Out from the Patches of Briars and Blackberries

James Allen Hall

After he died, my father made
whole, I could see him next
to my mother as she smoked
on the couch, his face more alive
than at Christmas, the last time
I saw him, struggling to lift his cup. 
I knew beyond my body, now he’d died,
he could show off a row of teeth, wry
and silly, smiling again to score
some irony in the situation. But
the days I was home, he didn’t smile. 
My mother was in pain, he was her
source, he grieved alongside her. 
And though he died the same day
as my father, my student waited a week
to show. At first, his back was all
he’d allow, the twist and sweep of curls
that were his character—another boy
Apollo would have loved. He was shy
about his neck. I said please, I needed
to see where he’d been hurt. The purple
pinched and dug at the base
of his throat. He couldn’t say or breathe
what happened but I saw deep in him
the furious glimmer. Our dead return,
wanting us to know there is no end. 

Even suffering outlives this body. 
 

More by James Allen Hall

Pittsburgh

I burn your Highland Park. I acid your Carnegie
car dealerships. Your Squirrel Hill, sheer terror
in winter. But most of all, I hate your Liberty Avenue,
the last place, one night, I saw my closest friend
saying, Wait here, outside the after-hours club. I wait,
hating your Strip, half your Shadyside, all of Bloomfield,
the bluffs and flats where my friend trades himself.
I wait hours, then trace your Mexican War
Streets looking for his car, so I could declare a truce
in the battle he was fighting against himself. Your Hot
Metal, your Fort Pitt Bridge that leads headfirst
into the Monongahela. In the morning, he's home.
He cannot tell me where it hurts. I help him shower
off the Duquesne residue, the priesting old world
shame. Pittsburgh, you're all grit and gristle turning crystal
track marks, turning a man meth mouth. I feed him,
put him to bed. I'll keep watch tonight in a cable car
ascending Mt. Washington, your smokestacks
blowing clouds over the confluence until all you are,
Pittsburgh, is a sleepless shimmer I will watch
diminish down to the savaged seed of morning,
as impossible to watch as you are to name.

A Home in the Country

Down on Comegys Road, two miles
from the Rifle Club that meets Wednesdays,
summer to fall, firing into a blackness
they call night but I know is a body,
in unpaved Kennedyville, not far
from the Bight, on five acres of green
organic farm, next to the algaed pond
that yields the best fishing in all of Kent County
(my neighbor says it is a lingering death I deal
the trout when he sees me throw the small
bodies back), down where the commonest
cars are tractors and hayfetchers, and men
wave as they pass, briefly bowing a gentleman’s
straw hat, you can find the wood cabin
where I live, infested with stink bugs. 
Every day, my boyfriend asks the murder count,
making light of my hatred. Even reading I sit,
swatter poised on the couch’s arm,
all the windows closed, fans off, the whole house
listening for the thwat of stink alighting
smartly on sun-warmed glass, their soft-backed
geometric carapaces calling to be stopped. 
I did not grow up like this, here
on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but I am most
at home now I live with something inside to kill. 

Afterlife

We’re not from here. We don’t aria, we warble. 
We wore suits to get here, rumpled by the hot car ride. 
Pumped our own gas. In Heaven two days,

still the custom shirtlessness offends.  Like it’s the g-d
French Rivera. (You say it yours.  We’ll say it the right way.) 
Nor do we au revoir. We eat without speaking, hunched over

our plates at the picnic tables. We prefer paper. 
It’s not we’re unfriendly, but its our particular
God Almighty we won’t give up. First Sunday here,

and we’re missing Shirl and Jesse, who started
smoking again. Clove cigarettes, of all things.
What Heaven don’t stock Reds soft packs? 

Then Tony stopped stopping by, on account
he works overnights at the baby factory,
low on the totem: cranial deformities. 

Well it’s a job. It’s enough to crack your heart. 

We stay up drinking slurpee-and-rums outside
the Kum & Go. Who knows how long them hot dogs
have roasted on the carriage, under the eternal heat lamp. 

Everything here is an effigy to hunger. Time moves
not at all when all the clocks are confiscated. I am terrified
I will begin to speak in the first person about pleasure. 

Stop wearing underwear to our “To Hell with Heaven”
meetings. They give us new names, say forget Louisville. 
This here’s all the village you need. We lose every day

more folks to Heaven’s gen pop. We left the earth
but the memory turns us over in its hot light. 
The Chief Risk Cherubim say unlearn the love of gravity

and then the earth can leave us back. Psychobabble mumbo
jumble. We dream of opening a garage but ain’t bum starters
nor oil changes no more. The technology outlived us. 

There’s a choice to be made between the past,
the present tense. We are failure-angels, plain
and redneck, we’re going to fall down to the earth

we can’t stop loving, find our families and touch
their faces angrily. But first we will edge with pink
and yellow peonies our graves, our graves

which remind our deaths daily: redeem us.
 

Related Poems

Do Not Speak of the Dead

 

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.”
—Mexican Proverb

I was born among the bodies. I was hurried
forward, and sealed a thin life for myself.

I have shortened my name, and walk with
a limp. I place pebbles in milk and offer

them to my children when there is nothing
else. We can not live on cold blood alone.

In a dream, I am ungendered, and the moon
is just the moon having a thought of itself.

I am a wolf masked in the scent of its prey
and I am driven—hawk like—to the dark

center of things. I have grasped my eager
heart in my own talons. I am made of fire,

and all fire passes through me. I am made
of smoke and all smoke passes through me.

Now the bodies are just calcified gravity,
built up and broken down over the years.

Somewhere there are phantoms having their
own funerals over and over again. The same

scene for centuries. The same moon rolling
down the gutter of the same sky. Somewhere

they place a door at the beginning of a field
and call it property. Somewhere, a tired man

won’t let go of his dead wife’s hand. God
is a performing artist working only with

light and stone. Death is just a child come to
take us by the hand, and lead us gently away.

Fear is the paralyzing agent, the viper that
swallows us living and whole. And the devil,

wears a crooked badge, multiplies everything
by three. You—my dark friend. And me.