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Two Prose Poems
The Emperor’s Vault

He was strapped to the chair, grown over in a gray lanky fur, slightly tilted over, almost falling from the chair as the light hovered over, tracing back and forth, and on the vaulted wall, a projection, what seemed a garden growing from ashes, reddish blooms and black earth seeming to crack open from the ashes, the projection was moving as though a camera was scouring the ground for signs of regeneration. The light was moving back and forth only a meter or so from the body of the emperor, on an extended arm with lenses and monitors, the emperor remained very still as the light searched his body. I could not see his face as I stood at the back of the vault, yet I understood he was aware of my presence, as though I were a cloud of dream seeping through the mortar despite its seamless construction, the labor of hundreds over thousands of hours.

As the light scanned his body, I could not tell if what was projected was what was outside, that which remained of his dynastic rule, the ruins of pillage and scorched-earth tactics from those of the north, or perhaps of his own minions; or was it some landscape of his dreams, an unfolding of what would come, the ruins that lay waiting deep in the tenses of the future, where the springs would be clouded with matter, the earth pocked and scabrous, mucosa and serum streaked.

And then, perhaps it was what I feared, the landscapes were but my own imaginings, of life without the master, the desolation of soul and daily work, how I would grow old and mottled, garments tattered, the fur trimmings gnawed by dogs, my boots streaked with my own urine. Oh my master I would have moaned, oh my only light and guide from this world, I would have cried, had I not been in his presence, watching the slow arc of light moving over his body, bathing it with its own yellow hues, a sun more golden and true than any that rose, bathing him I thought so that he too would rise, immaculate and golden, to forestall the desolation that streamed panoramic across the walls. But no sound came from his body, only the whirr of the motors as the light traveled on its thin arm.

I stayed my distance as his silence commanded, for only he could acknowledge me at his leisure, until then, I could only be but a stain upon the floor. I saw no way to leave, which puzzled me, for I had suddenly no recollection of entering the vault, only of long travels through the tracks of snow and marshes half-frozen, plagued by tigers and wolves. A memory of bandaged limbs from frostbite and dreams of fires, scant wood, bindings, the wind through rush huts, pits, sledges. And then here, the light scanning, a blackness between him and myself as though he were as much a dream as I, as though we were both dreams if dreams were but harbingers of the afterlife assigned to us.

What must have been many days later, the aromatic amines and sulfhydrol compounds began to permeate the vault. There were no vents, no means of egress, the walls as far as I was willing to explore were faultless. Do not ask what I consumed. The Emperor in his most holy state was left untouched; I did not lap up what spilled or fell from his chair, even as the light swooped over it, illuminating it for projection. Having chewed through the hides and bandaging, I felt my own ribs, the taut hollowing belly that seemed but a model for the vault, as though it too contained some master ever-waiting, holding out my own assignation.

And it was interesting. I could have called it a house, my ribs sheltering me, the tarp of my belly shields me from the blistering rains, the ocean not far off, the reek of salt and fish washing ashore in a dissolve of waves. The rigs on the horizon burning. Yet here I was inside. And as I said no means of escape, egress, exit. No windows even.

It was then I began my last dreams, those of you, you who will come, and through some unknown form of access see what regeneration has taken place, what new emperor will emerge among the glistening flies, how you will lift my remains as if they too were dreams, marshes, wolves, and place them in sanctuary, next to the dried hyacinths, garlands of cornflowers, crocus, and persimmon. You a dream of unknowing I am in dream of.



Not the whale. Not the beginning. Not the word coming out of the darkness for the first time.

What swallows us whole, shimmying in the mud-shit below, gap-mouthed. The dead
in their suits, walking through the sepia evenings as snow comes down thick as ash
from the night-works of late capitalism, the furnaces and star-mills, carbon-fill
snow-fields, starlings throb pixelated as the leviathan moves across the flattened meadows.

Not harpooned. Not for ambergris or night-scrivener’s oil. The gears of nano-pistons
powering memories in their slow degrading to flat-lines and kennings float on phosphine clouds.

Surfacing, the word for beginning, automatic and always generative, the sea roiled with leftover
plastics from the time before all this, the brine preserving sea-birds, their gray feathers
and thin bones confuse with the skin of dog-fish and Greenland sharks, tattered and flocked
with rosettes of barnacles, the scurry paths of sea-lice and sea-spiders.

We’ve hoisted it on to rollers and push it from opaque shallows on to the beach then across
dunes and through the coastal cities, as it devours anything its calcareous lips brush,
a black tongue whips out tasting the air for aromatic warmth, anaerobic movements. 

From it a flood of the yet-to-be digested spills out, then inhaled, sucked back in,
with flies and mange-maddened coyotes. We wheel it wherever it wishes, its eyes swim
toward what it desires. Others appear on the horizons, rolling
their gelatinous masters across crushed cinder blocks and shattered trees.

Iridescent flies swarm, the horizon wavers as they hover in clouds. The day goes
dark as one Leviathan is rolled by, the wet smell of eel-grass and mud drip and sloshes
against our shins, overhead the memories of geese and wild ducks migrate, sounding their way.

Coming out of the dark, not us, never, but always us. Before anything else moved, our thought
moved first in the darkness, chewing our thumbs, hungry for what will come in the cities
yet to be plotted, the animals traversing the veld, already hungry for what had not yet come to be.

When this world was created, it says, speaking through the dark chambered sea, a hundred others
were destroyed, vineyards buried in snow, the stars close to the snow, the seas jagged with ice.

Numbers trace the horizon, algorithms for truth, for what’s-to-come, our inevitability
we pretended was law, a stay against thought of accident or luck or circumstance of sun
and moon, the alignments of carbon and ethyl, and so, and so we are here, walking upright
through snow, the light falling on the arced grasses so they turn to gold, our sight covetous
and enormous, devouring what little there is that is left, the grass, the stunted pine, the snow.

And so. Here we are. Swallowing. Brine runs down our cheeks. The snow stained
with our leavings. Out of what darkness? Out of what emptiness? What single word?

James McCorkle is the author of several books of poetry, including the 2003 APR-Honickman First Book Award Evidences (Copper Canyon) and The Subtle Bodies, as well as the forthcoming In Time (both Etruscan Press). He teaches in the Africana Studies Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.