Monday Jul 22

JohnsWayne Wayne Johns received the Rane Arroyo prize for his chapbook, The Exclusion Zone (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018). His first collection, Antipsalms, received the Editor's Choice prize from Unicorn Press. His poems have appeared in New England Review, Meridian, Ploughshares, Image, Prairie Schooner, and Best New Poets, among others. He is a poetry editor at The Adroit Journal.
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I have become a little shrine for all
 
you left behind which, turns out, wasn’t much.
Just words. Which might as well be air.
Stone walls, stone heart, entrance hidden
within an abandoned museum where a guide
once helped travelers navigate the cliffs.
A safe house turned birdhouse, where
each evening doves roosted: setting
sun and shadows, beating wings
like flickering candles. Now each niche
holds a little sculpture inside of which
your scriptures reside—well, all the poems
your family kept from the world. Before
your brother started sending letters
from a lawyer, he was magnanimous,
giving me 15 characters for your epitaph.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. 15
characters, including spaces! A later letter
demanded I return all works that Rodney
Jack has ever written or had a hand
in writing. By that, I could only assume,
he meant also me, my body, though of course
we’re more than what is written on, or carved
within our bodies. Each sculpture, a slight
variation on the god whose wings
were clipped. Someone must remember
his name, though it’s not to be spoken,
at least not aloud, not here. Stashed in each
recess, I wish you could see how your words
still fill all the hollowed-out places inside.
Hollowed, hallowed: this cavernousness
is endless. Not emptied—but carved, eroded—
since emptiness implies something waiting
to be used. Before leaving, you needed
to be certain I’d be able to bear witness
to what forms in absence. Which row,
what section, which stone, which words?
What does it sound like—our own voices
shoved back in our mouths? Last we spoke
your brother mentioned your marker
at Port Hudson National Cemetery:
in the circular enclosure just past
the MIA flagpole, section H, site 354.
He said it looked like someone had taken
a hammer and chiseled off a little sliver.

 
Vivarium: Corpus Delicti
 
War memorials, battlefields, crime scenes
barricaded with police tape, but what of all
the unmarked scarred places where some
horror unleashed? And why are you, who never
fail to turn from blood, still drawn to them?
Case in point: you pass the Battleground Inn
on the way to work. For weeks the top left window
was boarded-up. You’d read what happened there.
Hadn’t you even flirted with the murdered man
and his partner on Grindr? It seemed wrong
when you passed and the plywood had been removed,
like peeling back a scab to reveal new skin,
a pimple of blood. The window like all the others,
the room ready to be inhabited. Again, you thought
about what happened there but not about who came
to scrub, to steam, and how they could possibly clean—
as if there were any hope of cleaning up—this mess.
And this as much as anything else suggests the flaw
in your character. At the trial of the 25-year-old
murderer, the defense insists it’s not a hate crime
since the kid was just confused, questioning, had been
seduced, thus causing him to beat the victim
with the telephone, TV, chair, then set the man’s body
on fire. Details matter, but which ones? That the man was
a war vet? Had already put his body in harm’s way
for us? Sometimes there’s so little to love about
this place, America. Unfortunately, the man didn’t die
but suffered three days. Relatives sold the house,
evicting his partner, who was unwelcome
at the funeral. Why do you even know this?
Whatever made you look also led you
to the courtroom for the sentencing,
keeps you coming back like someone returning
to the scene. You thought how awful it would be
to stay in that room, then spent three nights there,
dreaming of the awful things that must have
happened in every room you’ve ever been.
Can a place be cleansed of evil? Can a man,
a soul, a nation? I read this constant shedding
and attaching happens as we go about our lives.
Those we brush against. Even just standing
in a room where someone else once stood.
Change the drapes and carpet, the mattress,
bleach the sheets, the tile, and still some
expert will find a fiber. Dump the body,
dredge the river, and those fibers lodge in silt
beneath the scalp. Contamination. The ghost
in the room just a trace. Like a fallen tree
being slowly churned to soil—someone
actually thought to turn that into an exhibit.
A vivarium: fallen redwood lifted, along
with surrounding soil and insects, encased
in a small green-tinged glass house. A whole
ecosystem complete with mist, ventilation.
Placards detail the process and people
stand in line, pausing to peer through
magnifying glasses to examine details
they might otherwise miss. Over time
the artificial nature of the set-up stopped
working: the log stopped rotting. Even
the artist called it an abomination. Maybe
we’ve been living all these years inside
a vivarium. Seen or unseen, there’s
no denying these spirits always with us,
like evidence, inhabiting and haunting
a place. Until they’re just the place.

 
After Wheat Field with Cornflowers
 
One must stay still for years to see
air move. Not just the bending
clouds and wheat. This pattern
a time-lapse afternoon framed.
 
The combed-over sections exposing
cornflowers like seeds, blinking eyes
that had been hidden. Easy to miss
the violence inside silence. This shade
 
of blue now nearly gone extinct.
Little flame that wavers, stay
a little longer: quiet hour, nearing
evening, time that’s best to not be so
 
all alone. One of 101 species we tried
to bring back from the brink, the simple
cornflower is what to bring to Port Hudson
National Cemetery since you are, though
 
not altogether, there. You were also
this violet-blue mix of sad and sudden
violence, your hands a force bending
distorting everything. You said I was
 
the loveliest thing you’d ever seen and
something in you needed to mar that.
Rest assured that mark you meant
to make was made. The scar, come close,
 
is here. And when the air grew almost still  
I could see you wanted me to know what
it meant to live within a wound. But that’s
a thing that can’t be told. Or sung.
 
Your songs and rage now all but gone.
The years a lapse of evenings. And me
holding this blue trembling flame
before the catalyst of your name.  

 
Sermon & Acts
(after Luca Signorelli’s ‘Predica e fatti dell’Anticristo’)
 
1. (The Puppeteer)
 
He stands at the podium—
carved with rearing horse
and rider—hoard of gold
and jewels beneath his feet.
A demon whispers in his ear
like a lover. He seems, at first,
to gesticulate awkwardly
but then you see the demon
reaching through
the orange and purple robe,
as in the childish game
where one reaches around
from behind, pretends
to be the other’s arms.
We always laughed
at the obviously
unnatural gestures
of the hidden one,
but also at the thought
of our own bodies
betraying us, of being
made to move like that.
 
2. (Rain of Fire)
 
Blasted in the midst of his last
deception, his false ascension,
his army’s caught in the fallout.
At first the young men seem enraptured—
necks thrown back, revealing tender
white throats waiting to be kissed
or sliced—mouths slightly parted

in pain or release. The ones
still standing could be dancing,
halted in strobe. Masks of ecstasy,
agony. Tight clothes cinch
muscles, bulges, they seem eager
to make of their bodies this display.
Soldiers of pride, regal and lithe.
 
Three of the men are on horseback,
one sprawled unconscious or dead.
Another shields his eyes to see,
but no reinforcements are coming.
The third horse rears—the rider
grips the reins in one hand, his other
fist clutched in rage, climax, defeat?
 
3. (Temple of Solomon)
 
He oversees the slaughter of those
who spoke, too loudly, too much.
The laughter and chaos hide
 
his craft. He turns his head,
even now, though everyone knows
what’s coming, he still turns from
 
the caged children as if it’s too much
to witness, though he will order more
until they blur, until the audience
 
wearies of watching. To the left,
in the same frame, he fakes
a resurrection. The nude would-be
 
Lazarus rises from a deathbed,
jolting mourners and onlookers out
of their private miseries. Of course

they raise their hands in praise.
This is more than anyone
has ever done for them. 
 
4. (Detail of The Temple)
 
On the balcony, a pair of shadows wait.
Which is the monster, which the savior?
Both seem human. So little distance
between them they look like lovers
unwilling to part. As they watch, these
scenes spiral inevitably as galaxies.
 
5. (Self-Portrait)
 
With clasped hands the artist stands
looking out, as if simply relating
the story. Like a reporter
 
who chooses to remain
an observer as bodies fall
all around. He doesn’t move
 
to help the man on the ground
whose throat’s being sliced,
though he’s close enough

to kick the man if he chooses.
He and his apprentice dressed
like clerics. Or mourners.

But he looks like an actor waiting
in the wings to deliver the final
commentary on the tragedy:

Blessed are they that suffer for
they shall suffer some more.
No one’s blameless anymore.