
brought me this gift in
a ripped black sock.

He said, “We were dying, we
were dying. But we did not
feel cold, hunger, regret.
We ate mud, drank rain, and
over time we were so
clay-soaked that we
stopped wearing clothing, we
slept standing, prayed
bowed and dripping.

“I lived inside this
cup,” he said.

Together he & I
put a candle in.

We watched the
seams glowing.

We listened to the
fire singing.


December 2022 Poetry Feature: Kevin McIlvoy

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