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Four Poems

The thin king bound in the fiery hollow shook
The chain by which his left arm was suspended
And from a hatch that rattled open just

Above his right eye dropped a demon like
A glass-winged gerbil, who immediately
Began to stab the thin king’s pupil with

A dripping claw, and said, Forgive me, king,
For my unwilling violence. I bite
My paws off, but they grow back while I chew

So that I wonder while I’m chewing, Is
This still my paw I’m chewing, and, forgive
Me, king, but that thought helps me swallow. I

Was just now talking to the cook, I don’t
Know this one’s name, don’t ask me what his name is
He’s got a head that looks like, right at the top,

A knot in an oak tree. I think he must
Talk through the hole he listens with. I have to
Shout through his voice to talk to him, for all

The who-knows-what he tries to tell me. I
Don’t like to stare, so when I talk to him
I perch on the edge of the knot and shout, so I’m

Too close to see the knot. Anyway, I
Was talking, and I had to pull my face
Out of the hole to breathe, and when I did

Forgive me, king. You know I can’t stop stabbing
Your eye. You know I have to hold your eyelid
Open whenever you try to blink. You know

I have to hold it open with my teeth
You know I’ve tried to swallow them. Forgive me
Anyway, when I pulled my head from the knot

I saw a new sign hanging from the line
Above the stove, where the cooks drain the bodies
Hanging between two bodies, on a sinew

And the sign read, You cannot love your mother
And let your neighbor starve. I saw the sign
And heard a moaning sound approaching from

The knot, a moaning and a rasping scream
Both sounds approaching me together, and
I looked in the knot and saw what looked like eyes

A pair of eyes, furious, rising from
The darkness in the knot, not glowing, but
Their fury made them visible. I saw

In the eyes fury great as yours once was
Hunger more hollow than you could sustain
Now. They rose fixed on me, and as they rose

I noticed, at first sheathing, and then growing
From my claws, icicles of blood, that grew
Down toward the eyes as quick as the eyes rose

I lost my balance, and I fell from the knot
And almost into the tall flame the cook
Was using to make pancakes, but I stopped

Myself. Hovering there, above the flame
Beneath the knot, I only heard the cook
Humming a song I didn’t recognize

Each long note slid across the knot, ice sliding
Across a pond the moment winter leaves it
I turned my head and looked up, and no eyes

Emerged, but each of the bodies on the line
Opened its eyes, but lifelessly, and only
To glance at the icicles now melting into

The batter, then each closed its eyes again
Forgive me, at that moment a thought seized me
And holds me still. If God’s your mother—surely

God is your mother, king, who with the first
Made things was made—and loving God would free you
How many must you feed or else despair

The earth has not yet swallowed up so many
I think. I was just shaking my paws dry
And thinking when you rang. And here I am

Blood pearled at the wound in the eye of the thin king
Who eats the world and burns in the hollow center
Of the world. The demon bit the lid and held it


                            SEAGULLS CRYING

      To the beach at where    at anywhere a beach is
      But might have been      in Oregon unless my
      Grandparents were afraid    I would be known there
My kidnapping    or there I would remember they
                   Kidnapped me    and say

      So to a stranger    so and so and so and
      At whom and for how long then would they have to
      Smile to get free how    whitely nod and wriggle
To keep their black    pet smile at whom how far beneath
                      Them    the last smile on earth

      Or to the beach at the Gulf of Mexico some
      Several fewer thousand miles from Austin
      And where the water looked unnatural colored
To me who hadn’t then before    seen water not
                     Bound on all sides penned    caught

      And blue kept    clean the influx there prevented
      Of influence from other waters    said to
      But said by whom who weren’t themselves corrupted
Said to be water just the same as that which e-
                      ven I    a child could see

      Looked clean being blue    a child but taught to value
      Purity      I was four      was five was six that
      Child a hallucination now        my mother’s
Parents it was summer took me there    and almost none
                      Of it      most of it gone

      Now     I remember almost none of it not
      Even myself    a dream now I remember
      Except the crying seagulls at the window
Of the hotel room in which we stayed      from which I don’t
                     Remember leaving once

      Except to go back home the crying seagulls
      Crying at our window at      no other crying
      Until I threw them bread my mother’s mother
Had packed a loaf of bread   I tore the loaf apart
                       As fast as I could tear

      It each    brown slice apart    and threw the pieces
      To the seagulls who    is standing next to me    which
      Kidnapper      smiling    a hallucination
Helping with the loaf      but will not let me leave the room
                     Not even leave with them

      Not hand in hand with them      down to the water
      To watch the seagulls there that might not cry so
      Hungrily there      and some would hover quiet
Above the waves      and some would settle on the waves
                      And none would know my face


                       THE STAGGERING MAN
                                  —After Bill Traylor’s untitled drawing commonly
                                                 known as
Man Carrying Dog on Object

               I wear the anvil and the dog
               I carry them, the dog atop
               The anvil.       You might think the an-
         vil a caulked basket, me an African

               Carrying water home from the well
               The river,       in a basket on
               My head.      It is an anvil, cast
         Steel, painted blue, like water.     I walked past

               The river in a dream once, walked
               Along the river, carrying
               The anvil.      When I looked and saw
         My shadow on the water, where the blue

               Anvil, its shadow, should have been
               Nothing,     the shadow of the dog
               Floating above my head.    I woke
         Sweating, afraid,    too eager, and I checked

               The corner of the still black room
               Immediately for my burden
               I leap from bed and reach for the anvil
         The dog bites through my hand before I can pull

               It back, though      I had felt the cold
               Pouring from the steel, and the wet heat
               Of the dog’s breath.      As you can see
         I hold a cane in one hand, balance the

               Anvil with the other. Now which hand for
               Which?     Joy distracted me.     To have
               Dreamed such a dream! To have survived it
         My burden,       disappeared! But I arrived at

               The answer.       With the healthy hand
               I keep my burden safe, and with
               The cane I hold     in the wounded hand
         I punch my dripping blood into the earth


                                 AFTERHEX 6

One’s opportunities to be unhappy are
Corporate, yet disembodied, like a clown who works
Exclusively at office parties, here he comes
Carrying as he always does his bright red briefcase

And now you have another Team Esteem Bonds Builder
To fear, the script in somehow          it’s a universal
Language no human being would ever speak, approved
By many human beings.          As far as going along

With something goes, are you still part of everybody
The everybody in your home, the office, your
City, your state, your country, where? How far from you
Do you become just you again? if you within

The boundaries of your body know yourself, and so
Within the boundaries of your body are yourself
Alone, and not relying on what someone told
You years ago a liver is, and what a liver

Looks like, and how a liver works, for whom, you?     What
Percentage of your life do systems live for you
You wouldn’t recognize if somehow you could see
Them pulsing on a cluttered gurney by your side

Mixed with, they look         identical, organs from oth-
er people that would kill you were they stuffed in you
Your body would reject? Is red        healthy? You’re paid
To laugh by someone paid to whisper    by the people

Who pay themselves, and speak as loud as, louder than
They want to speak, or think they want to speak, the people
Who think their need       to be more powerful than other
People, their organs pulsing redder on the gurney

Will one day free them, though it binds them tighter to
You every second of their lives, and always has, though
You’re paid to listen       to their whispers redden warm
In the gut of the middleboss, a nest for day-long eggs

Shane McCrae's latest books are Cain Named the Animal and Sometimes I Never Suffered (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a finalist for the Maya Angelou Book Award, the T. S. Eliot Prize, and the Rilke Prize. He has received a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, among others.