Cory Cotten-Potter

Pylon Essay: Six Definitions

1. Pylon:

         1 : an upright structure used for support

         1.2 : a monument flanking an entranceway

St. John’s church sits in the Suffolk lowlands, just outside the small town of Chuckatuck, Virginia. It’s home to a small creek that I spent the majority of my life thinking was a pond, a marble bench that always looks polished—not that I think anyone sets about this task with any regularity—and a collection of role books, which detail my grandfather’s remarkably poor Sunday school attendance from the 1920s. A fact that—if I’m being brutally honest—I’m terribly proud of. It’s also home to my family, but this isn’t about them. It’s about a man named Bert who favors tartan hats.


Bert’s position doesn’t have a name, and it’s utterly unremarkable, until you consider the consequences and the fact that no one does it but him. His knack lies in unceremoniously emerging from a green Ford Taurus—in the shadow of the largest cedar I’ve ever seen—and poking a metal rod into the ground. The rod is shaped like a shepherd’s crook. Its job is to look for lost souls. My fascination with Bert’s job comes from the fluidity of his movements—his pressure firm and even until he can go no further, until he finds a body no one knew was buried.


The violence of sunlight has often been compared to the brightness of diesel engines.

         When my father buried his father, he turned away the hearse, offering the bed of his brother’s pickup instead. To my disappointment, I’ve followed most of the rules.

         The thought of wood rusting opens eyelids.

         If I were Bert, I’d bury iron nails in the ground. Chaining each body in common—marked or unmarked, spoken or forgotten, silenced and maimed—to the fullest of terrestrial possibilities. Decay that is gentle in the way that passion is violent.

         There are cars on our bridges, sharks in our rivers.

2. Pylon:

         2 : a usually massive gateway in a lifestyle that includes, and results in, a rigid monitoring

         2.2 : any of various towerlike structures, spaces that have the potential to hold energy and ghosts

         2.3 : targeting, with and without, cutting the edges of things

Once, I lived in an ivory tower and a cop lived in my lawn. He denied this, of course. But I knew the lie by the sudden increase in my energy expenditure, his siren screaming out into the dead of night, and the hiss of the shower running each morning—waking and not tasting the sea but the smell of burnt toast and the hum of humidity coming off his still wet hair. He’d see the sand peeling away my insides and pull me over to check my permitting:

He said, Hi.

I said, Yes y'all seem to be killing just about anyone you can these days.

He said, I’ve never fired my weapon.

Pity, I said.

Maybe this isn’t about me, he said.

It’s about all of us, I said.

         I worked in the third story window—late nights, under the hum of electric light. The window was held up by a steel-reinforced superstructure resting on a four-foot thick concrete pad pierced and held still by thirty creosote-soaked pilings driven deep into the earth—that is to say, far below the frost line and into the ocean. I wanted someone to witness my work, to see that I wasn’t afraid. I wrote for hours each night. I only wrote about being watched.


Tower in Montana—on the moor, 99.6 miles as the truck travels from where Custer got his shit rocked—I climb a hill to have a conversation with a hunter: no elk this year but a wall tent full of old friends; protests and clubs to the back of the head, fresh back from Vietnam, easing his way up Maryland’s Eastern shore; heads West while talking around his loneliness; works on dams. His son is with him, on break from college. He stands by the truck as we talk. All my life I’ve been the young man by the truck. When did I grow old enough to talk with strangers on hillsides while their college-aged sons sit by the truck out of boredom or respect?


My grandfather kills the national bird when he is six. His photograph is in the paper. The sheriff stuffs it for him, so that he may display it in a place of prominence in his home. I don’t hunt until I’m nine. All I shoot is a squirrel. I have to be shown how to swing it by the tail and snap its neck against the tree to stop it from seizing against the ground.

         I wonder whether the subliminal pull to fortify stories I’d rather throw away is real, or merely convenient, created.


We’re six or seven and C picks his cat up by the tail and swings it in three tight circles before letting go and watching it careen into a pile of cushions under the windowsill. More than anything, he acts like he planned it. When our parents get wind of this they say we’re not allowed to stay over at C’s house anymore. It’s not the sort of thing we had to be told.

3. Pylon:

         3 : an ancient technological conundrum—death

         3.1 : a wedge-shaped electrical charge, usually ignored due to its common occurrence—also, death


On a Sunday in January, we stand in the lawn and watch the pilings of our docks uproot themselves and slink back into the water. We watch the planes move, south to north, across the sky. More than sixty yesterday. Seven in this last hour. We calculate the travel time from Miami to New York. We decide under a day, under five hours, and decide that this is enough. My friend’s car will tell you how much air is in each tire; the ban on creosote-soaked pilings has made the creek ripe with oysters; my friend no longer fishes; his wife is not well; you can sit in a chair in the sky and cross the continent without ever feeling cold. We decide they can do a lot, but—more than anything—can’t keep a man from dying. More than that, we talk about his brother and never mention his name and go back to watching the planes crisscross the sky over the plot that holds his old trailer and try to forget the red of the new Subaru blazing out front.


On days when there is quiet, the cannons come. They are nothing if not invisible and inevitable, and thought benevolent and often ignored for no good reason other than their being a mixture of the two. This transgression—that is to say the essential intrusion of phenomenon qua experientially induced (think of this in terms of the susceptibility of a suitable conductor when placed near an electrically charged body [this transfer]) analytics and its subsequent dismissal—is often ignored, as science is in the habit of ignoring the truly terrible and mundane.

         This is how I’ve come to think of loss.

4. Pylon:

         4 : myth making—also, a place I call home

         4.1 : a place I call home—also, previous occupants and my unwell friends

         4.2 : purpose—also, a void

         4.3 : loneliness—also, a void

I feel the safest at the site of a particular murder: The story starts at dusk. The shutters shake, as if the entire building were breathing gently. Shouts rattle around the rafters like a lion in a glass box. The shouting opens onto three concrete stairs. A man kills his wife with a kitchen knife. The sun sets—red and wavering and ultimately unafraid. I imagine his neighbors thought him a gentleman.


Reality’s records are truer than mine, but not more natural. That’s an important distinction.

         The murder took place in the early ’80s. That puts the devil in the attic around ’85, when the blood was still relatively fresh—genealogically or geologically speaking—and the lawn full of life, so that if we imagine a blood-pile, full of potential, prophetically seeking the path of least resistance—like electric light, ants, the simplest of human desires, the whole of the world’s oceans—we will imagine it spreading itself out like a serpent, six feet underneath the soil, coiling itself into a complex ring and patiently waiting for others to contemplate and map significance onto its origins.


Who’s that?

Boom. Compression. Decompression, slapjack dead-eyed grin. The devil’s in the attic again.

How’s that?

Boundaries fractured like good intentions, like light held fast with lead. The devil’s in the attic again.

Can’t be.

Truly. Think pinprick turned rupture or blunderbuss burn, because the devil’s in the attic again.


That’s what I’ve been saying this whole goddamn time. Now, get that book off the mantle and get to praying. You got to run that son of a bitch out of here!


I do not like the idea of a Gentleman of Leisure. When I was twenty-five, I became a gentleman of leisure for seven months, which is to say I didn’t work during that time, which is to say no one would hire me. I felt safe and took to sleeping for great lengths of time. I spent my savings and took to selling things from around the house, in order to buy supplies. However, it was by no means a period of hardship, although—once—a friend helped me pay the light bill.


The supplies were for the box I’d taken to building out back of my house. I invited all of my friends to come visit, and when they came—only two came and we are no longer friends—they watched me work on this building. More than anything, I think I needed someone to witness my work, someone to lean into and put an arm around while admiring the giant box I’d built in the lawn, someone to whisper to—despite standing in the middle of sporadically populated swamp land, where the cedars and cypress mop up the excess sound—Look…I’ve made a thing!


Lie to the permitting office. Post permit on fridge. Dig into the fringe of fox bones, electric eels and the casual calamity of centuries stacked over and upon one another—that is to say, beyond the frost line, into the sea. Pour concrete pylons and sweat until you shake in the parking lot of July’s screaming sun. Lie awake in morning light—edging the ether into boundaries that feel just like celestial light. Form ghosts; sculpt them; kiss them goodbye; place them in the attic out of sight.

         Find kittens under car, again. Build box—protection from birds of prey. Cold night and one left and you alone—all of your closest friends trapped in the static of the TV tuned to a dead channel. Turn the volume down. Mix dish of milk. Warm kitten under beard. Take to porch when its mother calls. Give comfort back to nature.


A friend once described the poet Richard Hugo’s work as depression and a fuck-ton of whiskey. Another friend, across the table, echoed her description, so much whiskey.


Touch transformed, experientially, might split-screen subjective analysis into touchstones of growth. It’s all the same story, underneath: complaints hacking the company agape; clients fleeing the latest floating-alive feeling. I think of the edges of candles as the line between light and less light, the tow between memory and eros, the shine between the color gray and the spitfire red of our darkest sun.


Your voice breaks when you call out for change at the cash register because you haven’t used it all day, or the day before: THaNk yo\Ou. Her smile—not the kind you’d hoped for.

5. Pylon:

         5 : a gateway to adulthood marked by various, flexible ends

         5.1 : the first time I really heard a friend’s voice

Broken days in Bad News, VA—shielded in the back of a blue Suburban. L gets a bat to the face down by the beach. The boom of his voice bakes the tint from the glass box like time and too much sunshine. R with his brass knuckles to the back of the head and all around we breathe like springtime. Fights over fifty dollars. A tree grows out of the center of the cul-de-sac down C’s street. L dies and we dive into a black river where the blinds and banners on all the windows breathe. The sky is alive. You don’t need shoes to fight in the street. More than anything, this is the suburbs.


We’re six or seven and L cracks his head open on the skate rink floor. My grandmother holds him and rocks him back and forth while he howls. That howl—like backyard green-tree cemetery dawns with lonesome drunks blinking ashcan-bright, seeking sex or soup as pure as the poets growing in the cracks of public pools and trembling on the roadside like petticoat thieves grown fat on muddy crabmeat full of blood and drunk on alleyways and firetrucks and ads for flannel suits.

6. Pylon:

         6 : same town/different body or a prescribed course of ends to shared beginnings

         6.1 : a marker

He loses his wife and father in the same year. On the desk an ivory lion sits next to a glass box. The last gift from his mother—a joke, Christmas, Snoopy lunchbox, small. It fits upright in the palm of a medium sized hand—hands can be medium sized, neither very large and slow or very small and quick, as all the books need us to believe—and is stuffed with one hundred dollars. The box is green, blue moving across the cover like the bears that used to dance along the room’s banners. After he dies, I throw it away—along with the rest of a life—but use the money to pay the electric bill. No one’s fault, not really.


Five hundred dollars will buy a clean and bright pine coffin, which you think might be one of the more beautiful things you’ve ever seen. You are told it will frighten people. You buy one covered in blue felt for $650. It’s the blue of Hampton police cruisers, the sky on early mornings when you can’t quite decide if it will be springtime or continue to snow, the scuffed shoes that sit in the back of your hall closet. More than anything, it looks decent with an American flag draped over it. When they take it off you wish they’d hurry up and put it in the ground, the space that Bert told you was safe.

Cory Cotten-Potter grew up in the urban sprawl, swamp lands of Virginia. He holds an MFA from Colorado State University.