Austin Segrest

Two poems from Austin Segrest’s Barrel Roll
followed by a note on the author

Photo of My Father from the Seventies

Forty looking thirty,
he could fire off with the least provocation
his heart rate, mile time, batting average
in sixth grade—but as for who he is,
this blue-eyed Burt Reynolds, your guess
is as good as his. Pure potential
in a faded Canadian tuxedo,
a pilot light in the center of this seventies
burnish, bell-bottoms flared a foot wide,
these were the years my mother complained
of his walking the house naked,
of the languorous baths and money blown
at the health food store on vitamins and fiber.
I remember taking a shower with him, the sharp,
fake citrus of little hotel shampoos and conditioners,
standing below in the ricochet and run-off.
The idea of him receded behind the specimen,
blurred, streaming, smooth, his flattened hair,
his motions expert—untouched, untold,
altogether unreached body my body nears.
These were the years he sabbaticalled.
Summers in the distant Pacific I half-remember
from visits: fog-damp, the fish ladder, the spit
called Dungeness he walked heroically out to tip
against spitting wind, past the mudflats
and monstrous, polished skeletons of trees.
He tells it how he walked till he couldn’t walk
any farther—my athletic, my academic father—
and there, where the spit runs out, runs on
under the waves, shelving off toward Canada,
where the inner life runs up finally on the outer,
scattered rock-forms rose up out of the gray
and slowly materialized as a herd of seals,
turning as if toward their bull.
Still, it would be years until
he got up the courage to file for divorce.
More than the body, this is the man
my mother recognized in me with horror
the year I lived with her after college —
bitter, bickered away—the year she died.
Now there shall be a man cohered
out of the tumult…
I feel my father’s sinewy arm
extend through mine, and I’m in two
classrooms—his rainy Seattle lab
a life away, and my glaring 8 o’clock—chalk in hand
to chart a course across the blackboard’s swirl
of erasure. And the barking of the seals is thundered out,
the lighthouse shrouded.
Pinned to the fridge
like Proteus, the photo keeps its figure.

Nuclear Medicine

Weekdays I wheeled the vial
across the hospital,
its fifty-pound lead drum
blowing through the atrium
where sky crashed in
on potted trees, and workmen
were walling up the old
ER entrance where I’d rolled
in my mother, deteriorating,
slumped. No more waiting
room delirium and panic
now. Watching the clock,
I had three minutes to get
the radioactive agent
to its subject, one of a set
of identical twins,
so his heart could betray
its damage. No time to see
that wall close up like the artery
that killed my mother, or the one
that would darken a section
of the vet’s heart muscle.
I took the tunnel
under Clifton Road, the decay drum
catching momentum
down the ramp as I cried out
to strangers, organ transplant,
coming through—
some white lie
to clear the way,
not thinking of the beating bag
I’d dreamed of carrying
her heart in, or how being
alone with her dying
left me exposed,
as to a naked dose.
Lying on the scanner bed
in his room of lead,
some Don or Ron, Harry or Larry
was prepped for my delivery.
Not thinking how personal,
how molecular, upheaval
gets inside us. Riddling
the body, the body releasing
that which hurts
yet preserves us—what stress
damages the heart,
what we can measure of it.

Originally from Alabama, Austin Segrest teaches literature and creative writing at Lawrence University in north-central Wisconsin. Find out more at

Photo of My Father from the Seventies first appeared in Southwest Review; Nuclear Medicine first appeared in The Yale Review.