Sunset Park

The Chinese truck driver
throws the rope
like a lasso, with a practiced flick,

over the load:
where it hovers an instant,
then arcs like a willow

into the waiting,
gloved hand
of his brother.

What does it matter
that, sitting in traffic,
I glanced out the window

and found them that way?
So lean and sleek-muscled
in their sweat-stiffened t-shirts:

offloading the pallets
just so they can load up
again in the morning,

and so on,
and so forth,
forever like that—

like Sisyphus
I might tell them
if I spoke Mandarin,

or had a Marlboro to offer,
or thought for a minute
they’d believe it

when I say that I know
how it feels
to break your own

back for a living.
Then again,
what’s the difference?

When every light
for a mile turns
green all at once,

no matter how much
I might like
to keep watching

the older one squint
and blow smoke
through his nose?

Something like sadness,
like joy, like a sudden
love for my life,

and for the body
in which I have lived it,
overtaking me all at once,

as a bus driver honks
and the setting
sun glints, so bright

off a windshield
I wince and look back
and it’s gone.

- Patrick Phillips

Will You?

When, at the end, the children wanted
to add glitter to their valentines, I said no.

I said nope, no, no glitter, and then,
when they started to fuss, I found myself

saying something my brother’s football coach
used to bark from the sidelines when one

of his players showed signs of being
human: oh come on now, suck it up.

That’s what I said to my children.
Suck what up? my daughter asked,

and, because she is so young, I told her
I didn’t know and never mind, and she took

that for an answer. My children are so young
when I turn off the radio as the news turns

to counting the dead or naming the act,
they aren’t even suspicious. My children

are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in. Their God is still

a real God, a whole God, a God made wholly
of actions. And I think they think I work

for that God. And I know they will someday soon
see everything and they will know about

everything and they will no longer take
never mind for an answer. The valentines

would’ve been better with glitter, and my son
hurt himself on an envelope, and then, much

later, when we were eating dinner, my daughter
realized she’d forgotten one of the three

Henrys in her class. How can there be three Henrys
in one class? I said, and she said, Because there are.

And so, before bed we took everything out
again—paper and pens and stamps and scissors—

and she sat at the table with her freshly washed hair
parted smartly down the middle and wrote

WILL YOU BE MINE, HENRY T.? and she did it
so carefully, I could hardly stand to watch.

- Carrie Fountain (Originally published on poets.org)

Three Sentences for a Dead Swan

1.
There they are now,
The wings,
And I heard them beginning to starve
Between two cold white shadows,
But I dreamed they would rise
Together,
My black Ohioan swan.


2.
Now one after another I let the black scales fall
From the beautiful black spine
Of this lonesome dragon that is born on the earth at last,
My black fire,
Ovoid of my darkness,
Machine-gunned and shattered hillsides of yellow trees
In the Autumn of my blood where the apples
Purse their wild lips and smirk knowingly
That my love is dead.


3.
Here, carry his splintered bones
Slowly, slowly
Back into the
Tar and chemical strangled tomb,
The strange water, the
Ohio river, that is no tomb to
Rise from the dead
From.

- James Wright, from Shall We Gather at the River

"Christ has sanctified the desert,

and in the desert I discovered it. The woods have all become young in the discipline of the spring: but it is the discipline of expectancy only. Which one cut more keenly? The February sunlight, or the air? There are no buds. Buds are not guessed at, or thought of, this early in Lent. But the wilderness shines with promise. The land is dressed in simplicity and strength. Everything foretells the coming of the holy spring. I had never before spoken so freely or so intimately with woods, hills, birds, water, and sky. On this great day, however, they understood their position and they remained mute in the presence of the Beloved. Only his light was obvious and eloquent. My brother and sister, the light and water. The stump and the stone. The tables of rock. The blue, naked sky. Tractor tracks, a little waterfall. And Mediterranean solitude. I thought of Italy after my Beloved had spoken and was gone.”

- Thomas Merton, from The Sign of Jonas

Mondrian Tissue Box

And I thought only characters in film alternated between
laughter and tears in the shower when it thundered.

When it was my turn to cry, I bent my head
and closed my eyes and the colors were a diaspora.

I spent a lot of time deciphering twigs from worms.
My horoscope says many Leos will die today. Another horoscope

says strut your stuff. That a whole generation
won’t know the sound of a rotary dial in their ear.

I swallow and think of who you last loved; bent over the way I am
I bend my head to take her into me. You will experience a Disintegration.

If there is anything to be known about obsession,
it is to say by staring, I could take her into me.

I’ve stared at someone’s name for that long,
the tears decrescendo, sunset shampooed and alive.

Mondrian doll faces in the grime of the window, Botticelli shoulders
mermaids and anime girls with pearl earrings.

It’s 10:36: I was born at this time. You will
laugh as the thunder comes. Your mind will wring you dry.

- Jessica Scicchitano (first published in Columbia Journal)

Terminal

My neck is sore from looking up at the bay of TVs above the airport bar,

live-action news of emergency crews around the 767

that overran the runway, crashed into the breaker stones outside.

I witnessed it from my gate, was the first to wander over here in a daze

where for two hours now I’ve sat with others,

shoulder-to-shoulder, another three rows standing to capacity.

Ambulance strobes look pink through the natural static of wintry mix.

Those kept out are forced to huddle around the windows

to watch the action in real-time. The strange elation

of witnessing disaster. I feel it pulsing through the air,

a shared intimacy, and yet how lonely it makes each of us,

none of whom are responsible for being where we are.

My neighbor orders us another round I wish I didn’t want,

could say no thanks I’ve had enough because I have,

but I accept it with a cheers. I hate the way I smile as I drink it.

We shared a plate of wings, almost like friends.

A man holding his smartphone checks his wristwatch for the time

beside departures in a column glowing red.

A correspondent in an anorak walks on screen,

squints against the weather, presses a finger to his ear

to better hear the questions of his colleague in the studio.

Conversations expand, grow louder to resist new info;

knowing nothing for sure feels like a special kind of freedom.

My neighbor asks why do the replays of the crash look so different than what I saw?

Starched white napkins orange with prints of sauce-stained mouths.

Spilled vodka sodas, plates of bones. My neighbor asks do you know what I mean?

I press a finger to my ear and ask could he repeat that?

A channel splits the livestream with crash footage

shot on phones from within the terminal,

then a recording of the crowd watching the crash.

How we jumped up from our seats. Held our hands to our mouths.

Reached for our devices. People hiss for quiet, searching for themselves

on screen. That I’m unable to see what my face was reacting to,

regardless of the fact that I had witnessed it,

makes the past seem incomplete.

Requests for silverware, closed captioning.

I say when I saw my brother’s mugshot on the news

I wasn’t convinced it was him. The nose was right. But the face

too fleshy. Spectral mists of de-icing spray drift into the frame.

He says I once saw a plane filled with Herefords headed for Japan

crash on takeoff up in Anchorage. Notoriously bad winds there.

Shattered trees and bloody steak.

I feel obligated to keep this up, repulsed by the reminder of obligations.

Deadlines, itineraries, itemized receipts.

I said that I read that “daiboufu” in Japanese means the wind

that knocks down horses. He says we’re talking cattle and besides I’ve heard that.

I know he hasn’t heard that.

Minor betrayals are happening everywhere.

Someone says just to smoke a cigarette you’ve got to go all the way out,

come all the way back.

The window crowd erupts in applause before news cameras

have even focused on the plane doors bursting open, yellow slides inflating.

By the time we cheer for the first passenger to jump

she’s already on the tarmac walking toward us.

- Will Brewer (Originally published in The Rumpus)

Getting a Second Opinion

I've just bought you a new winter coat
and we're temporarily sane, 
cruising two blocks down the street 
from K-Mart in Rapid City. 
Three young Indian boys, 
fourteen, maybe fifteen years 
old and living the thug life 
are strolling across the busy street 
making cars stop and I slam on 
the brakes and give them the finger 
and they flash gang signs and one pulls 
a small, silver gun and I stomp on the gas 
and in the rearview mirror I see them 
laughing and I know positively 
by the fear in your eyes that 
not only is the white man's God 
dead, but the Great Spirit is too.

— Adrian C. Louis

Summer Solstice, New York City

By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
life of his children's father, in case
the man was armed, and one, slung with a
rope like the sign of his bounden duty,
came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building
like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,
and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man's leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
hairy net with its implacable grid was
unfolded near the curb and spread out and
stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive a birth.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted next to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
everything stopped
as his body jerked and he
stepped down from the parapet and went toward them
and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when its found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.


- Sharon Olds

Into Each Room We Enter Without Knowing

1

A boy dyes his shirt the iridescent blue of sky

at dusk—or is it dawn? Rouged & glittered
he begins, smacking lips, licking gums

inside the club’s electronic hum.
         Older men,
displayed by the bar, slip off their tees—
leading the child
a labor of word, lyre, bark—
Ecstatic, he lurks into the back room, slipping
his tongue through the body’s shutters.
Floorboards unravel into a skein of metal.
What pattern of occasion will free him?


2

A prayer rug for a strict occasion.

A patch of sand, enclosed within a mesh fence,
where women in headscarves kneel on sajda,
hot from the day’s sun, a pleasure this agony
of warmth & muscle: knee to sand, head to sand.
A pleasure: restraint from lamb & water,
the empty carafe, the scales of fish

meatless & hanging to dry,
the grapes never to become wine.


3

Eating grapes, my friend harangues me
about the state of affairs in Riyadh.
His lips are wet, he is driving a Nissan rental.
At a streetlight, a single blackstart lands
on the side-view mirror: a lore of midnight
& melancholy song. “This Arab spring,”
my friend continues, my friend stops. . .

“Yes,” I say, thinking of the blackstart
somewhere in a baobab by now.

4

Somewhere, a mother faints at the butcher

when a lamb’s tongue is cut from the head—

the butcher pressing his fingers into

the eye sockets for leverage
                                    & the vague cool
of the air passing through the room awakes her
as when Mohammed awoke
in the night desert: no spruce to shade the dead
meat of him, no wind, not even stars—
& as the mother exits
a boy begins his journey to the city,

wearing yellow sandals & a ring on each finger.

- Charif Shanahan

Lateral Dimensions

Cloudy night—
not enough stars
to make frost

haunted house—
one room the cattle 
never would go in

mowing done—
each thing's a ship again 
on a wide green harbour

purification—
newspapers soaked in rain 
before they are read

an airliner, high—
life falling in from space 
to ramify

rodeo bull 
he wins every time 
then back on the truck

only one car 
of your amber necklace 
holds a once-living passenger

afternoon plains—
the only hill ahead 
is the rising moon

eels' 
liquid jostle through the grass 
that night of the year

big pelican, begging, 
hook through one yellow foot—
and nobody dares

on line 
the first motor car 
trotting without a horse

joking 
in a foreign language 
everyone looks down

accused of history 
many decide 
not to know any

all the colours 
of inside a pumpkin—
Mallee forest in rain 


- Les Murray

 

 

 

The World

I couldn't tell one song from another,
which bird said what or to whom or for what reason.

The oak tree seemed to be writing something using very few words.
I couldn't decide which door to open--they looked the same, or what

would happen when I did reach out and turn a knob. I thought I was safe,
standing there
but my death remembered its date:

only so many summer nights still stood before me, full moon, waning moon,
October mornings: what to make of them? which door?

I couldn't tell which stars were which or how far away any one of them was,
or which were still burning or not--their light moving through space like a
long

late train--and I've lived on this earth so long--50 winters, 50 springs and
summers,
and all this time stars in the sky--in daylight

when I couldn't see them, and at night when, most nights, I didn't look.

- Marie Howe, from The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

From "The Old Man"

“…One winter morning, at the crack of dawn, heading back to Michigan again, to see my father before he had a major heart procedure, I got on the train and sat back and, as we pushed out of Chicago, with Bellow in my lap, I recalled that in Humboldt’s Gift, another favorite of my father’s, there had been some mention of the afterlife, or of the dead. (Now, here, at my desk, with a copy of the book beside me, I locate the section, on page 141 of my edition, and in it Charlie Citrine, the central character and narrator, says that he cannot accept the “view of death taken by most of us, and taken by me during most of my life — on esthetic grounds therefore I am obliged to deny that so extraordinary a thing as a human soul can be wiped out forever. No, the dead are about us, shut out by our metaphysical denial of them. As we lie nightly in our hemispheres asleep by the billions, our dead approach us.”)

I now see that on the train, barely remembering this passage, just catching the gist of it, I was somehow retroactively aware that in getting up in the middle of the night and packing in the dark and heading downstairs in an Ambien stupor to catch the earliest train possible, I was, somehow, knowingly, joining the dead who haunted the nighttime places between sleep and waking. I didn’t know at the time but I was following in the tracks of Charlie Citrine’s logic, preparing myself somehow not only to travel to my father, who would die a few days later, but also for the state I would be in when he was gone. I was feeling it in the cab, sensing it in the sweep of streets — Chicago streets, against logic, rise and fall more than expected. Call it wishful thinking or sweet delusion or whatever you want, but I know now, here, writing this, that the sensation I had was of communion with the dead around me. On the train that morning, I was aware — without knowing it, admitting it fully — of the shadow-space, partly because, of course, on a train in that transitory state between one place and another, between Chicago and my hometown, Kalamazoo, I was suspended between a sense of the life behind me and my father ahead, something like that. It’s high time you admit, I say to myself now (and said on the train), that you have a full-blown belief in a certain communion with the dead, one that you feel, strongly, must be sustained, if not in argument then at least in the fiction you write. A man stands alone along a stream in upper Michigan casting his line in a curl behind him, feeling it, sensing the gorgeous loop, the play of gravity and air and swing and motion, and then lays the line down perfectly along the stream’s surface so that the fly, far out at the end of the leader, which is invisible, makes just the right splash — the same splash a mayfly would make — and he takes a split second to look away from his task and to sweep his eyes from one end of the scene to the other and feels himself to be utterly alone with nature itself, folded into the place and the moment, while also aware somehow that he is not at all alone but subsumed in his own essential eternity along with all those who came before him. In his own violation of the rules of physics, he exists and doesn’t exist, and that sensation allows him — I’m pushing here — a vital link with those who are gone, because he is gone, too, as far as reality is concerned, and no one can prove that he made such a beautiful cast because no one knows they have to prove it, and when he has left that spot, along the Au Sable River, he will purposely avoid making mention of the moment and will answer questions from his friends with vague pleasantness. That’s what I feel about that moment on the train; that I’d be much better off not even trying to articulate it, or would be better served to simply say I felt strange in the cab on the way to the train, and then on the train itself; whereas inside I’m saying, I had a communion with the dead and readied myself to have a different relation with my father, one that would be between a dead man and myself, retroactively, without knowing I was doing so.”

- David Means, from his nonfiction essay in Harper’s Magazine, full link here: https://harpers.org/archive/2016/06/the-old-man-2/

From "Sleeping Bear Lament"

The great roiling swells of sand driven upward by more sand, compiled against itself; the eternal days and nights of Lake Michigan currents and the constant pounding winds rolling grain upon grain; the fronts staggering listlessly across the lake from Wisconsin like drunken louts, picking up moisture over the great body of water and pounding the coast until from nothing grew something. What did the Ottawa Indians think, wandering this moonscape, praying to their beloved Sleeping Bear as he lay prone on the great expanse of otherness, huddled against the lake? All along this side of the state the beaches were being taken away by the currents; houses tumbled down in slow-mo on the news, tag teams of bright yellow bulldozers attempted to rearrange fate, and we smoked our cigarettes and drank a last beer and sat in a little alcove of razor grass and laughed at our fear, at the idea that we could worry that Rondo, all taut muscle and hockey arms, might be dead.

It was turning out to be a brisk, fall-like day. The front had swung through a giant line of anvilheads. Out of the firmament, the ceaseless drive of wind, Sam came to me once more: that day in his house alone in that room with the soft linty smell of furnace heat (What’cha wanna do? Don’t know); the event with the trumpet. And of course his death—his death most of all—taking the whole high school by surprise. His cocky fuck-yous dead and gone. by that time he was completely one of those fringe beings, absorbed by the vast riptides of misery we pretended didn’t exist…

- David Means (whole story here: https://bombmagazine.org/articles/sleeping-bear-lament/)

Hospital in Oregon

Shhh, my grandmother is sleeping.
They doped her up with morphine for her last hours.
Her eyes are black and vacant like a deer’s.
She says she hears my grandfather calling.

A deerfly enters through a tear in the screen,
Must’ve escaped from those there sickly Douglas firs.
Flits from ankle to elbow, then lands on her ear.
Together, they listen to the ancient valley.

- Marilyn Chin

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