John Grey-


Someone digs up a bone
and I guarantee it’s not the guy or gal
who lost it.
A farmer usually, plowing a field,
but he hands it off to the cops
who determine it’s nine hundred years old,
a time beyond their jurisdiction.
So the bone ends up with the scientist
who is never more excited
than when he can grasp bygone days
so close, so revealing.
Beats poring through books any day.

That’s typical of the past.
it passes through many hands.
Stranger takes a picture of a great-grandmother,
second cousin POPS it in an album,
aunt scribbles something on the back of it,
I hold it thinking, wow,
she’s got my sister’s eyes.
All that time ago, home at last.

The bone won’t die.
Anthropologist figures it
for an Algonquin girl,
maybe twelve, thirteen years old,
violent death too,
judging by the scrapings.
I reckon great-grandmother
for a pleasant type, slightly flirtatious,
no interest in arts or sports
but with a certain flair for ballroom dancing.
I piece together even when it’s not my job.
It’s the half-smile on a fading sepia print.
It’s the bone in me.



There must be car wounds up there
by the truckload, he said

and who’d have thought that every time
you spray your armpit
it’s like whacking the upper atmosphere
with a machete

and sure I cut down a tree,
I leveled some brush,
shaved a lawn or two,
made the world prime
for that invasion of the greenhouse gases

I even burned dead leaves in my back yard
and scarred the face of God

he remembers from his youth
how calloused hands masturbating
killed at least a zillion unborn babes

and unwashed bathroom hands
spread typhoid through the land

he figured that the older he got
the less he could move one person
but the more he had unwitting effect on many

isn’t there something I can do
that harms only me,
he asked me once

it never occurred to him
that he could somehow
help a situation

even to consider that,
he’d have to light a cigarette

breathe a little easier
but show up later
raw and blackened in a stranger’s lungs



So this is what a death cell must be like,
cramped and unbearably familiar.
It’s the same dimensions
as you imagine your brain to be,
just enough space to stumble around in
and cluttered to the rafters, with memories
like dead things sloppily nailed to walls.
There should be labor-saving devices now broken,
some clothes, books, yellowing like leaves,
a rotary phone, note-pad beside it
and a pen that barely writes,
and all the stuff that people gave you,
as chipped, as cracked, as worthless as the giving.
If they sentenced you to death row,
it would work exactly like this:
you sorting through the shoes, the Christmas
decorations, the photographs with
their threatening old faces,
forgotten fashions hanging clear of one another
in the closet for fear of contagion.
It would be a death cell devoid of last meals,
of last rites, of executions,
a death cell where living is what kills you.


John Grey is an Australian born poet, US resident since late seventies. Works as financial systems analyst. Recently published in Slant, Briar Cliff Review and Albatross with work upcoming in Poetry East, Cape Rock and REAL.