Ode to the Enemy Sniper
Searching for your defining
moment, you’ve come to dance
in our little war. Life is nothing
more than a turn
of the windage knob, a slight
adjustment for distance, a tight
lungful of breath, a sight
bearing black reticle,
that crosshair etched into your lens
like a crucifix, reaching for the edges
of your omniscient circle, a transfer
of kinetic energy from man,
to machine, to man. The word
Dragunov strikes fear into your enemies,
but in you it triggers
the ancient sentiment that sparks
wars among men; and so you aim
steady, you squeeze slowly, propelling
your projectile toward the anatomical
plexus that turns off the world.
A different version of “Ode to the Enemy Sniper” appears in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2012).
It seems so long ago since we spilt
our bloom, sculpted our sleep
around the impact of ricochets
into powdered dust, cried out Mene Mene
as we waded into the Tigris
to recover bodies. This is not
the first time I have spoken
of this. And each time the story grows
less. Grows thin. Each time I end
with a sigh, the only honest breath
from my lungs, borne of a lexicon of light
breathing, these tiny learned exhalations
covering the holes that now stipple
my stories—that have displaced
those moments when I cried out: forgive me
J. Scott Brownlee
Hill Country Elegy
Let the division of light be the barbed-wire fence line.
Let it divide up everything. Let it determine where
the boundaries of the day and the first darkness are.
Let the beef cattle enter and exit the pasture
as they each see fit, licking piles of salt from the round,
rubber basins the hired hands fill for their thick tongues
to lick. Let what the deer eat in the long drought be enough.
Let the landscape contain itself. Here where the golden light
of sun going gradually down leaves me singing the songs
German forefathers sang, ranchers taming the land,
let me return to the basics of living off the land.
For over eighteen years I thought I would never grieve,
leaving here. Now, it’s the deer calling me back
with their white tails, faint flicks in the darkness again
between my snake chaps and the bee brush, the mesquite
scrub and the needled cactus spines. Everywhere I look,
there is tangible evidence of my hill country origins.
As I pass through the pasture on my way to the highway,
I see a buck. In my high-powered scope, in the crux
of its cross-hairs where the deer marks a vanishing point,
there’s an infinite place I can never quite reach:
an erasure fills it. Both the buck and myself will disappear,
and I understand this. But until then, one bullet joins
my body to the buck’s. For a second, we’re linked
by the passing of it through twilight between us.
Its hot cone breaks his skin—enters in where
it enters my skin. Shared friction burns the two of us
at its vanishing point, where a great peace fills me—
and an emptiness, him. Christ got up on a cross
to prove he meant business. My own father took me
hunting several times, though I never liked it.
Now, I’m doing it simply because I miss him.
This one ritual kill is ours. Tonight we can say anything.
Distance passes through us like light thrown down
from stars. We are drawn near by it—so close
the bullet I shoot at the sky, streaking up, touches him.
The Man Who Can’t Say No
She lost her father to a city he founded in his brain.
He built disappearing streets, littered with
yellowed newspapers, bills, and love letters to
women he’s never met. Bus stops, skyscrapers, and
automobiles made from books he’s never read.
He’s sculpted statues of his children and ex-wives
out of canned goods, stitched a city flag out of
clothes he’d outgrown and turned bedrooms into
museums for the world’s largest collection of tiny
spoons. And suddenly the population explodes.
Ghosts of dead relatives and friends bang on pipes,
turn streetlights on and off. Families of stray
animals move in beneath the ceiling for a sky
that holds the suffering sun and moon.
Twenty Miles Offshore
I remember walking out into the field behind our house the winter after
I almost lost a leg to an unfortunate arrangement of old pine bark
and truck engine. The world is full of legs—I thought. I’ve never been sure
why hospital rooms keep cold the way they do—I think maybe
those machines were special vacuums designed to suck up
all the warm. I think maybe that’s what snow sounds like, a vacuum
cleaner clearing carpet in another room. That winter after was when I started
to play this game I called, how cold. It’s a one-person game—just you
in a field with the naked cotton air. There are so many edges
in the mountains, too many corners, places where one thing
becomes another. I hate the sound of ripping fabric. When I think
about childhood, I think about running—and then, for a long time,
not running. There are monks that sit on snowy mountains, wrapped
in soaking sheets. I used to believe I could lie on my back in a field
of snow for hours and never feel it. When I drove back
from college that first time, the blue ridge spilled over the dashboard
all at once—I’ll never forget it. An hour ago I wanted things
to be smaller. Now, I’m looking at water and thinking
about your calves. I’m afraid I’ll never understand
what sex is really about. What is enough? I think maybe
there is a drift in my head. Things float off all the time—
I know it because I watch them go. I don’t know
if this is what love ought to feel like, and I don’t know exactly what it is
you love, but I know that when you disappear into the rolling hills
of your ribs—I want to go with you. The world is full of legs
and arms and spleens. Who knows how many different ways there are
to be in pain. I think maybe you are what blurs the edges, I think maybe
you are the ripple where the big open gap-toothy sky piles
into the road. What if I had never learned to swim? I am full
of salt, the smell of chlorine. I am tired of talking only
to dead people. An hour ago, I imagined having a beer
with Laurence. Now, I’m telling him about the ocean
at night—Have you ever been out this far? I ask.
Sometimes I Want You to Throw Things
You are talking to me about waves, about the difference
between sets, about offshore winds and sinking tides—
I want to collect your lazy freckles and pile them up like goose feather
I want the grease stuck folds of your palms and your fingers
on my stomach like an almost-too-cold shower
There are things you cannot say to a person:
You taste like toothpaste and floss and rainy weather
I want to be your chewing gum
I want to be the water-heavy air that fills the four feet
between where I am and where you are
Everyone’s beautiful is another person’s I-don’t-give-a-shit—I love you
I don’t understand what you mean about drift. Does it frighten you
when I talk about mountains, when I say that December is the only month that
tastes like December. Are you scared I’ll sink into my ditch of blue?
I’m thinking about the way you fall asleep on your back
without any covers—I wish I could do that. If I hate you
it’s because I’m jealous. If I’m not making sense
it’s because I want you to do it for me—
I want you to gather up all my syllables
and arrange them into a perfectly constructed paragraph.
I disagree with you about the phosphorescence.
It is not the emission of light by bioluminescent plankton
It is the millions of lightning bugs that somehow migrated
into the ocean. They only just figured out how to glow
underwater, they’ve been waiting on you for years
The split hive buzzes
on its own, the bees long dead.
It’s the echo of the swarm,
a lingering song, the honeycombs
a lattice of nerves,
If you touch it, it will flinch.
It’s an oscillating force,
an electrical force, a force
The hivematter is organic—
It’s more than wind.
We learned to hum so
our lips buzz, tickle
Honey coating the tongue.
The tongue warmed
Otherwise, the sound is hollow.
We learned to match frequency,
Press your finger into
Feel it vibrate
like the skin of your throat.
What The Academic Does In The Library Stacks
The easiest part of being me is probably all of it but somehow I keep finding it hard. Especially the folding of clean laundry. Especially the throwing away of old flowers. I carry death on my shoe. I keep pebbles in my pockets—small ones of no particular significance but mine, still. I wear voluminous dresses too, big gashes of fabric & the body swirling underneath. I’ve got all these hands & I just want to touch myself, okay? & not always even that.
Over & over the cat says she just wants to be where I am or, failing that, to know where I am. She keeps an eye out. She’s ready if the rats ever come. The body swirling underneath is sometimes a galaxy & sometimes an engine & sometimes a dog but please don’t mistake it for ever just a body please. How do I talk about a body? The cat walks everywhere with purpose.
This article is a treatise on the semantics of bodies in relation. The weather is always an excuse for drinking I say. As if I needed an excuse. The sky is my excuse – my reason its unbounded size & the distance between it & me. Come closer please. Wouldn’t you like it if I said that to you? You would, you would.
But the body beneath the body is an exploding star, a hidden tulip, a skeleton key that once spoken might open your heart beyond what you can bear. The body beneath the body has a voice. The body beneath the body beneath the body is composed entirely of heart. What is a body. I am going to keep drinking. Keep going.
I am translating into academic language the story of peeling back the bodies of my lover, of holding her in my mouth & the awe-clapped collapse of one body into another, those infinite layers crossing one into one into one into one until there—was her heart in her mouth & O how it sang. Come closer, now. See how the body moves under all this fabric. Perhaps I’ve waxed long enough. The clothes unfolded, the flowers drooping.
A Simile Is a Suspension Bridge
God—loving you is like sleeping drunk on the roof please come get me
or at least give me a call & we can talk about having a party:
let’s talk about having a fancy dress party, a costumed fancy dress party
where everyone comes as the person they most want to sleep with
& I will make hors d’oeuvres from my mother’s cookbook,
the one from the seventies with the terrible off-color photographs
but I have faith it’ll turn out okay. Cheese balls, devils on horseback,
pigs in blankets, pimento-stuffed olives, Ritz crackers, tomato aspic.
The cat & I have been so sad, God, we wake up every few hours
to say “I love you” even though this only serves to remind us:
we are still alive.
We’ll invite all your favorite people & all of mine,
but not Julia, who turned out to be a bitch, or Angel Michael,
who you know I like but sometimes he can be sort of smug
& I really want it to be the kind of party where we let loose.
God, needing you isn’t easy, not even a little I wish you’d come get me.
The cat & I miss you something fierce.
Faith is like a wholly undeserved hangover,
a stubbornly dry ballpoint, like realizing partway through an episode of Law & Order
that you already saw the second half, in a motel outside Tempe,
your whole naked body goose pimpled under the air conditioner;
it’s like / it’s like a bridesmaid dress, faith is.
God, faith is the distance between you & me,
sure, but it’s also like a head full of the perfume of a girl
who probably doesn’t want me back.
Everyone knows this already, but of course
I would show up as Joan & I think that’s a defensible choice.
I’m getting carried away with the party, aren’t I?
I just want you to call or to show up when I go for my goodnight smoke
or sometimes I imagine you will be waiting on the porch
as I walk home from work because you’ve forgotten your key
but you don’t & don’t & don’t don’t don’t show up
& the cat & I are so sad God I wish you’d call.
Things Really Went to Hell
Everyone in your house had a beard,
even the smooth-haired dachshund
with the wheelchair attachment.
Her name was Margot, you said.
You asked about my trip. Bus travel
was invented for the fashion depraved
and those who enjoy touring historical sites.
I am neither of those kinds of people, I said.
I was forthright about my interest in socks.
You had hyped yours up in our conversations
over the Internet. Your best quality was love
of fabrics. That was also something you said.
I asked about them, your socks,
only to look down and see orange
polka-dot boots. Margot was there too,
a stuffed octopus in her mouth.
Someone sneezed upstairs.
You offered to drive me around town
in your bloodmobile as compensation
for the lies you told me about your socks.
That didn’t seem adequate compensation to me.
I said but all those pictures and you said Photoshop.
I asked if I was the first and you said not even close.
Margot squeaked across the floor, tentacle in mouth.
I said my heart was not a plush toy and you said
it was a sock. I walked back out your door, past
the bloodmobile with the license plate motto:
The Sideburn State. Now, this made sense.
I wrapped this relief around me like a scarf
and was on a bus home twenty minutes later.
And I was so happy—my scarf said don’t mess with me,
I’m the saddest motherfucker with a window seat.
Lisa Fay Coutley
Which means I’ve started watching YouTube
clips from the local dog shelter in the city
I was sure I’d burned behind us. Familiar
never pushes in its chair or leaves the table
quiet. We live in a box. At night, I lock us
inside & hope no one breaks in, or out.
Sometimes, pre-sleep, I spin scenarios
of what might happen. My sons never make it
to college or marriage or fatherhood.
I try to imagine how my whole life has passed
& only this year have I noticed my own
pigeon-toed stride. Parked, I’m stalking
my oldest boy as he walks from school
to his friend’s, where they’ll sit, chillin’
& smokin’ blunts all day. & so love saunters
dumbly away. No glancing back. This is it:
the dream where I’m screaming underwater
or trying to punch some bitch in the face.
Voiceless. Armless. Careo—in need of, free
from, without. A kenneled dog comes closer
to the word for missing than this dead language
I'm learning, in this house where no one speaks.
To a Player Piano, Grand Rapids, MI, 2010
The way my father’s calloused fingers
plucked tiny checkers,
careful and patient, counting aloud
as he skirted the perimeter
of backgammon’s felt-and-leather stage,
teaching me addition
in the pediatric ward.
The only other sounds:
the ding of elevator arrival
and helicopter wings.
My skin raked bare
by drug, scalp shining feathery
under fluorescent lights,
and my father, still scraping together
some semblance of order,
scolding me for itching out my eyebrows,
Pick out mine instead.
as if he wished he could take my place
or that we’d all end up unchanged.
These are the moves of brown and ivory stones
kept in neat rows, progressing in circles
from one corduroy cradle
to another, Move one guy six and one four, or this one
ten. His stones advancing counterclockwise
against the trajectory of mine
like a sweeping negation.
The muted rattle of dice in felt-lined cups
again and again
both of us traveling nowhere.
Maybe it was all just practice
for what was to come,
the way his tissues fell
into mindless replication
like a child pianist
repeating the same measure.
In the months before he died,
I found the backgammon set
buried in an antique dresser drawer.
His mind had been rollered flat by illness,
his fine motor skills rendered imprecise,
but backgammon came easily
each gesture rising
from the wreckage of memory.
In the lobby of the hospice hell-home
where we let him die,
some restored Steinway
kept playing itself
from a pattern punctured in paper,
the notes laid out like barcodes,
each perforation a premonition of its sound
that suck of air
the way a choir holds its breath
just before beginning
the way a father leaves his daughter
filled with holes.
In Praise of Kool Filter Kings
If the sea had skin
you could roll it up over Florida
like a condom, prevent what you only
in the comfort of others’ mishaps call
the spread of Florida. And what’s so wrong
with Florida, then? There’s none
more existential crisis than 6:30 pm in Florida,
and you need not have driven there drunk
the night before, parked on the street
outside the Daytona Beach YMCA, rusty harmonica
on the dashboard and God knows what
looks like donut glaze on the jeans you cut
into jean shorts with a buck knife
just south of Valdosta. We’ve come to the shore,
by God, so we’ve conquered the shore,
quoth you, for puking-on
is 51% of ownership in business-friendly
Florida. The sea is not indifferent,
but rather calms you roaring in your ear.
There’s still half a tank of gas
and an unopened pack of menthols
you must have bought at a Gate
in St. Cloud, now what? You gave
a homeless girl four menthols
and a five-spot and she swore
she’d spend it on bean burritos
and she didn’t even cheapen the deal
by proffering a blowjob. The liquor stores
here never close because it’s the beach
and you know by the way your eyeballs burn
the sun will come up soon and you feel you should pray
but you don’t know what to pray to
and a blue crane perched on the arm
of a lifeguard chair somehow reminds you
there’s love in the world. Now what?
You Called the Night It Snowed in April
You called the night it snowed in April.
I squeezed out of the dinner party,
slumped behind the wheel
of Molly's car and listened. Harshly,
you squeezed the dinner party
from my mind. Delicate white flakes fell
on Molly's car and glistened. Harshly,
the wind blew the idea of warmth and eating well
from my mind. Delicate white flakes fell.
“Are you in a safe place?” I asked.
The wind blew. The idea of you warm and well
in the shelter near Leicester passed,
“Are you at a bar?” I asked.
You remind me you can’t drink
in the shelter near Leicester. The past,
an unbreakable chain, links
me to you. “You shouldn’t drink.”
But in the dim bar you will shoot cheap whiskey.
There is an unbreakable chain which links
you to me and light brown liquor. From the shitty,
dim bar where you shoot cheap whiskey
you called. It snowed that night in April.
You drank light brown liquor. I felt shitty
and slumped farther down behind the wheel.
Fifty Shades of Grey
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