g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
THIS POEM ENDS WITH AN EPIPHANY
When Joe grabbed my Margaret Atwood book and started
waving it around, it was too much for me. So I drop kicked him,
which is why Joe and Nate Pilsbury followed me all the way home
after eighth grade, circling me on their bikes, brandishing miniature
Red Sox bats, hawking big green loogies that went splat, splat, splat
at my feet. I could take you to the corner of Garden and Linnean,
show you where the stains should be, the first between a line of black
ants and a few fallen yew berries, the second five and a half inches
from a stop sign, and the last two feet from the fire hydrant
where Fernald Drive opened like a trap. When they ditched
their bikes I stopped walking, tried to kick Joe in the windpipe
and missed. He said: oh yeah, bring that karate shit you slant-eyed
motherfucker. It was then that I came to the realization that I
would never become President of the United States of America.
PLAY IT AGAIN
Beginning at the beginning is easy
enough if you know. See to begin
a story you need already
to have a story, which is why
in the beginning of beginnings
Homer begins in the middle
the story already like a horse
or an apple or a city or an egg
and so the story begins
inexorable as cell division
or gravity. By moonlight
the story's soldiers creep out,
light their torches, begin ending.
There's no swan in my ancestry.
My cities have no walls. So set
me down on Seventh Avenue.
I’ll end up lost in Islip. Drop
me on the Red Line and I end
staggering around in JP floating
in whiskey, bemoaning the absence
of masonry, the lack of definition:
I don’t know my own story.
A plucky hero, a happy ending,
a kiss? Or the camera behind
me, the hallways dimly lit? I'm
always waking up in some city
where I'm lost. And if I'm begin
ning to tell a story I can’t help
it: begin is being with a twist,
beginning is being with a stutter /
a break / a boundary / a repetition:
I am, I am I, and I am always
walking in circles. This story is
twisting onto itself. I'm always
coming back to strangeness. But
begin, is what I'm saying. Begin
where you're lost. Begin: the sum
of the vectors of the water molecules
in your coffee. Yes, you, too. Begin:
the wind always blowing the wrong
way for lighting cigarettes. Begin
with the wine bottle that slipped
the first time you put your arm
around her. Begin with her red
jacket she gave herself for Christmas.
Begin where movies end. Begin
it with a kiss. Begin it with this.
“A CHRONICLE OF EARLY FAILURE”
we’d spent the whole night
trying to get laid at axis? avalon?.
me in my grey plaid quiksilver shirt
& friend jared in birkenstocks and cargo shorts.
clumsy no-step dance in circle
temporary alliance of summer friends.
each of us trying to look like we weren’t
looking at everyone else to look like we knew
how to dance to oonce.oonce. oonce.oonce.
send me an angel,
send me an
aaaangel, right now.
& none of us able to buy a drink.
& oh tall slim girl (ten years early, it could
have been you) sitting lonely on a subwoofer
lovely as a clove cigarette.
you wanna dance, i said, (shouted).
watched her lips.open, wet.read:
no . what, i shouted.
no!. oh, i said, and so on and so.
no wonder, no wonder.we were full
of blunder. landsdowne street stretched before us
full of glitter and vomit.cigarette smoke
and voices rising in miscellaneous profane
hymn.and all desiring bodies, syncopated,
moved away in that vast dance we thought
we could have joined if only we could have
memorized it like the phases of the moon
or the periodic table or the first fifteen lines
of the canterbury tales.while all around
night’s swatch of black velour
rippled, out of reach like everything else.
i could have ripped through it, knew knife-
fight in my eyes.but now we found ourselves
marching over the longfellow bridge
yowling cherry poppin’ daddies songs
& tossing embers into the charles, fervent
in belief that here at last was the promised
adventure, & here the sweet black
toffee heart of dark. all around us the air
filled with flawed mirrors: the wings
of mayflies, the scales of moths, drone
of cars and water, & the prudential center
engorged with flickering light
which skipped, shimmered echoing, across
the water, to brush our eyes, to fall.
Zanesville animal massacre included 18 rare Bengal tigers
Owner of wild animal preserve freed animals, killed himself
(ABC News, October 20, 2011)
[...] the tigers went up. Bullets turned them into birds.
(Chris Jones. “Animals.” Esquire, March 2012)
Says right here in the Bible,
see. Isaiah thirty eight thirteen:
I waited patiently till dawn
but like a lion he broke all
my bones. That’s how God
come to old Isaiah. Wearing
the skin of a great cat. I been
studying on that. What’s a man
to do of a twilit hour, the gold
God-beast come a-stalking you,
rough grace of Him rippling
on His flank like river water,
His great maw open like red
revelation, to bless and devour?
It’s both, understand? I thought
it was only the devil roaring
as a lion in the night, seeking
whom he may devour. Well, I
knows better now, don’t I. Was
the tigers teached me. Tigers,
and Terry. Who uncaged his god.
Waited till he saw it coming
for him at last, heavy, grinning,
white like a ghost. I can fair see
it now, smell the tiger reek thick
as woodsmoke. And the man
kneeling with a gun in his mouth
waiting for God to scent his blood.
When the call come to me
I was parked by the Y bridge.
My coffee was still hot. Burnt
my tongue trying to drink it
too fast. Should’ve known better
after forty year, but the town’s
quiet of a Tuesday evening.
Makes a body absent. Ain’t
much to do usually but just
set around, wait for some kid
driving his daddy’s truck too
hard and too drunk in the dark
and rain, like to bust through
railings straight down, scream
into Muskingum river clay. So
I slap a ticket on him. Hoove
him off to stir, he gives me shit.
But most nights not even that.
Gets so you take to watching
the river more than the road,
the waves sort of churning up
and holding, like wrinkles left
on the bed after you’ve tossed
and turned of a lonesome God-lost
night. When you watch a river
for forty year, you get to know
them waves. Quilt and weave
of them, how they change, slip
still stay the same, the way
who you are stays the same,
how a man can’t change, not
deep down in his clay. Only
death can change us. The sun
can set. The stars can come out,
and turn and turn and each wave
catch another star and snatch
it down river, till morning come
you’re fair dizzy with spin-light―
but then it all starts over again.
Life. And I'm still me, a sinner.
Daddy shot by a junkie, wife gone,
whole life just disappeart, swept
away like the stars in morning
water, those red hours after rain
when the Muskie looks the way
the Nile must have looked after
the first plague. Been dreaming
about that lately, see. River turned
to blood. All the fish dead: big
and small, spinners and chub,
gar, crappies and bluegill, bass
and sauger, shad and flatheads.
All of them floating. The colors
fading, black speckles and gold
going, going, like at an auction
when the hammer falls, sold!
to death or devil. Seems like
nothing is saved in this world.
Naught but blood that passes
into other blood and stronger
meat. Weren't it Abel's blood
that called to God from the dirt?
Weren't it Cain let it fall, unsaved?
And that were murder. He didn't
keep his brother's blood. Us
neither. Spilt it in clay. Played
deaf to its call. When Terry pulled
that trigger, he weren't aiming
to die. He meant resurrection.
His bones to rise in tiger flesh,
to be joined with blood of leopard,
goat and fatted calf in choirs
of rend and leap and roar.
You want to tell the world
what it was like to kill a tiger,
don't you go give them no
schoolhouse crap. A tiger
in the bushes don't nohow
burn. We hushed that choir
with bullets. We stripped them
bare, saw pearly gates of ribs
smashed with lead. Everything gold
was red. We killed gods like they
was men. We killed them dead.
Frankenstein and his wife and his monster
are eating dinner. Dinner is chicken,
mostly. The monster’s stitches itch
with salt and lemon juice. His left hand
twitches. It's brand new. 's got that new
hand smell. (Also, thyme.) A murderer’s hand.
“I’m dying. It’s your fault. You’re a monster,”
Frankenstein says. He takes a bite of mostly-
chicken, makes a face. Roots in his mouth.
Pulls out a frog leg, spits. Blood in the spit:
tiny droplets come to rest gentle and red
on the tablecloth. “You call this food?”
Frankenstein’s wife pops a fish eye
against her tongue. “Don’t be silly, dear.
It’s our fault, really. We spoiled him rotten.
Now he’s septic. Heart’s a crocodile heart.
Worms tunnel his brain. His tear ducts're expired.”
She starts weeping into her tea. The tea
darkens. Grease rainbows eddy on top.
Soon her cup is full. She dries her eyes,
composes herself, takes a sip. “Carcinogen,”
she says. “Library of buboes. Cobra spit.”
The monster stares at his hands. Left? Right?
“Shouldn’t have picked that brain,” Frankenstein
says. “I told you,” his wife says. “Shut your hole,”
Frankenstein says. The monster curls his fingers.
Into a—skull? No, Spider orchid, maybe. “I’d cancel
that lightning in a heartbeat,” Frankenstein says.
He picks a carrot off a gizzard with his fork.
Something rustles inside the chicken, chirps
like a wren. “How was I to know he’d turn out
like this? All I ever wanted was to make a man.”
Sam Cha recently completed his MFA in poetry at UMass Boston, where he was the 2011 and 2012 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize. His work (poems, essays, fiction, translations) can be found at anderbo, Amethyst Arsenic, ASIA, banipal, decomP, Memorious, Paper Scissors, Printer’s Devil Review, and Radius. Also, in two anthologies: Knocking at the Door: Poems About Approaching the Other,and The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing. He's working on a book length bibliography/novel/epic/essay about (among other things) ammonites, Heinrich von Kleist, New Jersey, and dreams. He lives and writes in Cambridge, MA.