Next to a River
by Jeff Munnis

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An autobiographical series of poems and prose poems set in Titusville, Florida, where Jeff grew up. Through his poetry, we catch a glimpse of what life was like for a young boy who was raised by older parents in a retirement community where funerals were regular occasions, blacks and whites were segregated, tanks drove along the highway headed towards Cuba, and family dynamics were as comical as they were tragic. The Indian River, orange groves, the beaches, and the natural beauty of Merritt Island are present throughout this series of poems.

Some poems from Next to a River


Oak trees slashed the air like swords,
palm trunks popped and creaked
like timbers in a wooden ship.
The wind turned over some small trailers.
Dead seaweed from the Indian River smelled like sulfur.
Roaches floated up out of the water-soaked weeds.
Everyone in the park slept late and waited
for the flood from Hurricane Donna to drain away.

Under gray clouds, in a grove of a thousand Sabal palms,
my father stumbled on the stem of a palm frond
that flew up, cut through the edge of his chin, and hit bone.
His head jerked back and he grabbed a rag in his pocket,
dipped it in kerosene, and dabbed it on the cut.
He winced, pinched his skin to stop the bleeding,
but he did not look toward me.

He worked methodically. Sweat formed
on his forehead and he grabbed at the fallen limbs,
threw them on a pile of burning trash.
Dirt roads held the water between islands of grass,
where cars floated to a stop.


A night launch from Cape Canaveral woke me.
The shock waves rippled through the thin surface
of Merritt Island, shook the Indian River bottom
and the pocket door tapped against the inside of the wall.
I heard the same rumbling sound on TV.
The mushroom cloud.
I waited for the rush of wind
that would blow out the windows.
My stomach felt hollow, like the night
I pulled the sheets up to my chin so vampires
would not bite my neck. Or the night
I heard flying saucers landing, until I got up
and saw trucks coasting down an overpass.
Just sound and motion in the dark, so extraordinary
and strange, detached from my body.
It would have been the most natural thing to disappear.


The exposed surface is a bone-white mandible
on the Florida coast, the sand and weeds worn down,
the skeleton exposed: a shallow bodied island
with pockets of fresh water and brackish ponds.
Green-eyed dragonflies cruise through swarms
of mosquitoes and gnats; sand fleas burrow deep
into the skin of red-winged blackbirds and ghostly opossum.

The heat dries out the topsoil by mid-day,
afternoon rains melt the dead leaves into the sand
during a harsh cycle of water and sun.
Stunted pineapples with gray desiccated leaf-ends
grow under patches of palmetto. Orange trees
and grapefruit trees push roots down into shell and rock,
salt water seeps into pockets of fresh water, drops
of acidic sugar crystallize in the white pulp of fruit.

White oyster shells and broken bits of yellow coquina
ring the islands where an invisible border forms
between the inter-coastal river and the ocean.
A labyrinth of merging dunes holds back the Atlantic.
The solid ground appears in the dry heat, disappears
in the rain, roads cross the mottled patterns
of bare trees, gray mud like a layer of latex paint, shells . . .

Fishermen and birds find their ways by the shape of the trees.
Bass slither into fresh waterholes in the shell-rock formations,
raccoons find the exposed bits of dry terrain in the morning.
Brown spiders, black-eyed crickets, lightning bugs,
heat flashes at night in rain clouds, the smell of ocean salt,
the rain, sea gulls pick over rotting oranges and fish heads.

Underground, the sediment of silence dropped on the surface
of the island’s memory forms rock, gradually covers
the scars left in the ground. Water and grass cover secrets
that have to be re-discovered and owned. The silence.

Unearthed heat, the hard surface of the roads,
the broken arms and legs, the cut hands, the buried dreams,
work on this island of stagnant air and humid thoughts
that seep down into the grass, into the delicate presence
of shade: white, gray, brown, green, the ground covered
by vines, seeds, and rotting wood.

The forgotten events: reconciliation, memory of the sand
and leaves. The shadows and grasses hiss at ground level
under dense layered trees, move silent through the dry leaves,
the land holds the quiet. The haunted air waits for the rumble
of thunder above the land, the white crack of lightning
under gray sky and over green water.

Unblinking eyes stare at every movement
on the horizon: the break of waves, the pelican’s dive,
the clean blue barrier of sky moves silently
into all the unguarded spaces, into the heartbeats of animals;
the swarm of crickets. When darkness rises out of the ground
to meet the sky, in the dense air motionless at sunrise,
solar wind drifts in. Rays of light illuminate
the dead and dying, the covered and sleeping.


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