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Other notable works by Jeff Friedman and Christopher Locke.
After the Hurricane
After the hurricane, the pink
dawn trembles like plate glass, and lawns
gloat in terminal shades of green.
Today driving south to Boston
I expect to find the rivers brown
and bulging, tubular in their beds,
and tree limbs husked and broken,
severed and sectioned by the curbs.
Nothing personal in hurricanes,
though this one, Bob, looked familiar
on the weather map, schematic whorl
fixed and dispassionate, sure
of itself. Now the metallic sky,
bruised and reluctant, tempers
that hot pink to a paler shade,
bluish-puce. But the ignorance
of nature confirms Baudelaire’s
religious disdain for it. The facts
come and go, the leaves on the lawn
naked and uninscribed, the crickets
that rasped all night mechanical
and graphed like computer chips.
The hurricane now fading
over Quebec left a legacy
of hieroglyphs–downed power lines,
smashed windows, toppled chimneys–
each a function of rhetoric
derived from nature directly:
losses incurred for the sake
of naming, which begins with pink,
blue, and puce, and ends with brown,
and drowning, and stones underfoot.
Struck by Lightning
Struck by lightning as he knelt
on his mother’s grave he died
gladly, every pore opened
to the negation of his mourning.
Every week he’d trimmed and fertilized
the grass. Mother expected this,
or maybe he thought to win her back
from the underworld–untalented
Orpheus reduced to flattery,
a busted lyre tossed aside
in favor of a power mower.
Beyond the Shannon Rosehill
Memorial Park the Texas plains,
spoilt here and there by skyscrapers,
seamed perfectly with the horizon,
bound heaven and earth in two
dimensions, cubist perspective
fatal to religious ambition.
Out of this bland conjunction
a storm crept like an infection
and nailed the man as he felt
his mother claw at his tired
old clothes, his Sunday best no longer
suitable for major events
except for his own funeral–
the one he’d so well imagined
the scent of the flowers filled
him even as his heart froze
and his brain gladly petrified.
His dead eyes fixed the texture
of lawn, but sentimental organs
had already plumbed the wound
and embraced Mother in privacy
not even attending physicians
could violate. His grimace
lingered until the casket closed.
Then he sighed in the Oedipal dark
and spoke the unutterable name
he remembered Mother bestowing
the moment the earth was born.
A Rain of Pianos
When the Red Army entered Danzig
in January ’45
it paused for two days to drink,
rape, and destroy. Most exciting
was lugging pianos upstairs
to fourth floor windows and shoving them
to explode in jangles below.
Twenty years later in Gdansk,
a rational gray entity
rebuilt to bureaucratic standards,
I tried to picture pianos
toppling from window after window,
a rain of shattering wood and strings
cacophonous as the government.
In a chess-playing café
I joked about falling pianos,
being a spoiled American
who’d dozed through most of history;
but bearded students who hated
the Russians for demolishing
so much Polish culture hushed me.
A decade later the rain
of pianos resumed of its own
accord, or discord. The strikes spread
from the shipyard south to Warsaw
where intact pianos stood
poised in fourth-floor windows,
prepared to sacrifice themselves
in orgasms of wire and splinters.
In nursing homes, old Red Army
veterans chuckled and recalled
the crash of pianos in the street
when Nazi and Communist alike,
confounding art and performance,
seemed almost too playful to kill.
Red Curtis, whose straight hair curled
forever in the Second World War
on an island in the Carolines,
died years ago of heart disease
yet still teaches Sunday School
behind a ramshackle storefront
demolished when a convenience store
wanted to build on the lot. Red’s
presence seems permanent, his lectures
on character only slightly soiled
by brief but longing glances
at the breasts of pubescent girls
whose regard for his fatherly words
will linger the length of Paradise.
The dusty back room whispers
in dimensions left untouched
by reconstruction. The spire
of the Methodist Church still pierces
the egos of disbelievers,
who can’t recite the Apostle’s Creed
without laughing aloud. Red Curtis,
scoutmaster and Sunday School teacher,
still holds the attention of girls
so young their faces lack all
expression, and boys impressed
that so solid a man can speak
of God without blushing pink.
No one questions the awkward fact
of Red still preaching every Sunday
in a lost dimension after death.
His crowd of students, here and now,
regard him with awe reserved
for the present tense; the minister
applauds his dedication;
and the elders who remember him
in life consider his commitment
to the mission of the church so rare
and lovely no one asks if Satan
has empowered him, if the bosoms
of the young girls aren’t growing too fast,
if the boys haven’t learned to leer
too crudely, their straight hair curling
like some devious form of speech.
Earthquake has savaged the valley,
exposing massive seams of coal
that now occlude the passes.
The river runs black and shiny
and the air, wispy with coal-dust,
wheezes in our bronchial tubes
like high notes trapped in organ pipes.
I’m sure we can still escape,
but the exposed cliffs of soft coal
intimidate with lines of cleavage
honed and serrated to kill.
Ancestral memory, evolved
through millennia, suggests a route
along the back roads through the hills
to a height from which the city,
distant in a haze of monoxide,
will loom like a glimpse of salvation.
I pilot our four-wheel-drive van
over talus of coal and raise
layers of dust so impossible
that even with the windows closed
we obscure our relative genders.
The ridgeline slices a yellow sky.
Behind us, a mile-long cliff
of bituminous crumbles. The hush
of its thunder feels like elegy.
We’ve topped the ridge and seen the city,
and descending, leave the valley
of bituminous where it belongs.
When we stop at a clear wooded stretch
of river to bathe, our naked
but enduring flesh emerges
from the water and claims the central
role in evolution, leaving
the ego gasping in the dust,
too primal for a clean-burning world.
William Doreski lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire. His most recent collection of poetry is Waiting for the Angel (2009). He has published three critical studies, including Robert Lowell’s Shifting Colors. His essays, poetry, and reviews have appeared in many journals, including Massachusetts Review, Notre Dame Review, The Alembic, New England Quarterly, Harvard Review, Modern Philology, Antioch Review, Natural Bridge.
A little torture—water boarding,
starvation, sleep deprivation, electric
cattle prods on naked bodies,
if it pleases, the simple punch in the face—
can get us 7 code names
and 7 code names can get us
49 terrorist plots and 49 terrorist plots
can get us 100 extraordinary renditions, and a little more torture
can get us 1,000 cells connecting
all 7,777 cities with crowded avenues,
and 1,000 cells can plant
10,000 IEDs, which can blow away
the limbs of 50, 000 civilians
and 50,000 civilians can cry for revenge
and give us the names of half a million
evildoers, and half a million evil doers
can lead us straight to the leaders,
hiding out in caves or small apartments,
and the leaders can give us the names
of all the passwords to secret accounts
and the secret accounts might lead
us to more leaders and then we can cut off
their supply of cash, and then a little more torture
can get us the names of five million more evil doers
and we can build a concrete prison
the size of a continent that will guard us
from the screams and cries,
and a continent of torture victims
can give us the names of all the dead
so we can dig them up
and find out what they know.
Happy to operate on his own,
the left hand wants a life of ease and prosperity,
though his knuckles whiten with tension
and often crack. Parrots arrive
at his fingertips. Black keys
snap back at him. With a sweaty palm
he loops his tie into a bulky double Windsor,
then discards the tie. He sells condos
floating on silt to alpacas
who can’t resist a good deal.
He sells feathers to old pigeons
at outrageous prices, but pulls strings
for family and friends.
He wrings the neck of a towel
until it bleeds blue. He shakes
and shakes—still a few drops left.
He grips a sea monster so hard
her arm breaks off. He pounds
the head of an angel like a nail
until the angel offers him a map
of the promised land and goes back
where he came from with a concussion.
But you can’t trick the left hand
because he knows all the tricks.
He holds on to twenty-dollar bills
with his teeth. He strikes a deal
with camels to deliver cargoes of salt.
He’s a realist though some claim he’s a cynic.
He carries a handkerchief for those
who will cry because of him.
He doesn’t believe in regret
and never writes a sympathy card.
He cups a small bird in his hand
and says, “To hell with the Bushes.”
He remembers his life on the Nile,
lifting huge stones into pyramids.
He remembers dinosaurs walking
over the savannah. He remembers
that he was once a pincer and then a claw
gripping clods of dirt.
At all costs he avoids his brother,
who holds the scepter of moral indignation,
who rises in anger and hate,
at a moment’s notice, ready to kill.
My Shammai curses when I stutter through my Haftorah.
“You call that Hebrew,” he says and walks to the back of the synagogue,
“Recite again.” My Shammai mocks me when I mispronounce “Leah.”
“You say it like the goyim.” He commands me to lie on the roof
and stare through the skylight. “What do you see?”
“Rabbi Fishman and Rabbi Nodel discussing Torah.”
“You see nothing,” he replies. My Shammai glowers
like a star, his death a flame for eternity.
He shakes in the wind, his hands trembling
with the disease he calls “fear of God.”
Dust clings to his hair. He buys me
a new shirt and tie. “Comb your hair,” he commands.
My Shammai is filled with truth like an éclair
bloated with custard. He prophesies
the fall of empires. He corrects me
as though I were a dog on a leash, but there is no treat.
My Shammai opens another carton of milk and blesses it.
My Shammai gives up a thousand lives as he paces behind my book.
He won’t ever say “yes.” “Because nothing is perfect.”
He believes the end is coming
and soon after, the void to end all voids.
My Shammai cracks three eggs on the bowl and scrambles the yolks
and curses Earth for all she has taken.
He praises truth because it is without hope.
My Shammai stares into the mirror like a lost patriarch,
flinches at his own wizened face.
He rails and rails, but I can only listen
and help him back to his chair.
Jeff Friedman’s fifth collection of poetry, Working in Flour, will be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in spring 2011. His poems and translations have appeared in many literary magazines, including American Poetry Review, Poetry, 5 AM, Margie, Agni Online, Poetry International, Prairie Schooner, Antioch Review, Ontario Review, The 2River View, and The New Republic. A contributing editor to Natural Bridge, he teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire. His book of translations, Two Gardens: Modern Hebrew Poems of the Bible, has been accepted for publication by Wolfson Press.
–for photojournalist James Nachtwey
In the crumbled village in South
Ossetia, you swing the lens
towards a family, see them huddled
around a body like small towers
of smoke. The dead boy was
a son, a husband, and his family
implores him, weeps him, calls out
his memory between bloodless
lips. The shutter opens and closes
as if trying to blink it all away, as helpless,
his mother beats her arms against the sky
like chrysanthemums beating against the sun.
I want to know why you haven’t
surrendered, why those combed
hives thrumming beneath your
breastbone replay their tidal
repetitions. You clear your throat
like sparrows voiding a chimney—
how to voice your fears to the lake
and sky this evening: no one available
to count the waves’ cold knockings
or catalogue every star’s numinous
demand. Yes, I’d like to understand
what light pulls you through these
angled hours, rising now, stupored,
a thin stitch of birdsong assembling
the day before dawn’s narcotic glow indicts
you with everything and permanence.
The condemned man knows
we are envious: the sanctity
he finds amongst the dripping
corners of his cell, his stone
floor leached of warmth. After
all, only he can admire the five
bars in his window glowing
with moonlight, the iron wet
and beaded like hard-worked
flanks. Only he knows how one
breath will cramp the night as
no one whispers a vendetta
of love—the bleak fuzz of quiet
more insistent than his gray blanket
and its permanent itch. Only he
understands the oscillation
of one heart turning, desperate
as a fish rising in the net, as a
noose unribboning beneath
the death chamber’s pale
Christopher Locke was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. A Contributing Editor for CommonLine Poetry Journal, his poems have appeared in such magazines as The Literary Review, The Southeast Review, Can We Have Our Ball Back?, Connecticut Review, Tuesday; an Art Project, Alimentum, West Branch, Exquisite Corpse, Atlanta Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Sun, Agenda, (U.K.), Descant, (Canada), The Stinging Fly, (Ireland), and twice on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. Chris has received several awards for his poetry, including a 2006 and 2007 Dorothy Sargent Memorial Poetry Prize, and grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New Hampshire Council on the Arts, and Fundacion Valparaiso (Spain). His three chapbooks of poetry are Possessed, (Main Street Rag, Editor’s Choice Award—2005), Slipping Under Diamond Light, (Clamp Down Press—2002), and How To Burn, (Adastra Press—1995). His first full length collection of poems, End of American Magic, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry (Ireland) in 2010. Chris lives in New Lebanon, NY with his wife and two daughters and teaches literature and writing at The Darrow School.