She repeats, “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Somewhere upstate, a small town, she’s walking home from school; it’s October; it’s been a dry fall. Sidewalks are covered with gold leaves from sugar maples lining the streets. All the branches are bare now, intersecting, complicating the sky. She shuffles, listening, smelling the dusty crumbling of leaf. She likes the way it all fits – sound, song, picture, pleasure. Bare ruined choirs.
And even if it had been rainy she would have noticed the leaves – sodden, slippery. She’s caught already; it’s too late. I’m almost sorry for her, want to call out, don’t. She sits at her desk, opens a notebook near the back. At the top of a clean page she writes: “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” She looks out a window at empty branches. Her hand jerks the pen, thrusts over the paper. Too late.
Thoughts on the Horror Sonnet
Within the span of only fourteen lines,
Can poets call upon the depths of Horror?
Can that tight square of verse open the door
Or lead us through the tangle of those vines
That hide the dark unknown that undermines
The reason? That hold the Terrors of our lore?
Can such brief form summon our fears before
It ends? Or must it fail—since it confines?
Many have sought to capture in its span
The hidden words that turn the Secret Key,
That bring the Dark Beyond into stark view.
Horrific forces—alien to man—
That find our deepest fears and set them free
And move us as the best long stories do.
It’s about the terror of having nothing –
more to say, like a cigar-smoking uncle who arrives at the end of his monologue. But it’s not about that uncle whose father-hating son disappears at the age of eighteen to lift weights in Las Vegas and never returns, not even to the funeral. My uncle is buried near my mother, who just last night I forgot was dead. It took me a few minutes to let go of the guilt of not visiting. Although lately I’ve been feeling that she hangs out inside the dog’s mouth, a little ghost between its teeth. I hear her whispering her disapproval. So I avoid the dogs mouth. I won’t tell that to my therapist I don’t want him to think I’m like my brother, who believes “God Willing” he’ll get better. I hate that expression. If god has such a strong will then what’s the point sitting here while the hours consume themselves. Truth is I’m afraid to write, that once I write something down, I give it a shape perhaps even a voice and soon it will be demanding that I close the window on a hot summer night or equal access to the kids. I have a whole freak show of unfinished poems that are banging inside my head. I take a lot of aspirin, I exercise, I take a lot of aspirin. But sometimes they set off on a crusade, the headless, the faceless, the broken, as if I were a heathen keeping them from their god. Sometimes they’re at the window in the middle of the night, tapping fingers, fingers of the unborn and half born, clawing through the freeze.
–> Babo Kamel
I took the poem home,
Laid it out on the kitchen table,
Called in the wife. Nondescript it was,
Sent in by no one I had heard of,
A slithering eclipse of words
Pointing to a summary.
We let it stay the first night,
Drank nearly half a fifth
Of Irish whiskey with it.
In the morning either we,
Or the poem, were worse for wear.
I took it for a walk
All the way to the water’s edge,
Where good people pay high prices
For an unchanging view. And there
The damn thing bit me. You
Have to know, I kicked it in return.
But I did bring it back home again
And now it has an old towel
Just behind the dryer, wanders
The house when it thinks we do not know,
And can, without any cue, make a randomly
God awful, drearily selfish racket.
It has an affinity for the wife.
I reread it every now and then.
I am not sure why.
–> Ken Poyner
A slough of scratched-out pages
litters the room where someone
deeply unpublished has died.
Police asked me to identify
the half-written, self-rejected
novel he left dismembered.
A cry of peacocks shatters
the limpid and ill-lit scene.
The cops shudder and turn away.
Maybe the hurricane plodding
through the Caribbean frightened
this writer to self-immolate
in all this indecent manuscript.
Maybe disbelievers facing
a distraught moon unlimbered
volleys of rhetoric to blotch
the climactic scene when man
and woman wrestle naked fates
in shivers of pulleys and gears.
The peacocks decorate the dark
because someone’s authentic vision
planted them in the farmyard
of a broad-brimmed immigrant
from an unexplored geography.
The force of law doesn’t apply
to the rings of Saturn, the space
between mutually corrupting stars,
so the pages can’t be salvaged
although I can almost read through
the furious scrawl overlaid
by a badly weathered mind.
I wouldn’t want my own laundry
hung on a stranger’s clothesline
for the peacocks to satirize
and police to photograph
and then admit isn’t evidence
of a double negative: the crime
of wrongly convicting one’s self.
the origin of masquerades
is not only the extraction
of ritual mimēsis in Athens
where thespians hide faces
like a sin before God,
and take up other names.
the masks cover our shame.
is groupthink not an antithesis
for new madnesses in one body?
in old Oyo we embalm
the bloodline records
with oiled folktales
lilting on the priestess’ lips
& who pick up ghosts’ raiments:
knit the muses into one mosaic
like rainbow after the flood,
donned by poets
with the guts of Noah
it was not written-
but it was echoed
from the cave of mouth
how our fathers carved
histories out of their bones
for curious white hands.
they say the first men
came from Africa,
bones earthed in kaolin and myth
and bones are origins
of things not stained with names
in an open mic in Denver
a boy whispers to another
he’s tasted these lines in Milton’s,
said he looked through
my translucent bones,
&found Li Po stuck: a ceasura
clogging the blood vessel of papyrus
& that Rumi kohls around my eyes
when grief from foreign land infects me.
here i stitch the gods of my fathers
into my diction when a line breaks,
each time the mask cracks
Apprentice to the mason, I
quarried, cut, carried
sheets of shale, the marble faces
the dead; I held the stone upright,
chastened the chisel,
relieved the rock with the poet’s
words. What was wondrous:
those few hours at death’s bedside
as poet painted
each man’s dreary life as gods’ dreams.
Few filled with fever-
hate were disappointed by lines
of curses carved deep
by my instruments. Empty graves
the saddest, “Savor
now the memory of your home
for me, first mate, far
from my own and under the waves.”
Master myself, I
decided I had done double
service, sold myself
as poem-writer, grave-maker
in one, went away
to my first deathbed, pen in hand,
dragging the granite.
I scribbled history, curses,
all earthly remains
until nothing remained, no breath
but women weeping,
waiting for me to word-weave man:
road, ground, realm of rest.
How to capture the full lifetime
of loved and lovely
wife, schooled sons and daughters, singing
past praises, patient
while my fingers fumbled? Failing,
I took the time-worn
phrase which brought my master much fame
and scooped stone slivers
free, my tears resting in the rilles
where the chisel stopped.
The Muse and the Revenant Verse
You know the one
about the muse
and the revenant verse
that drags itself from
the bone yard at 3 AM?
You know the one
with the undead
stanza? You remember
how it was, the writing?
That writing was bitter as lye.
But you nevermind, honey,
you just let the acid
corn syrup run on. Just let it
run on where it wants.
traces of you
in the basement tightly sealed your bagged clothes
hidden pried open your musty scent huffed
these are but remnants to summon the dead
with the last of this ink I would jot you
entrap your lines
recreations pinned and flat from memory
fingers tensed cramped from cataloguing you
penned this keening
—> Amy Baskin
Can you join me at this table?
Are you in here?
If you’re with me, please speak.
Can you tell me things I need to know?
Why? Do you think that’s selfish?
Don’t you love me?
This feels creepy and insane.
What should I do with all the thoughts I think?
I can’t believe I’m talking to a ghost.
What’s that supposed to mean?
I don’t understand.
How do I really know it’s you?
—> Amy Baskin
We searched the whole world
but found no remaining life.
They must have gone extinct
just before our arrival: linens
still dangled on clotheslines;
coffeepots and reactors were
still hot. Besides household
furniture and appliances, and
the small, collapsing mounds
of ashes, the only trace was
the short array of symbols
on every available surface—
recently painted with blood
and sgraffitoed with shards
of bone. No context was left
for interpretation, and every
document had been burned.
Maybe those unknown motifs
were meant as a challenge, like
a fossil impossibly imprinted
in igneous rock. Perhaps only
—> F.J. Bergmann
“Absence” first appeared in Abyss & Apex (January 2016)