Joe Fletcher

the wounded americans

They were bleeding on the sacks.

We handled them roughly

and they seemed to deserve it -

there in the square beneath

the scrawled obelisk and its idiot thrust

toward a drained sky. Its shadow

fell into them like a clockhand,

swiping chunks of time from their hides.

One lurched on tiptoe,

his blasted heel swaddled in gauze.

All of the air hung still and stung the lungs.

A trash cart squeaked by behind its burro,

up from Baja through stinking chapparal dust.

Their kids scrambled toward it,

eyes roving for anything shiny, lips puckered

for dugs, heads dented by a doctor's tongs.

They were the next American hatch.

The elders watched for those that might make it.

They began to tell their story.

It was one story and seemed to fit them all.

They tilted toward the speaker, who changed

as the story shifted from mouth to mouth.

It was a long story. I drifted in and out of it,

like a cormorant skimming a harbor.

They told of hot rain that fell

on the boy who entered the murmuring

forest, prairies flecked with zinnia,

the spangled estuary rushing inland

to mill towns; they told of a priest who

with a jagged bottle-half severed the tendons

of his member, which swung sapless as a polyp;

they told of the spires which became visible

come August and pollen clouds

blown from scotch pine, and the flock

they pulled behind them in a wheeled cage.

There they were, staining the shale,

waiting for any gust of strength.

I saw the artery that linked them.

Some were kneeling. One fed

millet to a macaw, which flapped

and croaked. They leaned against

each other as if it were the last

thing to do. Were they out of work?

Out of meat? Their story continued

sporadic as starswirl floated through night.

I saw one combing another's head.

What did they want? What did we

want from them? All our want

got ragged, broke and drifted

like a scrim above our gathering.

Where was our next dwelling?

We sunk sleepward.

ben nez the winged

told me to be calm and I tried.

Told me to burn my shirt, stained

with salt rings and stale sweat.

Told me to burn the straw inside

the violin case protecting the glass cube

within which was a cocoon plucked from

a verdant sprig abloom on Asian hills.

Before the valley was smote by passage.

Before the placentas of the women emerged

gray and splotched. He told me.

He touched my neck, which trembled

like a pipe carrying smoke under a mountain.

I threw a handful of gravel at the mirage,

which stayed. I wanted to be protected.

He told me nothing could be. He himself

was naked and large, a pale

mushroom from some barren zone.

He looked like he didn't have any bones.

He told me his roots grew inward.

He wore a makeshift crown of shingles

ripped from the plunder of the last village,

bound by a vine dangling withered leaves.

He wore it over his bald and peeling scalp.

I pointed to his crown: that's protection.

He told me it was an offering, that every-

thing was federated in a general sacrifice.

He was sweating and drawing up tufts

of parched grass and stuffing them in his sack.

The sun was very very hot and we hung in that land

like game skewered above the makeshift pyres

of splintered carts. I brooded and backed away.

To avoid a quarrel? Because I wearied of what

he told me? I didn't know. I slid away on my rail,

he on his, each to his own traversings, each

with his own idea flickering in the great dark.

But he called to me over the cooling dunes,

a strip of sunset on the rimrock.

He told me to be prepared and I wasn't.

He told me he'd come to suck in my last exhale.

Now I drag my boots to smear my tracks.


I tear feathers from chickens.

I stuff them into hot and

spattered chutes where

blades twist, where fire grows

pale and slack on the sheer

steel tables of our hunger.

I'm the one who throws them

from their bodies into meat.

I'm the one who cinches the thread

and dangles them in the smoke.

How do I catch them?

I lie in the damp moss and the chickens

walk right up my outstretched arm.

I feel a god fastened to us,

a god coiled at the bottom of the sea.

Then I pry the chickens' chests open

with my beak and with a fly-buzzing sack

of them I ascend the road to work,

my talons plunging in gravel, my head

jerking beneath a frenzy of stars.


What helps? The sun?

The tribal mask I hold

between it and me?

The grass? The hiss

of gases burst from mud,

borne on winds

that scour trenches?

Where is the true food?

I climb through a day

that eats me, like a weary

orgiast on the morning

after the debauch, when

a limb is again a limb

and river detritus still collects

in sooty heaps beneath docks.

In whose custody am I?

What returns? I hear a child

shouting from the cellar

of the sagging farmhouse.

An animal's blood stains the fence.

Whose arthritic hand do I see

splayed on sheets

through the bedroom window?

A cloud uncoils above wheat.

A storm passes through the forest.

To what does it cling? What thing

is not a hindrance? What eye

doesn't narrow with wrath?

Drunk on the blue musk

of wilderness, wolves gambol beneath

the sky's balm. I follow the orchard path.

What tethers me?

A stable is strewn with urine-soaked hay.

A magician staggers

from a carnival tent, staggers

past me through a fog of gin. Who

wakens the psalm from the pit, who

slaps me from my sleep? At night -

windmills pulse. In the ravine 

I lick the bark of a gnarled tree.

woman with door handle

She stands in her leather hood blackly

draped in a heavy cloak that smells

of burnt lamb and last night's smoke.

A crimson sleeve encases a flabby arm

ending in a chubby fist of chapped knuckles,

which seizes the severed door handle

from the house where she was as a child

raped into silence. And grew fat and forgotten

so the soldiers didn't hear her as she hid

while they unseamed her clan with rust-

flaked bayonets. Her other arm was born

lame and stunted and stays pressed splayed-

fingered against the fleshy mound of her hip.

Her bloated moonface has stiffened in the cold

and she stares as if from eyes behind her eyes.

She sucks a wad of bread she keeps

between teeth and cheek. She makes

a salivary sucking sound and a bird screeches

from a crevice in the volcanic peak that juts

jagged on the lake's far side. The lake is

cold and fishless and absent of waves. The lake is

deep. As if a stone dropped would sink and

sink. The lake's black lid dimly doubles

the peach hue of dawn infused in a blue wash

of sky eclipsed by a brooding bank of cloud

dragging wetly across the charred rock plain.

No grass. No leaf. No green to stop the sound

of cavalry hooves tramping the ochre wastes.

The sweat of the night's journey clings coldly

to her wool, which chafes a rash into her.

She stands all day her idiot shoreline post

and the roving bands leave her to her mute watch.

Nights she walks around and around and

around the lake. She gets her food sometimes

from what she kills and sometimes from soldiers.

Then she stands still and sucks it.

Two kids once came from a migrant camp

and smacked her leather hood and shouted

into her distended face in which nothing flickered.

They tried to yank the handle from her hand.

They couldn't. They gave up and fled and were later

found dead sprawled on the hard distant slopes.

A frigid light spreads in the windless land.