I Called Shotgun When You Died

I tried hard to be a ghost, so we could break into basements together to see who had whiskey and who did not, but I couldn’t die no matter how hard I tried. I stood lookout without you instead. I waited forever, but no one’s lights came on; everyone stayed asleep. You were still underground, casing the place, tangled in roots and the nests of mysterious spiders.
   
I called shotgun when you died, thinking we could still ride together through the neighborhood, selling bags of light to the newly dead. It didn’t seem fair that you had to cross the river by yourself.
   
I’m the same age I was back then, only older. The girls we loved are women now, their eyes still wet with tears.
   
When I dream of you, you’re always sitting on a barstool, just a kid, really, laughing when I say, I didn’t know you were still alive.
   
What’s new? Drugs are still good. They’re like love, getting all warm and up inside me, then ripping out my fucking heart, but in a good way, until I’ve seen 100 billion galaxies and can no longer clutch a Bible like a life preserver, as I drown in the sea of all those motherfucking stars.
   
Good night says the moment that brought me here, the moment we made of cotton and blood. Like an astronaut, I look for you in the flare of the genius sun in the blue-black sky, while terror draws a picture with its finger on my bedroom window—sand-worm, drought-fish, day-ghost—hieroglyphics I come to understand eventually: There is no sun. There are no stars. The coast is never clear.

- Christopher Kennedy

Inside / Out

The pits of cherries aren’t fruit, but seed. Buried
inside of their orbs, they exist to make
more. The pits contain cyanide and can kill
us if we try hard enough—if we eat them one
after another after another. I’m used to having pieces

of foreign things inside of me; I couldn’t
tell you how much metal is holding
my body together. They say I can have a baby.
Will I feel like my child is part of me

completely, or will I simply be growing something
to release to the outside? The day we ate
cherries on the beach we decided they’re
a worse version of grapes. Spat pits into sand.

What do we do when we find ourselves
outside of ourselves? When asked for the story,
I watch myself tell it. I’ve begun to wonder
if it actually happened to me.

They say you don’t want to lose the pain
of loss because it’s all you have left
of the thing. I can run loops around the park
miles and miles without stopping.

- Molly Johnsen



A Christmas Greeting

Good evening, Charlie. Yes, I know. You rise,
Two lean gray spiders drifting through your eyes.
Poor Charlie, hobbling down the hill to find
The last bootlegger who might strike them blind,
Be dead. A child, I saw you hunch your spine,
Wrench your left elbow round, to hold in line
The left-hand hollow of your back, as though
The kidney prayed for mercy. Years ago.
The kidneys do not pray, the kidneys drip.
Urine stains at the liver; lip by lip,
Affectionate, the snub-nosed demons kiss
And sting us back to such a world as this.
Charlie, the moon drips slowly in the dark,
The mill smoke stains the snow, the gray whores walk,
The left-hand hollow fills up, like the tide
Drowning the moon, skillful with suicide.
Charlie, don't ask me. Charlie go away,
I feel my own spine hunching. If I pray,
I lose all meaning. I don't know my kind;
Sack me, or bury me among the blind.
What should I pray for? what can they forgive?
You died because you could not bear to live,
Pitched off the bridge in Brookside, God knows why.
Well, don't remind me. I'm afraid to die,
It hurts to die, although the lucky do.
Charlie, I don't know what to say to you
Except Good Evening, Greetings, and Good Night,
God Bless Us Every One. Your grave is white.
What are you doing here?


-
by James Wright

A Blue Line

Hey, look, when you used to come into my kitchen
I didn’t even know where to stand, it was my kitchen
but it was yours, that quickly. And the evening had
a metal mouth which was meant to scare us, but we
listened to the desert instead. You taught us.
Unemployed, fuck the moon.

Years later there’s a dog biting into my book.
I pass the book on before too long. I hear feet
running toward the bank, then back again. It’s
night. The wives have come home to look at the
maps. The husbands are thinking invisibly through
someone from earlier in the blue day.

The blue line. The blue hat. The blue Atlantic
and that incredible blue distance to the small
apartment on the other side of the blue continent.
The blue judge, the blue court, the blue cop
good enough to say goodbye instead of staying.

Hey, once in the blue rain I was screaming for
you. It was more foreign than a foreign city.
Every time I left the house the rain got bluer,
and I had to turn back. Worse, I felt trapped.
It went on and on. I went nowhere.

I didn’t even know there was still a blue line
from me to you, that if I had just followed it
I would have found you: lonely like me then,
with your mouth to the window, and the stars
blinking but saying write darkly for now.

Write darkly.

- Michael Burkard

[Last night as I was sleeping]

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night as I slept,
I dreamt—marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

- Antonio Machado, trans. by Robert Bly

Melancholy Thoughts

Leaves falling one by one
and rain at dusk is tender

vermilion lute, playing alone
sound of a clear voice singing

try to ignore your regret
at having no intimate friends or lovers

try to build up your character
and cast your bitterness into the sea

sound of a carriage outside the door
come for some venerable elder

heaps of Taoist books
scattered in front of the pillow

raggedly dressed people
eventually go to heaven

green water and blue hills
already here and gone.

- Yu Xuanji, translated by David Young and Jiann I. Lin

Students

You see me here smeared
with chalk and pressed against
the slate-gray triptych from fear,
white as paper, white as a flensed
seal. Sometimes I can step outside
myself and listen
to my voice in its best bedside
manner reassure with glistening
lies, with cool purgatorial lies,
that although this is fall
we are not complying
and my heart goes out to myself.


I think when I go home of the syllabus
of love and horror movies
you’ve sat through in the Very Rich Hours
of your summer. The corpses are gorgeous,
and the books just begin to be
the artifice we need to begin.
To begin: to cut open. To love:
to be cut open and to heal and to cut open.
And I thought I could be above
It all—professional, textual, sacrificial.

- Bruce Smith

The Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

- T.S. Eliot

[Once there was rage and the promise]

Once there was rage and the promise
that rage was a god not a corpse
message nor a melting of the core.
Once it moved us closer to weather
and thunder and it made poetry
as a cure. Then Herodotus broke
my heart with his history: his rumor
that begins as living twice and ends
as recompense for loss. Events bent me.
I took the arrow of accuracy in my eye.
The sugary accounts made me votary,
the biographical acids lashed my back.
I gave up songs for facts: those green
squawking parrots, that fire truck,
that earring, that body bound and gagged.
Then America broke my other heart
with its jails and gerrymandering,
its Emmett Till, its charms
and concussions, its ringing in my ears.
Who’s the president? Who’s your mother?
Who painted the angels? Who bombed
Homs? Repeat after me: comorbid,
torpid, transported. Close one eye. Hum.
Where’s your mother’s nation? Your father’s
sky? Who’s your other? Close the other eye.

- Bruce Smith, from “Spill”

Self-Portrait in a Gold Kimono

Born, I was born.

                               Tears represent how much my mother loves me,

shivering and steaming like a horse in rain.

                                                         My heart as innocent as Buddha's,

my name a Parisian bandleader's,

                                                            I am trying to stand.

Father is holding me and blowing in my ear,

                                                                  like a glassblower on a flame.

Stars on his blue serge uniform flaunt a feeling

                                                             of formal precision and stoicism.

Growing, I am growing now,

                                       as straight as red pines in the low mountains.

Please don't leave, Grandmother Pearl.

                                                                      I become distressed

watching the president's caisson.

                                                 We, we together move to the big house.

Shining, the sun is shining on my time line.

                                                                           Tears, copper-hot tears,

spatter the house 

                                when Father is drunk, irate, and boisterous.

The essence of self emerges

                                                  shuttling between parents.

Noel, the wet nimbus of Noel's tongue

                                                                       draws me out of the pit.

I drop acid with Rita.

                                         Chez Woo eros is released.

I eat sugar like a canary from a grown man's tongue.

                                                                                  The draft card torn up;

the war lost.

                        I cling like a cicada to the latticework of memory.

Mother: "I have memories, too.

                                                           Don't let me forget them."

Father: "I'm glad the journey is set.

                                                                  I'm glad I'm going."

Crows, the voices of crows

                                             leaving their nests at dawn, circle around,

as I sit in a gold kimono,

                                             feeling the subterranean magma flows,

the sultry air, the hand holding a pen,

                                                                      bending to write,

Thank you,

                      Mother and Father, for creating me.

- Henri Cole

"I had a friend who could not sleep,

and he knew a few other people who had the same trouble, and we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice and then go home in the early morning light, when the streets were clean and wet (had it rained in the night? we never knew) and the few cruising taxis still had their headlights on and the only color was the red and green of traffic signals. The White Rose bars opened very early in the morning; I recall waiting in one of them to watch an astronaut go into space, waiting so long that at the moment it actually happened I had my eyes not on the television screen but on a cockroach on the tile floor.”

- Joan Didion, from “Goodbye to All That”

Newport, 1930

Stepping deftly to the jetty,
members of the boating party,
women in pearls, long skirts, cloche hats,
men in blazers, white yachting flannels,
slickers dangling from an arm,

walk the ramp to the misty shore.
The sand is grey, the water greyer,
the light is a queasy off-grey color
depriving everything of shadow.
The time must be late afternoon,

the day unlike the day in summer,
given the variables, it must be.
Crews from the offshore yawls and sloops,
maneuvering small white-hulled tenders
ferrying members of the party,

are dressed as that year’s crews are dressed,
are seen to do what ships’ crews do.
Though their hands are unseen by us
(the distance, yes, but greyness, too)
we are given to understand

(I cannot yet fully explain it)
nowhere will they prove less than equal
to whatever is asked of them:
hold to the wheel, haul port, trim starboard,
cast these members ashore, man stations.

A small flag flutters from the stern of
each of the auxiliary tenders.
Could we count the stars splattered on them
we could, within specific limits,
narrow the context, taste the year.

Of the life of those party members
put ashore on the coast of twilight,
walking in twos in that evening
where the evening is spread before them
like the fall of a women’s hair,

what can I say but that this woman
after the dusk has fallen, late,
somewhere not far from sea-routes, sailor,
where the choices pertain to voyage,
lets down her hair as dark as water;

that the man who accompanies her,
armed with a slicker against her sheer downpour,
soon, with the night and tide propitious,
sails out on what, not far from here,
the woman has let down like water;

that the hands of the crew, no matter
how astonishing that insight
into the reach of their commitment,
in the long darkness founder, crumble,
finger by finger leak with dust.

From the balustrade we view them
moving together into contexts
of which we have nothing but outlines:
fleets in the bay riding at anchor,
tenders plying their final runs,

the first stars tangled in the rigging,
belowdeck crews taking their suppers;
that entering on darkness, darkness
the absence, voyager, of shadows,
that letting down, somewhere, of hair.

- Herbert Morris

Illness and Literature

In those cold rooms with the blue plastic chairs, sometimes the human condition is an old Texas redneck with a brushy mustache reading a Louis L’Amour novel while waiting for his chemotherapy; this tough old man who ran an auto-parts store for years, then bought a whole chain of auto-parts stores, who sits now furiously reading about fistfights and saloons, as the cattle drive heads up into Wyoming to the summer pasture in the big sky country. The schoolmarm buys two yards of calico in the general store and the drunken sheriff gathers his nerve for the public gunfight in the dusty street, while the cancer keeps plowing, plowing, plowing on a small piece of land just west of town; while the owner of the valley, and of the whole darn territory, is this leathery old Texan in the blue plastic chair who shifts from his left buttock to his right, tugs at his mustache, and turns the page. He has a long way to go — he’s got to get to Abilene before they hang the wrong man. Now, hearing his name called from the clinic door, he stands and walks into the hot dry wind, his spurs ringing on the polished floor. - Tony Hoagland ( - 10/23/2018) / originally published in The Sun

Send Me a Leaf

Send me a leaf, but from a little tree
That grows no nearer your house
Than half an hour away. For then
You will have to walk, you will get strong and I
Shall thank you for the pretty leaf.

- by Bertolt Brecht (trans. by David Constantine)