The Amon Liner Poetry Award AN IMPERFECT FIGURE

                                is making biscuits in the morning just
for myself worth it
                                 kneading in the butter
filling the kitchen           with godly golden
                                 crumble smell
breaking open like a confession
                                 steam gasping into the air
apron covered in floury
                                 handprints           not caring
that it’s hot in the kitchen I will
                                 say of course           and more

                                 and then opening           the jam
last summer’s Michigan blueberry
                                 the near-black nectar smothering
licking my fingers
                                 I can live with the softness
padding my ribs for this           the crumbs
                                 all over the sticky counter
like waking up in the bed of the one I love
                                      a trail      of my clothes set loose
across the floor
                                 unconcerned if it’s messy
the answer is yes           and please

STANDARD COURSE OF STUDY

There is no history of accord,

only one of cruelty—

if the goat calms the stallion,

then debtors will clip the wires

or thrash the thick cypress fence

to steal the goat—

if the stallion loses by a leg,

the debtors will be jailed—

if the prisoners riot,

the guards will quell violence

with riot gas and side-handle batons—

 

Still, imagine how droll

the high school textbooks rewritten

to chronicle an affable people—

They shook hands and massaged each other’s shoulders,

they dressed in corduroy pantaloons

to serenade each other from balconies—

Imagine the cruelties we might have to imagine

to keep ourselves engaged—

snakebites, beds of nails,

mild electric shocks—

AERIAL VIEW: JACKSON STATE COLLEGE

On May 15, 1970, the Jackson State killings occurred on the campus of Jackson State College (now Jackson State University) in Jackson, Mississippi. On May 14, 1970, a group of student protesters against the Vietnam War were confronted by city and state police. Shortly after midnight, the police opened fire, killing two students and injuring twelve. The event happened only eleven days after National Guardsmen killed four students in similar protests at Kent State University in Ohio. The Kent State incident captured national attention; the Jackson State killings did not.

 

*

 

A bullet comes through the air. It’s not fair

simply to fear them as projectiles;

often they are warnings. That is

to say, they sound out through time,

running up ahead to let us know

the terrain before us does not welcome

our kind, almost singing a single note

of advice: run.

 

 

I.

 

Above us, squinting through the scope,

above us frowning, sharpening the focus,

pain and quirk and need, what else does he call for,

 

he who wields the secret to death?

What else scares us . . . what else do we scare?

What else rustles the leaves, nervous,

trying to remain calm?

 

Courage and warmth, what else

ended today as the clouds opened,

spreading the clarity of light?

 

I remember how the sky winced, gray and opaque,

and then, wide-eyed, what else did the day do?

Did dandelions lift from their stalks?

What else got the hell out of the way?

 

What else got caught in the crossfire,

in the wake of the whistling? I can’t see

you for the fuselage of the city,

littering the air, strewn across pavement.

 

I still long

for the mundane moment

before the seed, the seed that does not grow,

got planted in my chest.

 

What else sowed but did not reap?

Was I the harvest? Was I not meant to yield?

 

 

II.

 

Spring came and the sun came and both left

a hole where warmth once fell like a salve

for the chill and the sting of the chill.

 

Nightfall. Now, nothing behaves like spring.

Earlier, clouds burned off the sky

but no one celebrates a clear day

filled with violence. No platitudes

 

get exchanged after a killing,

sometimes after a death but never after a killing.

Who cares about the weather?

 

Who cares who won the game?

I see my body but I cannot feel

as others touch my body. Did I

 

ever feel my body respond

to the response of another’s body?

What’s the point of asking this question?

 

Under the night air, coolness prevails.

A cool, spring night, someone will say

walking their dog before going to bed.

 

Will they know how violent the day was

before dark? We think of violence happening

at night. Once more, a day stretches

 

possibility to the limit. Someone wakes

to the possibility, asserting, as their feet

touch the cold floor at the side of their bed,

 

a new day. A future of which they cannot

conceive. A death they won’t believe

unless it actually finds them.

 

 

III.

 

Some bodies had fallen out of fear

like animals freezing still when facing

a predator. Some bodies got shot

 

but not shot dead. Their lives

continue but with wounds we’ll never see;

these wounds won’t heal.

 

Some flew like prey across the veldt

of the campus quad, flew on their legs,

flew without grace, like prey will do,

 

pissing and shitting themselves,

surviving. Some have names we will forget.

They won’t mind; they took off running

 

to be forgotten. Me? I was once promising.

I stood there, looking into the sun. Above me,

the roof tops, the clock tower, the glint

 

of the gun. Stand still and watch

as people come back into the scene;

that’s what I’ll do, I said.

 

People, still, will not remember my name,

maybe they’ll mention me tonight

as they lie down in the dark

 

after they turn off the news, but once the screen

on the set powers off, I’ll lie as dead

as the distance one crosses through the night

believing there will be a sunrise.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

In the bleach-blue light of

                             morning, the reason to

 

                 stay in bed. In the glass

dropped by the diffident

 

                             hand opening of its own

                 accord, a one-word horoscope

 

of nope. In the Muzak

                             playing while you wait

 

                 in the yawning

line to order your dark

 

                             roast with cream,

                 in that sibylline satellite

 

radio, nostalgia’s anti-

                             gravity—the Buzz

 

                 Aldrin of your heart

planting flags that don’t

 

                             wave. In the dream,

                 a prophecy of more

 

dreams. In the crows,

                             take-take-take. In the way

 

                 one word breaks

into another like a wave,

 

                             something you didn’t want

                 to say, though you’ve thought

 

it before. In the TV’s blue,

                             in the sun, the fluorescents

 

                 at work: you, you. Light’s

always lifting dark’s

 

                             rock to find you wriggling

                 there, a worm under

 

the eye, as if that’s what you were

                             looking for. As if it was

 

                 the last thing you

wanted to find.

A STORY ABOUT THE BODY

Anger can erupt like a lawn mower pieced together

Suddenly exploding

Yellow jackets

 

But it’s a mistake to thank fate

For the extra skin of denim

Draped around your tender ankles

 

If you’re unwilling to indict it

For your failure to engineer a kill switch

Or to wear a shirt

Those stingers can’t penetrate.

 

It’s not to blame when

The cloud of dust and dry grass

Churning through the blades

Above the evacuated rabbit hole

Transforms into a golden cloud

Of switchblades.

 

The sun doesn’t drop any slower

For anyone

But you

As you circle the yard

Savoring

What might be your final

Pain.

 

And isn’t anger like this—festering

Inside you all week until

It squeezes out through your skin

Leaving welts as it electrifies the air

Into a swarm so territorial

 

That you can’t—though you try to—

Outrun it?

from QUANTUM LYRICS

TRUTH

Albert Einstein to Mileva Maric

 

Your eyes hold enough lies

Day-to-day walking through the market,

A woman walking freely without

The sleight of hand of my skin, this peccadillo.

 

What rests inside me will rise

Out my mouth to kiss you, to kiss

My confession into you each day, Mileva.

Will the truth offer you some freedom

 

Or will I simply invite you to sit in my prison?

Wouldn’t life play better if you visited me

In this cell, conjugal visits in which we pretend

We’re free? I’ll ask for you to come to me,

 

And I’ll tell you to leave me, eternally

Coming and going like the rain. I told you

Only that I’m a man, only through how I hold you,

How I look in your eyes, like stars announce

 

They’re stars by the dance and death of their light.

But you look sad as if you know now

What you must not know.

BLACK LIGHT

Our bodies cast a shadow of one

Body under a black-bulb pulse

In your mother’s basement. Light, even

 

When it’s black, moves faster than

Youth or old age; it’s the constant in

Our lives. But I remember when

 

I thought your house—always ready for

A party, even during the week—

Was the fastest element in my life.

 

Toenails, lint, teeth,

Eyes—everything was holy

Under the glow. I suspect

 

Even my bones were ultraviolet

When we danced, which was always more

Of a grind than a dance.

 

Whether the song sung came

From Rick James or Barry White,

We called what we did in the coatroom

 

Dancing, too: My hands, infrared

Under your dress, but innocent: We

Were only kids, after all,

 

I was 16 and you were a woman of 18.

Already, we knew how to answer each other

Without asking questions, how to satisfy by seeing

 

What nearly satisfied looked like

In each other’s faces. This all before

I ran out to sneak back into my mother’s

 

House in the middle of the night.

But, now, it’s eight years later,

You’re walking, it seems, so I offer

 

You a ride. And you look in and smile.

And when I see you I wonder

What would have happened

 

If we had stayed in touch. I have to get back

To work the next morning in DC,

A five-hour drive; it’s near dark

 

And I want to get on the road before night

Falls completely, but I stop anyway.

It’s been too many years.

 

And I mistake your gesture.

And then I realize you

Don’t really recognize me,

 

Until you back away and turn

On your heels.

Then a man with a Jheri curl

 

And a suit that looks like it’s woven

From fluorescent thread

Walks up and looks at me

 

Like I wasn’t born in this town,

And for the first time in my life,

I question it myself. He walks up as slow

 

And sure as any old player should on Sunday night.

While walking away, you two exchange

Words. You don’t look back. But

 

We see each other in our heads—aglow,

Half-naked—under our black-bulb pulse

In your mother’s basement. Given a diadem

 

By the lucid night and the streetlamp’s

Torch, the man wearing the fluorescent

Suit casts a broad shadow

 

Like a spotlight into which you step.

Maybe he’s the reason we’re here tonight

Beneath these dim stars, casting

 

A light true enough . . . finally,

For us, after all these years, to see each other.

FEAR OF WONDER

I want to be the people

in the architect’s model

faceless shapely always

striding beside the shiny

walls girders windows halls

the architect wants us to notice

but he can’t show empty

because then we won’t

see ourselves within it

just as we don’t acknowledge

the cliff edge until sneakers

stub against stone we fight

our own tumble to oblivion

& awe draws the precipice for us

mighty & the earth a dark

planet with fire at its heart

 

I was talking to a friend

about this & we both confessed

we’d driven the long tree-lined

road & wondered about

twisting the wheel & our fear

was not of the twist but of

the wonder the capacity to be

any self suicidal murdering

adulterous the man who

committed the woman who

severed the child who touched

the live—so why wonder at all?

We can’t help it we see

a window & have to imagine

our reflection across it

twenty-three windblown

right after a laugh & what if

death is just like that

before you know it fully

an empty glass waiting

& you a silent movie

of something pouring out

The Greensboro Review Literary Award Poem NOT THAT HAPPINESS

Not bluebirds nesting in a wooden box

nailed to your picket fence.

No geraniums in the planter, but yarrow

where the trees begin, hawkweed

in a clearing near the black locust

and loosestrife—how you are helpless

against its beauty—everywhere

along the creek. No friends anymore

who ask about dinner, but a boy who woke

last week, singing counterpoint

to the wrens. To read, We are without

consolation or excuse, and remember

a sack of peaches from a roadside stand;

hunger the day you stopped for them.

Maxine Sullivan singing “Blue Skies.”

In winter, lullabies sung for the dead.

The shoulder roast simmering in red wine

with potatoes and sweet onions

on a day when the rain begins; your heart

sliding toward the sinkhole of November.

Who is not captive to some small happiness?

To love a field you can never own—the pink mist

of knapweed, the blue of chicory.

Or the heron that settles in the neighbor’s pond

and croaks through the last of your dreams.

You startle awake, patting your head, glad

that you are not a minnow, darting

among the muddy reeds. How it comes around,

this happiness, like a landlord sniffing out the rent.

Not what you ordered—pennywhistles, cellophane hats,

those hand-crank noisemakers—but the happiness

that finds you, scrawls a receipt, says,

“You paid for this,” whatever happiness is.

TO A THREAD-WAISTED SPHECID WASP IN ENOLA, PA

I’ve been left alone on my third wedding anniversary

until you return to my stoop with your payload,

a radiant caterpillar gripped in your mouth, clinging

all along your belly. At first I thought it might be

attacking you. You dove loud and low, almost hopped,

as if trying to shake it off. Those million legs

kept flipping you. Yesterday I watched you push against

each other on the steps until tumbling into a spider’s web.

While you thrashed and freed yourself, the caterpillar fell

limp, maybe knowing to save energy for some fragile version

 

of the afterlife. And today when you hum in from the river,

I can see right away the caterpillar is finally dead, although

you are still wrapped in full-body embrace. I forgive this

deception: this morning I allowed a fly to crawl the length

of my leg because I wanted to be touched, and a perfect

stillness sometimes feels like something’s coming.

 

The two of you make a remarkable creature, your glossy body

and violently blue belt, that corpse a flush berth beneath.

In fusion, you have altered each other, and my heart,

a nucleus, splits and splits. Its next punch could be its burst.

 

With four of your legs, you draw the weight you carry close,

a final cradle, and—bomber that you are—you spread

two dangerous wings, lift off for the river. Wasp,

we are not simple vessels. We are blistering atoms seeking

to be cracked, our bodies expanding into a cloud.