WEDNESDAY IN A FACTORY TOWN Sunlight succumbs to weather and chimney, fat gray clouds, much billowing of smoke. In a town of factories, faces stare, solemn and blackened like stove flues, through windows, as red eyes make tunnels in the gloom. Rivers wait like standing water for more dust and grime to fuel their current. Shoppers cough their way from store to store. Kids grub up without even trying. No sky as once was promised. Not even the church, chiming three o’clock, can get back God’s attention. ** EMMA, A MONTH BEYOND THE DEATH OF HER FATHER She can’t swerve to avoid the dead possum on the road without crashing through huddled sobbing mourners and braking just in time so she doesn’t topple down into the freshly dug hole, and smash headlong into her father’s coffin lid. In her mind, one death is all deaths. A man who withered away in his bed for two painful years is the bloodied mirror image of a slow, dimwitted creature crossing a road in front of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler. A splattered animal and a cancer-riddled man converge. A stretch of asphalt is a plot of sodden earth. And what’s a desperate yaw but a bent head, a stillness, a priest’s dull monotone, dark suits, even darker dresses, and two dozen faces, red where they’re not pale. She breathes deep enough for a dozen people as she rights the car, continues the journey. She slows down as she passes through a town, sees ordinary folks working in their gardens, sweeping the sidewalk outside stores, strolling through a small park, or, backs against a convenient fence, just hanging out. But, right before the “You are now leaving…” sign, she goes by a cemetery, a hundred or more crosses rising from a grassy hill. If the dead keep this up, then there’ll be no living. ** A HOMELESS MAN CAUGHT STEALING FOOD A feeling of starvation and then there's these chains. I keep asking for somebody but the only response I get is poor wretch . . . poor wretch. Hey, I don't deny the rich their splendor. I was after a bite of their arrogance, that's all. That's what I get for being me. The hatred of God. A front row seat in the city of winter. Not forgetting the biting campaign of the January wind. It's been blasting its nails into me. I'm nothing more than an eyelash this morning. My head slinks in behind it. My body defers to its will. No wonder, I can't get up so easily. A cop says this is my destiny, same as it is for all those just like me. Excuse me while my destiny blasphemes for a while. Oh they give me this day my daily bread. It comes with water and the severe eyes of one experienced in dealing with the dregs. I mop up my breakfast. It tastes like damp earth. I'll be in this cell until they're bored with me, toss me back out on the streets. Life has blows, some pretty harsh ones. but they don't hang my kind any more. The law prefers that we realize what we have done for as long it takes. The black messengers of death were too kind. It's a lifetime that taps us on the shoulder now ** HOW BEST TO DESCRIBE SEX Assonance overwhelms anxiety with clear, pure instrumentation, assimilates music clusters and gives, is as essential as consciousness and just as unidentifiable; deep-lying, out of sight, distant from all others, including time, filtering like broth in glottal breath, thickets of greasy globules distilled by motion; sex hates stillness. it starts fires, is most effective when the fields are level, it eludes metaphors, resists transparency, turns matter into something matterless, as wild natures tangle like meat chunks in consommé, breezing through conceits with excitable patience and a raging divinity; that’s how it’s done – sharp whirls sketch the high notes, skimmer to floats of unknotted clumps, persuasive turnings surface suggestions, no airs, eyes misting, rhythms rushing unbeginning and unending up into the point they lighten up – wow! ** THE BIG SIGH We can sigh, pretend we fit in blithely with the world’s myths: the good life, the people always kind to us, the law that treats us fair. Better than crying out in pain, or punching the nearest object. Listen. So many drooping downward as their lungs let out. A choir of acceptance. I’m their newest member. ** CONSTRUCTION SITE VISIT In my best grey suit, I’m a visitor to a construction site. An incongruous hard-hat protects my skull from falling debris. I wonder how long it will be before I’m as grimy as the workers. At least, I’ll never be as hairy. It’s a July afternoon and the sun lends stifling heat to the fires of industry. Machinery rolls here and there like slow-moving drays. The workers are stage-managed enough to stay out of the way. Some stand out from the ample, sweaty necks, muscled torsos. Like the guy high up, gripping the reins of a crane. And the kind of giant that little boys love, who’s yoked to a ground-busting jackhammer. And the foreman who manages all with calmly commanding eyes. There’s no point asking a question. I wouldn’t be heard. Not when metal clangs. Voices bellow. Engines pound and shriek. It’s more than all the noise there’s ever been. ** AT THE PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBIT A solid right to the jaw in a black and white ring. Late night festivities in a gay bar. A judge pounding a gavel. Colorful trees of coral. Are those fiddler crabs? And surely the big man with the beard is a Hemingway impersonator. A back street in Key West. A tiny girl dressed as an angel. A sweaty bluesman playing a sweaty blues guitar. Exotic dancer. Effete snobs. Wheatfield at dusk. Sixties teenagers grooving to a record player. The crowded aisle of a bookstore. A city. Hartford, I believe. A closeup of neon tetras. Another boxing picture. A guy on the canvas holding his glass jaw. Pictures of children: Jenny is so awkward Maria is fidgety How did Juanita ever get so plump? And Louise who reminds me of a young George Eliot. And what is this? A minstrel show A quick plink-plunk on a banjo. Black face, black tuxedo. Then wine and cheese. Meet the photographer. Shake hands with her eyes. ** IN THE SKIN GALLERY The tattoo artist jackhammers an eagle into Dan’s leathery arm, a wince for every feather, gritted teeth as talons sprout, a drop of blood at the beak. A bird of prey is inked into the limb of a flightless creature, that buys its provisions at the grocery store, doesn’t drop down like a raptor on the living to kill and eat. The eagle joins the devil who’d laugh at Dan’s modest sins, the mother he seldom calls. His wife’s fingers often linger at the heart just above his left wrist. It’s the only one she’s found so far.
John Grey is an Australian poet, US resident, recently published in Stand, Washington Square Review and Sheepshead Review. Latest books, Between Two Fires, Covert and Memory Outside the Head are available for purchase. Work upcoming in the McNeese Review, Santa Fe Literary Review and California Quarterly.