Home > Poetry > December 27, 1988
Published: Mon Oct 15 1990
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
December 27, 1988

Another rape in the trains, a drunk torched in the park.
Last night I heard their voices through the dark
screen of dreams a pill drew round my head,
circling and circling. Last night I dreamt my city’s dead
alive and dying in our double bed.

It was late
for fishing, but a black man with a jackknife sliced
his liver for bait and laid it on the rail,
then set the knife down on a paper plate,
patting his pockets for a cloth to wipe
away the grease.
A Doberman dragged a white man on a leash
toward the orangey meat.
The owner swore and whipped his pet mid-leap
with the leash, but the black man’s bent back caught
the leather, turning, which he did to keep
the dog from wrapping its tongue around the blade.
I watched the putty-coloured grit
of gizzards thicken on a brick he’d laid
for weight atop his cooler’s squeaking lid.
A woman, a girl really, just a kid,
was climbing through a squeaking subway grate
naked, but wrapped in a jacket.
I thought it hurt the girl to watch her, but
she was so opened. I saw her rusty cuts,
the blue bruise and the gooseflesh on her thigh,
the clots of cinders dripping from her hair.
She turned. A fist had made a mess of her left eye.
Still, she stared straight
through me. “Speak,” she said.
I studied the slick stain fading from the rail.
The scattered strips of liver never hit
the water, for a sudden flock
of birds descended from the empty air.
A seagull with a singed beak nailed
its dole mid-air. Then the smell of rice
and diesel on the wind refreshed the pier.
When the wind dropped, she began to speak.

“My tongue was frozen to the rail’s blue ice.
I couldn’t scream or cry. I heard the click of dice
shaken and shaken from a plastic cup
each time the wheels slowed, stopped, and started up—
a local. He slapped me every time I shut my eyes.
I heard my fortune being whispered in the hiss
of winds through papers when the express passed,
shaking down streetlight through a metal grate
over where he took me. The papers lay still.
The rats were scratching. The reek of piss
was eating through my hair into my head.
I felt the thunder coming down the rails.
It’s fear that does you. It is not the pain,
except when he cut me with the half-inch nails
untrimmed on his thumbs.
When the blood began to well, I turned my head.
When he was finished, he watched me for a while.
He smashed some bricks and spat to wet the red
paste, and scribbled with it
on the ties and rails and all around my head.
I woke to cold rain
on my cheek, the same taste of the galvanized
light through the grate. I opened my eyes. My eye.
The passing bootsoles clouded my square of sky.
I was alone. But I was miles
from any place where tokens turned the stiles
and men and women talked, and help could come.
I woke to a bricked-in heart
scratched by its arrow, a rusty nail,
in the tar on a tie.
I woke to this body and a stick of gum
balanced next to my number etched on the rail,
and sometimes in the dark I see his eyes.”
Then I knelt and took the girl’s dead weight
under the armpits, to lift her through the grate.
Her body heaved.
She might have been crying, but she made no sound.

“We are living ballast for the ship of state
that’s dumped us here, now it’s gone aground.”
I looked to see who said this. As I turned around,
a madman with a ferret passed me by,
swinging a hatchet as he clicked the locks
on the shopping cart he’d made into a cage,
linked to his belt-loop by a chain of socks.
His snow-white hair was turning blue with age.
His nicotine-stained fingers raked his beard
“to meet Ophelia when the moon appeared.”
The ferret worked its treadmill in a rage,
making the whole cart shake.
The man stooped to light up, and as he stood he blew
the smoke out in a plume, then smiled and drew
a green stem deftly through a buttonhole,
a leaf of ivy “for her pretty sake.”
Then he stood straight and catechized his soul,
reading the questions from a paperback
he’d scotchtaped to an armstrap of his pack,
answering each question with the same wet cough.
He gave himself a grade of “F for fair,”
lungs wheezing like a pitchpipe while he tried
to find the hatchet slapping against his side,
now hanging from his neck on a leather thong.
He adjusted his butane lighter to a flare,
then gravely shook his head and started off,
making up phrases for the marching song
his hatchet whistled to the chilly air,
wind ruffling the long blue plumage of his hair.
Then a man with his shirt on fire
stepped from the grass onto the path. His left hand tore
at yesterday’s headlines packed against his skin,
a sheaf of flames
under the tattered jacket that he wore,
now a coat of ash,
a carbon-copy of his former coat.
His right hand pressed
an empty to bare hipbone when his vest
went up in smoke. His eyewhites set like hard
boiled eggs in their sockets, and I smelled the tarred
crossties from the subway’s switching yard,
but his face was afloat
and lay rocking on his neck like an open boat
above the rustling foam of the incoming tide.
He was awash,
picking his feet high as if he walked uphill.
When the wave that he was riding uncapped to crash
and glass splinters glittered
round him on his downward, tarred
path, the Thunderbird label wasn’t even charred.
His foot was feeling for less shaky ground.
Then I saw a drop
of red wine wobble on his bottom lip.
His black tongue raced the flames to lick it dry.
Only then did he open his mouth and start to cry,
screaming for Jesus as the flames climbed higher,
till each hair on his head was a red-hot wire.
I woke then when I felt how the subway slid
toward Harlem beneath my feet but I heard no sound.

Now I walk this boat basin path, awake.
A tugboat drags dull colours through the wake
rejoining behind it.

Dirt thickens the river. This souther’s
kicking up a chop, and the smell of rice
from the houseboats rises, warm and comforting.
Foam fenders chafe on a pier, and there’s the ring
of a shackle against a mast in the lifting wind,
the reek of tar when a tinner’s scissors glint from a roof.

A thaw has rotted the ice.
Last night’s voices come in gusts and are blown away.
Now others like me have arrived to watch the end
of sunlight on another busy day.
Still, I cannot shake
what I heard them say.

I see the Massacre of the Innocents
in brick dust on old snow, the red
haze sifting through a chain link fence.
I see the girl’s face in the station’s glow.

“Speak,” she insisted. A wind rose in me. I spoke.
Now green things seek me out. A living tongue
is what I’d give them, but my heart’s the wrung-
out towel my mother gave her son to suck.

Tomorrow’s predicted wet east wind will smear
St. Mary’s churchbells on her raw walls and tear
an opening in the coat of this shark-skinned year.
Sun, I want to follow where you lead me, but
your last rays weld the Hudson’s bronze doors shut.

See what's inside AGNI 31 and 32

Martin Edmunds is the author of a prose chapbook, La Danza de las Zarzas (Dance of the Brambles; Frolic Press, 2015) and a chapbook of poems, Black Ops (Arrowsmith Press, forthcoming spring 2018). His writing has appeared in A Public SpaceLittle StarThe Paris ReviewAGNIThe New Yorker, and elsewhere. He was awarded a 2012 artist fellowship from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and three of his poems were honored in the W. B. Yeats Society of New York’s poetry competition in 2017. Poems of his were also chosen for Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets and the 1987 Avon Anthology. (updated 4/2018)

Edmunds’s book The High Road to Taos was reviewed in AGNI 42 by Don Share.

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