POEM: Don Moss — “Lettered State”

A stylized shot of West Virginia, where a portion of Don Moss's "Lettered State" takes place.

Lettered State

An hour past dawn, at this clear-road pace,
We’d cross the last county line,
Passing from East to West Virginia.
His plan was masterful. A second D-
W-I, he’d be revoked a full year.
With the foresight a son might inherit,
He’d claimed his wallet stolen
And applied for a duplicate license.

He slid the form under the wide
Bi-focaled face of the counter woman.
Who’d lifted her head to assess him,
Corrected the date, asked of insurance,
Reviewed and stamped his freedom form,
Freedom to drive west, to Phoenix, AZ,
A two-day drive to friend Tom’s,
Take the Arizona test, cowboy a year,
Return to Virginia and petition
The court for reinstatement. Masterful.

His ’73 Continental drove well, but
Father didn’t know what to do
On the right side of the wide front seat,
Forming fists of dependence.
“Son, how fast you going?”

Over 70, though I said “64.”
“Limit’s 60. Keep to that or some trooper’ll…”
“Dad, I’m looking out…”
“She’s on our tail again, isn’t she?”
He said, not turning to verify.
My wife in our Rambler was closing in.
I stretched an arm for her to leave
More space, her clenched smile
Growing smaller.

“Pressing, wasn’t she?
A woman will crowd even on a long
Empty road, with all the time…”

Since he sold his machinery,
Even the old Army surplus semi,
He’d nearly lived in this Lincoln.
He’d had it washed, waxed, but as miles
Passed, the soft leather seat still spoke
Of his occupancy.


All day, alone among women
I loved, I awaited father’s return
From two counties away
Where he toppled forests into agra-land
On doctor/lawyer hobby farms.
His veined arms and calf muscles
In the dialect of rattling machine.
His skin rusted-metal bronze.

At supper, scrubbed, but diesel exotic,
The way he’d work his teeth,
Even on white bread and butter,
A wondrous African click-mastercation.
I was to hate it, for thirty years,
His manners of celebration.

In the mirror’s rearview, my face
Looked back, thin beard, post-Navy-long
Hair, he couldn’t get used to, nor, really, could I.

“In Malacca a magistrate warned he’d not hear
Evidence from long-haired male witnesses,
As unbefitting the dignity of the court.”*
[Symbols: Public and Private, Raymond Firth, 1983, p. 278]

Unnoticed, I thought, I searched his face in glances:
Where was the scar at the edge of the eye?
The outward curl of the ear?
That angle of receded hair?
Always his passenger, I knew of this side less
Than the other. He moves–my eyes shoot ahead.


Never played or walked to watch him
Golf, some understanding we had for me
To not waste so much life swinging

At unobtainable perfection, as when he sliced
The damned white ball deep into the woods,
And he’d tossed the whole goddamned bag

Of rattling irons, woods, and half-drained bottle
Into that pond. His pals at his funeral
Still told that story of the guy they loved.

Not one was as much like him as he was.

“What’s your plan for the year in Phoenix?”
“First, I’m going to school,” he replied.
“You, serving time in a school room?”
“It’s how I met your mother (EQ), didn’t you
“You two were in school together?
“She “taught at Rockville, no one told you?”
“I did hear from someone, indirectly.”
“Who was that, my sister, Eleanor?”
“No, not one still around.”
“One of my brothers, was it Wilfred?
Wouldn’t be like Punch to go…”
“Dad, it was Mom,” which turned his head my way.

“Elsie? What did she say to you about…?”
“Not what she said, what she wrote.”
“She wrote you about me, when?”
“Not what she wrote to me but to you.”

“Those old things turned up. Damn, I couldn’t
Throw them away. She’d repeated, “Destroy them!”

Please, Darling, destroy these letters.
It’s best no one knows they came from me.

Won’t be long before I’ll have to be a dignified
School teacher once more. Then you’ll have to feign
I was ever anything but Miss Q…. and nothing else.

“Dad, I couldn’t have burned them either.”
“Reading them won’t show half what they mean–
I’d bet mice ate many Sweet Hearts and Darlings.”

‘She knew so many ways to Darling you.”

Darling, I can’t help enjoying seeing you
Every time more and more. Seems
That’s the way it is, Darling, though I wouldn’t
Have believed it if someone had told me…

 Well, here I’ve written another love letter
And I hadn’t intended, well, writing so much.
…Don’t blame me, Sweat Heart, because
When one’s in love, what is she going to write

About …unless it’s…you.

Missing the Miles to State Line sign,
“She loved you, uncontrollably.”

“When that got going no, control went out…
What a bastard I was, and she kept forgiving…

Honey Darling, seeing you is like a tonic.
(Ha – I know you love the comparison,
But you get the idea, don’t you? You pep
Me up so much!)

“She wrote of your letters, but only one’s shown.”

“I never told her what to do with mine.”
You also married yourself an English teacher;
She tried changing that much ‘bout you?”

“Trouble is I keep changing; maybe if she
Had also stood in front…”

“You’re still a smartellic. Yeah, my teacher;
Even helped me on the term paper, sure was
How I got through. She had me by then, and
I her … Why’d she leave
So soon?  My last meanness, not to go first.”

Now how should one begin a letter
To someone who says when leaving, ‘Well, Good Night’??
…I can’t remember what the English books say
Is proper…should I address you, Dear Sir?

WM: Dear, You told me to write again…trying
To do what you said… Don’t know
If you believe this or not, but I’ve quit drinking
Anything stronger than milk and water.

“She often wrote of milk and water.”

P.S. #2: Sorry you were drinking anything
For several reasons; Darling, dare I hope there’ll come
A time when you’ll realize you can do without?

“Tried that,” he replied, “and tried that. She also
Said to take care driving, but driving was her beer,
Only slowed when her parents were passengers.”

Richmond Howl

Those long drives to Richmond, forty miles
Of nothing there. This time it was wolves,
Howling in unison, howling in harmony,
Catching our breath and howling more.
The `55 Chrysler had joined the party;
Somewhere near 70, a Trooper’s siren
Hushed our riot. Explaining what happened,
The Trooper said, ‘Ma’am, what if everybody
Howled when they drove?” He had her there,
Couldn’t image anything would happen.
When she was called forward to the judge’s podium
At court appearance, six foot-one mom stepped
One step above the squatty Trooper,
Who stepped up two steps, and she another,
Until they met at the top, mom peering down
Upon the angry man. She won her case,
And paid the standard victory fine.

“Tell me ‘bout this school you’re attending.”
“Got the receipt in my pocket,” he said,
Pulling it out, now holding it under the mirror.
“Can’t read and drive, tell me what it says.”
“It’s my deposit slip for Prospecting
School, ten weeks goin’ every day
Of fifteen goin’ nights, but night’s
Just delay getting out and to dig.”

What? I thought. What do you know about prospecting,
About spectography, about aerial photography,
‘Bout mule husbandry?
But this was so him; and I couldn’t say
“Damn if you are!” like when I told him
I wanted to be a mechanic, and he
Threatened to knock my braces out.
He didn’t, of course, and I didn’t;
But this, he was certain to do.
It was a gamble, just what kept his heart
Going, a wager near certain to fail.


Cars took too much of me,
Even the old `50 Plymouth Grand-
Dad gave me before I could reach the pedals.
Took it apart and mostly back together,
I dug in the car junk pile by the country store,
Just to hold a spent 4-barrel carb.
Just why I’d wait for dad at the body shop
Where men met weekend nights to throw dice, pass pints.
Don’t know what he won and lost. No complaints,
Was busy with every car worth new paint.

“She’d scold me about drinking a decade
Before there was any sign of you, all
The way back to `36, and she’s why I finished.
You find any paper of my graduating?”

“No, mice eat fancy paper first.”

“You keep looking; don’t think I’d kid you
About that, do you? That’s like her, writing
Long sentences and tagging them with, that so?
That so? Don’t you know?–making me read again.


Christmas, again Old Crow’d father,
Back late with an embarrassment of gifts
For Mom, called me to help wrap
In bright tissue paper too
Fragile for male hands.
“Now, Dad” and he’d press
The half-knotted ribbon,
`Round which my long fingers
Scuffled out a bow.

“Dad, you’ve been prospecting most of your years–
You could go up front and teach that class.”

“Gambling runs in family veins; don’t know why,
Coming from both sides, it didn’t flow into yours.”

“Dad, there’re more ways to gamble than cards and
Dice and dice and, even than…love,”

“When I get back, tell me what that might be,
This other way of winning and losing.

“Son, we’re near enough to the State line.
Pull over when there’s room and I’ll go from here.”

“What about those troopers you know are waiting?

“Hell, if I’ll take no chance at all,”
Let them run me out.”
“You’re the one that…

“Christ, you should have gone to law school, become
A judge, then you could decree…”
“Dad, law’s no more
For me than for you,” which cocked his head,
Tongue to his teeth, having heard what he might say.

Pulling the Lincoln to the shoulder, my wife stopped behind.
We each slid out, stretched; he bent his 6 foot 3
Behind the wheel, adjusted the mirrors, extended a
Hand for a firm hold. Then gestured ahead
To distant Phoenix, to Tom’s, not to run
But prospect the Lower, Free, Forty-Seven.

* * *

If you enjoyed this poem from Don Moss, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an in-depth look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science” with Irish poet Laura Woods, a discussion with Ivan Katchanovski on Maidan and Ukrainian history in light of the Russia-Ukraine War, and an analysis of Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic 1929 novel, Some Prefer Nettles.

More from Don Moss: The Minneapolis Poet — Remembering Bruce Ario

Tagged with: