Zero degrees again. Midwest winters confuse loving with not leaving.
Yes we are made of drifts. Yes we are made of degrees on a map of discontent.
Breath of blood history, breath of aromatic bitters]
Example: I left my home full of salt and chrome and church manners. Moved away,
where I willed the memory of glaciers to silt me downriver again.
Dogwood, devil’s food, breath of divinity with almonds]
Vacant hills of snow: fugue season, no permits given.
Under each fallow mound I idle and thaw. GOODY’S BODY SHOP: PAINT REPAIRS PARTS
Folly, fork in the road, breath of sod]
They swim up in the sun, the sleepers, the root-fish,
sow rain into beds, they evaporate.
Hickory breath, hymnals, breath of leather, breath of sorghum]
Rivulet the dark with what do I remember: stop for an ache,
quarry-side: peer into its deep gunmetal eye: hello, loaded chamber.
Jam breath, cherries jubilee, gin breath of bathhouse row]
Pews lined end-to-end with legs like piano keys break into rafts
or into song. They glide and steam. PINE BLUFF ARSENAL EXIT 2 MILES CLOSED
Lotus breath, bobcat laugh, breath of lone oak]
No one told me not to: I yelled down backwaters that echo.
Mud face named, catfish alien, puppy-hushed. What did swim up.
Nickel, new roads, breath of soffit and tornado]
Lampshade sun: loaded barrel chest: mountains
knuckle the sky. The river cracked slate and chalk.
Phantom breath and pantomime, breath of empty frames]
Jesus of Billboards and Hearts’ Doors. KING BISCUIT TIME. My
itinerant bridge of blue mud and mosquitoes, interstate of homeless lights.
Ridgeback and breath of rice fields, breath of accents]
Hunger-nested, I swarm, I hive, in fault lines, in
golden meat, on the backs of wild boar, in the rough of diamonds.
Terrace breath, breath of taffy, tree swing breath of currents]
Ferry across the lake to the island with the cliffs. Let turkey vultures
eat the gift of my violence.
Velvet breath, breath of grease, breath of fire]
Darlin’, what’ll ya have? Fingers licked clean.
Can you pay for what you’ve taken? Not even close.
Xiphoid breath of bone tongue, breath of shoal]
By what shore my hands have emptied me. No pennies
and no receipts. At what tables I swam and fed.
Zodiac breath, zenith, breath of weather, teeth, and grammar]
The log that fell into the river went for a long swim into a hidden country where logs were the dominant culture and the trees wept as they saw their barky cousins floating home.
My wife loves trees
When a branch breaks on 72nd Street.
I don’t care whether trees come and go like soldiers in formation and lie down like one of the wounded in a futile war.
My wife likes plants too.
She puts an orchid on the windowsill.
I bought it for her for Mother’s Day.
She is not my mother.
I want her to be happy.
When we walk down Madison Avenue to the St. Regis Hotel for our Sunday tea sandwiches, I will pretend that I am a tree and hold her with my leafy hand like we are nature’s thrill.
Get David Lawrence’ Lane Changes at Four Way Books
On a stone wall, no one around I stole my mom’s mink stole
I stare the doe in the face self-reflection in a lap pool
March, my month, cold I want this to be the last awful
cake white on white of winter
my mother sends daffodils in an open courtyard
that are chives unblooming I wait for Jane Kenyon—
thunder over the meadow we hide how much we love
will you allow yourself this so as to appear merely happy
Old Style Russian, March 19, 1805 I am like a railroad tycoon
Lise dies, Prince Nikolay is born with a stack in my hands
How you felt in 6 PM sun— my hood
somewhere makes the view a circle
how remarkable the green isn’t lurid it’s just
if she and her dog were near mossy
would I ever, if not now, be ready for her visit
Reflex. Automatic. My son with that look when I slapped him.
Something in the genes, the violence of pathways reenacting:
biologies of caterwaul of bottle-fights of fists into the wall.
I saw Mother with her twin colossals jug-drunk dancing jigs. Her laugh,
big or bigger, her three sheets to the wind—My Father’s hands like blackened mitts.
I wanted none of it—that phonograph. The crankpin, that turntable
that played the groove over and over. I put the toys away. A ball,
a holstered gun. Things to tell me I was having fun.
Wasps keep circling
the shutters, long stalks
of grass dangling
from thin back legs,
and when they crawl between the slats
into the small dark,
they bring their greeny materials
There is nothing here
you can’t leave. Despite
all your kind diligence,
the actual time, the slow
and loving duration of our attentions,
there is nothing in this world
we can’t abandon.
We are human.
The movements of wasps
are terrible, hovering
jabbing through the air.
I watch them at their task—
how they build
and build again
Our bodies are urns full of rain,
spilling during the harvest. The elders
speak of clemency. The army marches on.
We watch them across the ocean,
speak their undead name in our sleep.
Some of the sisters still make mosques
in abandoned lots. They auction their gold
for Allah’s ninety-nine names, while
the neighborhood boys hawk the spires
for cocaine. In the hour of the blizzard,
the devout speak of owls rising from
fossil. When they bathe, they hear
children’s voices in the pipes, open their
mouths wide to catch that scalding
song. Their wombs are empty now.
They name the trees in the projects for
Hagar. Snow fills the minaret and they wait
to arrive, finally, shaking, to god.
Even in the most inhospitable circumstances there is always time for a cup of tea.
Say you live in a cup with a hole blasted in its side in a blasted landscape, by a blasted tree
and an empty barrel. You can still park your worn down shoes side by side
at the door and steep your questions in hot water. Since you are a man of letters
I imagine you have many. As steam brushes your cheeks you may read the leaves.
Take your time. The wind is aroused and the clouds are either massing or clearing.
You have lost everything but not what makes you human. I don’t mean your coat and tie.
The forebears have gathered. The clocks have split open. Clock hands lie on the ground
like bent utensils. The forebears emerged through the rock. They are ruins. Dissevered.
Parallel faces frozen in profile. The forebears are listening. And there you stand
(I almost missed you), memory’s king, an ant among giants, hands tucked in your
pockets, downcast, with a stone for a shadow, waiting for whispers, husbanding
wisdom, at home at last in an old stone Eden. Whose face does the rock face bear
and repeat, each and every — your face, God face, Jew face, membranous blessing.
What do you know
of the former
He lives in another
city or speaks
in the guise
of an owl, he appears
in the guise of a scrawl.
In a series of paintings—
your two selves
and played by
a bunch of characters.
You are close and you
are friends and you recede
endlessly from one
It means you,
singular, string beads.
You make a lot
of bracelets. They grow
up your arm,
static of the
(plural) used to make
creeps across the lines in my palm. He erects a house
with a tree in the front yard and a dog running the length
of the lawn. Yesterday he fashioned a weapon
from sharpened sticks and twine to protect what he owns,
though I hold no one else and there’s no room for expansion.
Once I thought an itchy palm foretold a windfall
but now it’s him mowing the lawn or taking the dog for a walk.
Sometimes I whisper secrets and he thinks it’s the wind
and zips his jacket, tucks his head down. Friends ask to see
my hand and wonder at the world I’ve created, but it’s really
what someone else created when I relinquished control.
IN THE PLACE OF BEST INTENTIONS
As this is not the land of ice packs
and regenerations, of spent glue guns
or antiseptic counters—since shy
reminders filter through the streets all night
(mountain streams that city fountains sip)
absconding with old disappointments—
because the powerlines are wet with flames
that spill their music into shallow halls
devoid of short-term motives, I am lost
and cannot say what may have led me here
to watch the girls unwrapping fiberboard
from miles of burlap while the waitresses
tattoo their angry daisies on my arms.
What is this place that leaves me so unmoved?
A hat I’d never worn or wanted worn
is now my prized possession; tissues packed
into abandoned zipper pockets breed—
I had forgotten that the small glass cups
were hidden in my socks and that my hands
were laced with fine red scratches
long before the advent of arrival. Now I feel
the heat of my illusion dim to tremble,
a dull intrusion into some romantic
basement of unknowable books. And so
forgive me if the water left for tea
is steeped in silt and valentines; forgive
the unexpected token undisclosed.
Last night I thought I wanted tragedy,
a chance to wick away the morning’s
donut, bagel, muffin, scorn. But to span
the gap from night to night, from night
to some hello, is more than I can yet
achieve: a phone that rings without response
and without end or empathy.
Belief is a raft tossed out on a thirsty plain.
Were I that lonesome, I’d never have left.
ON THE MARGINS OF THE PORTABLE COUNTRY
The making of ideology, of how stories learn,
ends in bone. Thus, facts without lives are trouble.
Even squall, the art of, must learn to scramble hours
as the scribblers do; and so some argument electric
in its innocence arrives to silver fictions
out of mauve and maudlin discipline.
All worthy hearts embark. But who returns
from such a journey—who could tent beneath
that zoo and cairn with time’s fool law
and still press on unscathed? (The lathe, the nick,
the cutting tree remembering the cutting.)
On the margins of the portable country,
a stranger compendium lands its craft
of pleasure and scorn, a balloon
in love with a wood, a turtle fallen
from the subjunctive into the academy.
I’ve started marking up a manual of dangers.
You have not all been selected.
IN THE WAKE OF AVOIDABLE TRAGEDY
What little remains is clear: it is over.
The first and the last having gone
and returned, come and returned,
we have learned to welcome those
who make the place feel welcoming.
A guitar in the corner hoards the light,
says: you, in a collapsing world,
your eyes such sharp, undarkened things.
From Without Compass (c) 2014 by Benjamin Miller.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
“In the Wake of Avoidable Tragedy” was first published in The Greensboro Review.
No turning back. Deep in the Utah desert now, having left one home
to return to the temple of my grandfather. I press the pedal
hard. Long behind me, civilization’s last sign—a bent post
and a wooden board: No food or gas for 200 miles. The tank
needling below half-full, I smoke Camels to soothe
my worry. Is this where it happened? What’s left out there of Topaz
in the simmering heat? On quartzed asphalt I rush
past salt beds, squint at the horizon for the desert’s edge: a lone
tower, a flattened barrack, some sign of Topaz—the camp
where my mother, her family, were imprisoned. As I speed
by shrub cactus, the thought of it feels too near,
too close. The engine steams. The radiator
hisses. Gusts gather, wind pushes my Civic side
to side, and I grip the steering wheel, strain to see
through a windshield smeared with yellow jacket wings, blood
of mosquitoes. If I can find it, how much can
I really know? Were sandstorms soft as dreams or stinging
like nettles? Who held my mother when the wind whipped
beige handfuls at her baby cheeks? Was the sand tinged
with beige or orange from oxidized mesas? I don’t remember
my mother’s answer to everything. High on coffee
and nicotine, I half-dream in waves of heat: summon ghosts
from the canyon beyond thin lines of barbed wire. Our name
Ishida. Ishi means stone, da the field. We were gemstones
strewn in the wasteland. Only three days
and one thousand miles to go before I reach
San Francisco, the church where my mother was born
and torn away. Maybe Topaz in the desert was long
gone, but it lingered in letters, photos, fragments
of stories. My mother’s room now mine, the bed pulled blank
with ironed sheets, a desk set with pen and paper. Here
I would come to understand.
TEMPLE BELL LESSON
Son, I am weighted.
You are light.
Our ancestors imprisoned,
in sand, swinging
between scorching air
and the insult
Their skin bronzed
to their sorrow
Any noise alerts me. My wife Grace shifts beneath our comforter.
Respecting my uncles long dead, I climb from bed, grab
the bat, climb stairs, walk halls with a thousand sutras shelved
high, my grandparents’ moonlit ink floating on pages sheer
as veils, the word Love rescued from censors. In the nursery
I check window-locks, sense my son Brendan falling in and out
of seizures and sleep. Backed by the altar, its purple chrysanthemum
curtains, gold-leafed lily pads, corroded rice paper, I crouch
then stand at the window to watch silhouettes fleeing
past streetlamps, the gate unmoored from its deadbolt, unhinged
from ill-fitted screws and rusted nails. The front door cottoned
with fog shakes in night wind. Backyard bushes rustle. For now
I let the mendicants crack open our prickly crowns of aloe, soothe
their faces with gel, drop bottle-shards and cigarette butts that slash
and burn our stairs. Inside, we fit apart and together.
Grace and Brendan sleeping, me standing guard.
From my grandfather’s scrolls moths fly out, and I grab at air
to repel the strangeness of other lives circling toward us.
From Topaz (c) 2013 by Brian Komei Dempster.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
An earlier version of “Gatekeeper” was first published in Parthenon West Review.
Topaz, Brian Komei Dempster’s debut poetry collection, examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. This volume delves into the lasting intergenerational impact of imprisonment and breaks a cultural legacy of silence. Through the fractured lenses of past and present, personal and collective, the speaker seeks to piece together the facets of his own identity and to shed light on a buried history.
i watch him touch him self over a screen
and pretend it is with my hands
how you pull a quiver from an arrow.
he moans and i grow jealous of the satellites.
their capacity for translation, to code his sound
in numbers unbraiding in my speakers
lucky metal audience of cables.
i know the wireless signal is all around me,
that i’m drowning in his unrendered noise.
how from a thousand miles away i can dam
myself with the light spilling from his hands.
what magic is this? distance collapsed
into the length of a human breath. what witchcraft?
six years ago a bridge between us collapsed
the interstate ate thirteen people alive
asphalt spilling like amputated hands
into the dark below. what is love but a river
that exists to eat all your excess concrete
appendages? what is a voice but how it lands
wet in the body? what is distance
but a place that can be reshaped through language?
how i emulate and pull a keyboard from the ashes.
how i gave him a river and he became it’s king.
how any thing collapsed can be rebuilt.
take our two heaving torsos take them
how they fall like a bridge into the water
how they rise up alone from the sweat.
BILDUNGSROMAN (SAY: PYOO-BUR-TEE).
i never wanted to grow up to be anything horrible
as a man. my biggest fear was the hair they said
would burst from my chest, swamp trees
breathing as i ran. i prayed for a different kind
of puberty: skin transforming into floor boards,
muscle into cobwebs, growing pains sounding
like an attic groaning under the weight of old
photo albums. as a kid i knew that there was
a car burning above water before this life,
that i woke here to find fire scorched my
hair clean off until i shined like glass – my eyes,
two acetylene headlamps. in my family we have
a story for this. my brother holding me
in his hairless arms. says, dad it will be a monster
we should bury it.
god bless all policemen & their splintering night sticks splintering & lord
have mercy on their souls. god bless judges in their empty robes who send
young men off to prisons with a stain from their antiquated pens. god bless
all the king’s monsters & all the kings men. god bless the sentence
& its inevitable conclusion. god bless the predators, curators of small
sufferings. god bless the carpet that ate one hundred dollars of chris’s
cocaine. god bless cocaine & the colophon of severed hands it takes
to get to your nostrils. god bless petroleum & coffee beans & sugar cane
& rare earth minerals used to manufacture music boxes. god bless the gas
chamber & the gas that makes the shower head sing. god bless the closet
i trapped a terrified girl in with my two good hands. god bless the night
those good boys held my face to a brick wall & god bless those boys
& good god bless the strange heat that pressed back.
you cannot beg
with a mouth
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“Sam Sax’s poems are ravenous, intimate, and brutal. God is ‘a man with a dozen bleeding mouths’ and ‘a boy drags his dead dog across the night sky’ and ‘shadows sing.’ Tongued and loved, a butthole becomes a trumpet, a second mouth. His poems reject the given. His poems seek out new encounters between flesh and world, between language and memory. Bristling with stunning images and formally astute, his poems nurture and bruise.” ~ Eduardo Corral