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Mark Wagenaar

Mark Wagenaar is the author of Southern Tongues Leave Us Shining (Red Hen Press, 2018), winner of the 2016 Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award, and The Body Distances (A Hundred Blackbirds Rising), (University of Massachusetts Press, 2016). He teaches at Valparaiso University and lives in Valparaiso, Indiana. 

By This Poet


They Ate the Bulbs of Tulips

I’d have to hear it spoken in mind somehow,
my father said, of the Frisian word for hunger,
but I’d settle for memory, or grief, under
the category things that undo me. It’s a funny
thing to think. Who would be the speaker
if not him? His mother, maybe,
holding hands in the hospital with his father
after 76 years. Married the day after the war,
when the stores had no windows—the Nazis
took the glass. The mourning doves
might have the right vowels, or the red belly
in the leafless dogwood, now winging
through the sunlight peplummed through
the pines, blue tarp peeled back
on the cotton bales in the field beyond,
Merry Christmas spraypainted in blue
upon the white. Snowless, starless,
a man goes on trial in France for helping
refugees. Could’ve been your grandparents,
my father says, your Pake hid in barns, woke
once to mouse feet scrambling across his face,
but in France it was a 2 year old in a ditch,
dying of dehydration, & when I look down
I’ve pulled the petals from the bouquet,
& as I’ve neither French nor Frisian nor
courage, all I can do is sweep the body
of petals into my palms, & pour them into
the cathedral of water in front of me.

Salt Furnace (Southern Reliquaries)

IT'S A BRAND NEW DAY, the greasy spoon’s sign
has recited each day for the last ten years.

Eighteen-wheelers haul their hundred hands of empty space
through an air hallowed by the smoke of a thousand-acre grass fire.

New roads take on the shape of the old
the way rivers tongue the drowned, eternal rush hour,
eternal city:

beneath the floodlights on the side of the highway
the blue eye of the welder’s torch snaps
open, a circular saw spins—disk galaxy, roulette wheel
if the ball’s skipping through the working hours

                                                                            of the rest of their lives—
then bites into concrete,
                                      teeth through stone.


Mouthful of cinders,
the earth has begun to reel back
its lines of chlorophyll.
Birch shadows walk on their toes on their way
to nowhere. Bark strips skiff from the sycamores,
                                                                             pale coracles,
& set off into the world. Through a screen of falling
rust-shot leaves it’s hard to tell the planes from the planets,
but I know one is Flight 90, where last week a man
confided that he’s collected over twenty thousand Pillsbury Doughboy dolls.

I tried to remember the name of the horn player
who used to play a club for a plate of spaghetti—something about being in between
cities, in between lives & hours,
had left me otherwise wordless, with nothing else to offer,

with nothing more to say about need—


except, once, I rounded a corner & came face-to-face
with a naked woman behind a door of glass.
                                                                     I saw her
everywhere I went the next few days.
Each time I saw myself in a window, in the canal below.
I read a billboard a mile from the glass door: VOODOO INVERSO:



Ten thousand days into my life, Lord, & not one more promised.
Ten thousand days & I’ve nothing


to say in light
of the overpass fire in front of me,
a salt furnace

except its only output
is flame & ashes upon the air.

You can take ten thousand steps & get no nearer to heaven,
someone once said, but the smoke

is halfway there. If the overpass is a temple,
it’s a Parthenon blueprinted
                                            by the stars
that are now fading overhead,
one dedicated to elsewhere,
                                            that negative mirror,
a thousand times more air than concrete, more not there
than there: a dozen pillars & a cement roof,

nameless place you only know by the places
you’re on the way to: a via negativa

of every place you’ve been. If the ashes on the air
are inch-long vanishing points of veils,
this temple had a million.

And I’ll be its augur. Already I can see the bouquets
& votives left there for its priestess, still buckled

in her burning Corolla, her name unremembered everywhere.

Aubade with Horses (Fort Worth Impromptu II)

There’s no right word for the color of the ashes,
you said at the New Orleans hospice—
every week a new urn carried out
& poured into the nameless garden.
Maybe it’s true. And maybe,
just there through the fog,
this morning’s mare & her foal,
                                                 dapple-gray & steaming,
come close enough.
Or the grime-dulled silver of the quarter you were given once
to dig a horse’s grave—
a piano’s worth of hand-thrown earth,
when you were young, first of many.
A quail flailing skyward might come close,
or the color of an unanswered prayer, or the first mouthful of gob,
sucked & spat out from the rattlesnake bite
before the blood hits.
And if the horses are the ashes, this sundog’s
                                                                       the transfiguration,
southeast of the sun, toward Nacogdoches,
dragonfly glimmer that Sherwin-Williams might call
Skin at the Soprano’s Throat, if she’s under the bright lights,
if her last aria is on our forgetting
& how the language fails us, as it so often does.
O cloud of flesh, O dream
of rain out of cloudless skies,
                                              we begin to be erased
when we lose the graves,
when we lose the tongues. 
Someday we’ll know how to mend the horse’s bones
without driving her mad.
Someday we’ll come to the green pastures,
where we’ll be poured out, & the lost vowels
                                                                     will fall back to our tongues like snow.