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What are you if not a better skin?
a symbol for what’s kept
within folds of sterile plastic:
coiled, cinched tight
as a blindfold around muscles
and a skeleton—Nothing flinches,
nothing turns inside
your barren walls. Impervious
purse, what kicks against
your stomach never stirs
from within: the clock of bones
in my intricate hands—
or some ligature of wind—
will brush against your surface
and send you rippling
into the sound of static. Black
gown, what you hold
was once exquisite: Be dark
enough to keep my eyes
from seeing what gestates inside.
I’m done with all this talk of breath—
the crush of waves that coalesced
into an unplowed field of sea
has fouled your mouth repeatedly
with water. Its flower reappears
above my head as atmosphere
and seeds itself in thunderheads—
but I’m done with thinking of the dead.
I’m done, too, with this talk of tongues
and how a mouth can be undone
by something lifeless as the sea.
We both know that it should have been me
whose bronchials held down, still burn,
whose body holds an ocean’s worth
of salt scorching its bloodless veins.
You fall now as torrential rain
and fill me as a black cistern:
a bowl to hold your mass on earth,
where you still tremble on some coast.
But I’m done searching for your ghost
through the catacombs of night terrors:
room by awful room, you enter
my paralysis: my sleep.
Once again you’ve learned to speak
I don’t believe in god or ghosts, but, dead
for days, he reappeared. Not as I remember
him, not flesh, on an invisible wind—fed
by equilibrium—not from dirt untethered.
He resurrected as blood-warm weather,
as flight, an exit wound in anemic clouds,
empty as a gun barrel. After we found
his body, I hid my mouth beneath sheets
in my coffin-rack. Breathless, I drowned
myself awake, my skin pale as the meat
of a pear. How could he appear, facedown
underwater, then circle like an hour
overhead, some I caged inside reliquary
bones that bends birds to flight, tourniqueting
sky around their wings, pink as match heads?
Who charcoaled the tongues of flaming birds,
made mine, with artless blasphemy, shed
unholy syllables? The unheard
Gods made men devour the tongues of birds,
as if a song might solidify a place inside soil
and not above, where bodies never spoil.
Or maybe I have too much faith in eyes.
I can’t recall the shape of every stone,
but, somehow, my mind has memorized
the double helix’s whorl, which makes bone,
muscle, eye, and everything I know.
And somewhere in its simple code—cells,
mitochondria—an atom cannot tell
where the living end, where the dead begin:
each breath must be a memory in lungs
designed to fail this blood rubble, ruin
of skin, a body born from a million suns
exploding. Am I just the sky undone,
a clot of chemistry, dreaming a shepherd
for its dead? I am—if god is ghost or bird.
Brandon Courtney is a veteran of the United States Navy, and the author of The Grief Muscles and Rooms for Rent in the Burning City, as well as of the chapbooks Inadequate Grave and Improvised Devices. Another full-length collection is forthcoming from Yes Yes Books. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Best New Poets, Tin House, Guernica, Memorious, The Progressive, and American Literary Review.
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