Ben Wright Poetry Portfolio
A Table at the 2009 Convention of the Georgia Association of Funeral Directors Next to me the merchants of a better post-death experience arrange themselves into poses of…
A Table at the 2009 Convention of the Georgia Association of Funeral Directors
Next to me the merchants of a better post-death experience
arrange themselves into poses of attentiveness
for workshops on upselling caskets,
The Latest in Preservation Technology,
Interacting with the Hysterical Guest,
or where we sit, Timeless Beauty.
There are slides of made up faces,
the lopsided grins of stroke victims,
threads in their cheeks tugging muscles
into Mannerist smiles.
I used to want to style the stars,
a presenter says too close into the microphone,
but it's easier when your clients can't complain.
A hush of laughter is lost near the ceiling.
This table is draped with thin paper,
a hospital gown. The woman next to me
is painting her fingernails carmine.
I write a note on my legal pad:
Add a magenta base
to combat the pallor. The presenter
tells a story about how she colored a client’s hair
but it grew out before the viewing.
The guests complained about the roots
before the driving, the procession,
the digging, the quiet of the night,
the sound of footsteps somewhere close.
Sometimes, when the A/C turns on
and the dust billows out in a blanket over my things,
I think of the tornado I slept through as a child,
the destruction of the town
and the nettles of soil that pocked my face.
By the time the sun summits the mountain of my life,
it’s past noon and I am looking
for the one thing that will transubstantiate you completely.
I gave up remembering altogether,
choosing instead to pour myself
into cracked glasses and broken picture frames,
empty juice boxes, half full cups and
decaying furniture so in the event of a fire
or accidental burial the most important part of me
will be somewhere else.
When the mold begins to creep up the stairs
and the house begins to sag,
I’ll shut my doors as best I can,
crawl through the window
and shovel dirt inside to hasten the inevitable.
Do you remember that time
when we were six and I smashed your music box?
I have kept the bones of those notes,
the skull of that song and buried it inside a book
which is inside a box that contains
bank statements inherited from my father.
Inside this scaffolding,
stacked on top of the bodies
of all my memories, I live again and again.
I'm resigned to the fact that I'll be unwinding your hair forever.
Serpents wriggle into the crevices of our bodies,
ready to strike. I pull them out
like a magician revealing a disappeared rabbit.
I found your sock on the floor, pink as a lung.
Our song, once a lump of coal in my throat,
becomes a golden record in space,
far from civilization.
I close my eyes and you are there, looking at me, cracking your toes,
wet leather slapping a rock. You file your nails,
a prisoner’s rasp against bone. You sigh
in your sleep. But back to your hair.
I realize, now, I should’ve written something about it,
how it flows like a waterfall of knives,
how, in certain light, it shines like a memento mori,
how, when tied up, it’s a caged tiger,
begging to sing. Or how I used to wake up with a mouthful,
as if I were trying to make it part of me.
I should’ve built a loom out of twigs and rocks, or bought one.
I should’ve been weaving a tapestry from the strands
that follow me like an addiction.
I should’ve chronicled the long, unusually boring story of us.
It could hang from my eggshell walls,
surrounding me with unhurried history.
We don't need to know
the reasons for the crash or
the trajectory of the fall,
why we woke up that morning and turned on CNN,
why the comet of its death caught a piece of sunlight
and turned the screen white, why we called
our fathers and urged them Wake up,
something is happening,
why the map of the debris looked like a pillow
or what the nematodes onboard thought
of the weightlessness, then the shaking,
the fire, the fall.
Do we need to know
the histories of hair that fell
in clumps from the sky
or the excitement of discovering
another piece of the remains in a field?
We need to know the warehouse,
the masking tape outline
of the shuttle voluminous in its loss,
the pieces stacked inside. We need
to file past it slowly, let our mothers
dab our eyes with used Kleenex, let others
see our backs on the screen.
Let them see us in the way of the empty coffin.
How do I begin to reap the seeds of resentment,
planted months ago in some quiet night,
with the sound of my voice
heavy in sleep as fertilizer?
Who knows what they’ve grown into,
fractals of violence,
pungent and bioluminescent in the evening.
I thought I had found a redwood of spite
but it was just a shrub of umbrage,
prickly and tenacious,
choked by the weeds.
There comes a time,
my father said,
when you have to turn around
and take in the forest of your life.
Then there’s nothing left to do
but begin the harvest.
When we drink, we talk about history: how
Andrew Jackson hated Indians the same way
you hate the mice that eat through your wires.
The workers at Triangle Shirtwaist
ripped off their skirts, wrapped them around their heads,
soaked them in water and clawed at the chains on the door
until they were too hot to touch. Then they jumped, or didn't.
This is how you feel every morning before getting
out of bed.
You tell me every time you clip your toenails
you can't help but think of the long, sad history of Poland.
Shackleton freezes in his tent. A molasses flood
creeps down my spine. A farmer lights a cigarette
in an empty grain silo and the explosion is repeated
with every crack of your knuckles.
In the car, your head resting against
the window, you tell me what the astronauts
of Apollo I thought when they felt the fire
seal the locked door.
Don’t forget the sky has other zones,
I tell my son, tethered to a tangle of tubes
and monitor wires, chest floating
slightly above the hospital bed.
I ask him the color of the barn,
what his favorite flavor of ice cream is,
if he wants three scoops or two,
if he can wait just a little longer.
A drop of condensation,
vein on the window, distracts him.
A late hoar frost kills the crops.
A bloom of ink invades a brain.
The threat to life isn’t the cold,
but the ice. In seventh grade, we froze frogs
in an ice cube tray and forgot about them.�
Someone is putting tubes in my son’s nose.
The secret to staying alive isn’t the freeze,
it’s the thaw. Tell that to the mammoths. Tell that
to the taiga.
My son is eased into a machine.
The doctor is pointing to his nose with his right hand
and then his left.
A machine hums my son to sleep.
Somewhere, citrus rots under the ice.
The sky looks like grey matter
discontent with its potential.
“Vanishing twin syndrome, first described by Stoeckel in 1945, is the identification of a multifetal gestation with subsequent disappearance of one or more fetuses.”
The last thumbprint of your existence
lies at the bottom of a drawer, a fading print of your half-formed skull
in occultation of mine
before I squeezed you back into nothing.
I don’t know if you are living your life on some strange Earth
or if you inhabit the world of absences.
I don’t know if you know my name
or if you can hear us murmuring yours.
I’m reading the story of your life while writing mine.
I know your half-whispered secrets that stick on the walls of the room
we never shared. I’ve heard the story of your first kiss
so many times it gets confused with mine.
Your favorite and most fearsome memory is being forgotten
by Daddy and Momma and me on the beach when we were four,
your chest seizing with tension as we continued unaware of your absence.
In that moment, you were stuck between calling out,
or letting us slip away.
You’re marching battle lines long crossed,
forever considering that Stars and Bars tattoo,
opening volume after volume of history and breathing it in.
"There's nothing," you said before driving into your death,
sipping a Crown and Coke,
"nothing as important as family."
You looked at your truck, the marsh beyond,
alligators groaning somewhere therein.
From a distance, your hazard lights looked like twin stars,
forever disappearing, forever reappearing.
Here, the land is mostly unassuming
You may wish to visit the churches on the corner, read their witty signs. You may be seduced by the family-friendly atmosphere or the haunted houses where people apologize for scaring you, but suggest it's for your own good. You don't want to count the grams of sugar or the money; there's never enough. You may be unaccustomed to the weight that now sleeps in the small of your back. This, the weight of your transgressions, is normal, briefly forgotten in the heavy nights when it blends in with everyone else's. Along the highway, ignore the abject poverty. Feel the glory somewhere within, but don't ask where it comes from. Sometimes, I swear I can see the light from their mouths.
Upon Receiving Another Job Rejection
I cup it gingerly in my outstretched hands,
careful not to let a single unnecessarily formal syllable fall out.
Each one of these We-regret-to-inform-you’s and
Thank-you-for-applying’s are precious to me.
They will come together
and make a great memoir, one day.
But for now I am content to keep my hoard,
using them to paper the walls of my house,
to wipe the grease off my chin,
to cover myself in the quickening night.
I string some up outside,
a warning to the others.
The oldest are withered and yellowing in the sun,
They flutter in the breeze,
like prayer flags,
or funeral notices.
There’s something to be said for noncommittal memory—
recalling the ice truck, workers hacking at the blocks,
sucking on sandy chips, spitting out the grit.
Then it’s back to the present, and cold pea purée is dripping down her chin.
There’s the time lightning struck the field and fifty head of cattle
lay down together.
The winter it was so cold the trees exploded.
The time she sat on the swing
and cried and cried,
tearing up the soil with her feet.
Someone dumped paint in the yard
and the grass never grew back.
A blank slate shovels food into a mouth,
reciting the same poem to the walls.
Her brain is a fire underground,
asphalt hot to the touch;
a pane of glass that a toddler doesn’t see;
a sneeze while barreling down the interstate;
a chair waiting to be sat on so it will finally break.
A pickaxe buries itself into a block of ice
and she is there, licking its side.
For years I have tried to write a poem to you,
a gift to bequeath; a poem that would rest
lopsided on your head and pinch your scalp; a poem
that would scratch its thoughts onto your skull and never
be read again; a poem that existed as a singularity.
The poem ached between my ribs.
The poem wanted more than anything to be in the ground.
The more I thought about
the poem, it became The Poem,
a Platonic ideal, tired from all the thinking.
The Poem has whispered at me lately,
filled my joints with ache.
When I think about you,
there's a phantom limb folded underneath me.
I realize now that The Poem
was neither a present nor a parasite but instead
the feral twin of what we created, that it
breathed heavily looking through your blinds
before licking my ears with thoughts.
Thinking about you, The Poem punched a wall,
while the poet sat in his chair.
At night, it’s hard to tell
if the leaves aren’t really cockroaches,
if the soft pop-pop-pops down the road are firecrackers
or death breaking the sound barrier,
or how much time was between your breaths.
At your funeral, I mistook a floral arrangement
for an archangel, and pity for grief.
After the first mouse was caught,
we kept seeing more of them.
A sock on the floor darted up the steps.
Scratches from the walls kept us up at night.
We listened to the baseball game on the radio
and watched the rocking chair move on its own.
The microwave warmed itself.
A cold spot on the ground grew like an amoeba.
Before we pulled the blanket away like magicians
unveiling the chair underneath,
the vents moaned.
The cat watched a spot on the wall,
tail flicking back and forth.
A light entered the wall and disappeared.
Brushing your teeth you felt someone
tracing your spine.
When I was 7, you let go of the steering wheel.
I couldn’t tell the difference from when you were in control.