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words fail ©2013 john sweet


coming down hang the witch and then burn the corpse this is the way bloodlust purification all roads lead to america, but then what? we will be a nation of salesmen getting drunk and driving lost we will fuck the farmers’ daughters will leave the children for dead in fallow fields mercy was never meant to be a two-way street


rumors of war you wake up twelve years later in a nameless town and everything you know has turned to dust the child has a stranger's face the mother an addiction she crawls to the hand that beats her and there is the potential here for love or at least for something that passes for love and you cannot call these people home cannot call your scar tissue beautiful when every mirror reflects the past do you remember the day your father died? you were twenty-seven and hungover with the blood of a lover's abortion still staining your hands you cried for yourself made pointless promises to an empty room and refused to answer the phone


there were rumors of war but they came to nothing the killing remained personal as you aged a year and then another found yourself married and mortgaged and you were afraid of the baby were afraid of failing it fell asleep at night knowing the air around you couldn't last forever


in these holy days but what god do i pray to in these holy days of january? my voice is rust my hands bitter claws and why do the children scream? not all of us have known starvation not all of us speak of crucifixion in hushed tones the days are what worry us instead money owed and lovers lost and how each cigarette can be reduced to a scar on a young girl's body how yellowgrey light falls from any afternoon sky to press against the spines of the hills and i have spent five years now trying to explain wilderness trying to map the spaces between us but they are always shifting


blackened bones in fields of dirty snow suddenly gone only to be replaced by houses that are never warm enough and i am sometimes finding you down these luminous hallways a stranger i've known all my life and you are looking for what you've lost are crying while the baby sleeps a sound like any ocean the drowning call home and what i finally know is that i'll never save us both


awake, my frightened starlings gets to the point where yr sorry of saying i’m sorry house is bruised like rotting fruit is collapsing beneath the weight of inertia let the water flow down the halls, down the staircase, from room to room let the children drown no one ever tells you when the gods have finally left the city, but the air tastes different the music leaves a mark where it touches yr skin wife says i don’t love you anymore and maybe you begin to picture yr escape maybe a second pipe bursts while you sit at an anonymous desk in another part of town did you really need all those possessions anyway? isn’t it enough to be blessed with failing health and medically approved addictions? listen


i am not a victim of negative thinking i am not a believer in being purified by pain what i want is happiness for my children, and health, and the ability to fly the desire to heal the crippled what i need to teach them is to never bow down to anyone to believe in love and in disappointment, and i will tell them i’m sorry until they are sick of hearing it i will burn down villages to guarantee their safety what this makes me will only become clear after my death


the breaking wave six year old son walks up to me says the king is dead and it’s here that the weeds devour the lawn it’s here that the pipes burst in the basement, that the squirrels get into the attic silver skies and luminous dust, sound of dogs barking in the distance sound of lawn mowers and lethal injections watch the woman across the street undress in her upstairs window watch her husband die silently on his freshly tarred driveway, and why is it you read this shit? is it truth you’re after, or justification, or the meanings hidden between each line and every word? what i leave unwritten is the stuff that truly matters the stuff i don’t understand money is power, yes, and god is a weapon, but what about the reasons we had for being in love? what about the distance between us? there is more painful illusion than the illusion of hope


there are those who set themselves on fire in protest and change nothing, and there are those who beat young children to death because they can because it gives them a sense of power what they consider themselves to be is human

Pond In the season of murdered lovers, season of saviors, hands all nailed to empty doorways, teeth all gleaming white and broken, don’t forget the truth. Don’t forget to let the children drown. Smile at them. Wave. Car goes under slowly, and then it’s a long walk back to town.


maelstrom this impossible sky this exact moment a woman locked in her home for twenty years, or pollock dead for fifty said he couldn’t see the light, eyes wide open, middle of the afternoon, and then the north tower fell can you accept the fact that reality happens without you? jesus christ i turned away for just a second and next thing i knew i was 40 i was married and then divorced and the treetops were a shade of green beyond the limited grasp of words the sun was everywhere was everything thought for the hundredth time about driving away, but the children were crying the truck was in the shop this exact moment, you see the shadows of houses stretched to their breaking points down quiet streets the shadows of birds held trembling in my cupped hands do you see why poetry is a dead-end option?


do you understand the amount of pain you’ve caused the people you love the most? religion is what matters, not the worship of false gods invented by cynics and power-hungry whores we need to breathe, we need to eat, need to accept the inevitability of tragedy we are sick with laughter as the trigger is pulled, a man murdered on the steps of a church, a dog beaten by laughing children until it bleeds from its eyes, and i remember being blind on the afternoon you finally broke your 20 years of silence i remember the future in no uncertain terms in your absence, i learned to invent you a game of course, which means one of us wins and one of us loses a target painted on the back of a man who believes in something more than words printed on chap paper an impossibly sky blue without remorse, and my hands are numb are cracked and bleeding, and i watnted to tell the story but i couldn’t remember the ending the children were asleep figured it was best just to back out of the room quietly


animal dreams but in this room you are nothing special in this age of random violence, you become obsolete you are the nature of failure personified, but so what? look around you a fucking wasteland in every direction a nation of whores of victims of the drowning and the drowned, and the joke has a long setup, but the punchline is that you lover has killed herself the punchline is that your wife has left you for a man you’ve never met listen closely for the sound of laughter ring the bell for the nurse ask her why the bleeding won’t stop


untitled, grey on grey

and you can feed your children the poison or you can wait for someone else to do it for you and, beyond this, you have no choices beyond this, your life is good

this mortal light But he gets it wrong. Says the poems are supposed to mean something, are supposed to have weight and depth, when all they really are is another form of bleeding. The fist you fear isn’t the fist of God. The names of your children sound hollow when you speak them out loud, like the bones of birds, like bottomless wells. Jump in. Look upwards, back to where you began. Let the prayer come naturally.


keeping score small hope like sunlight on shimmering treetops, like a sky the color of luminous dust take the silence you’ve been given hold it close to your heart the children are tired of despair, are tired of starvation, of revolution, and so what are you going to do? how far are you willing to crawl in a desert of your own creation? if i were a liar, i would tell you there can be no wrong answers if i were honest, i would turn away do you remember the life you had before? do you remember the ocean? i am a believer in easy escapes, in walking away from pain and sorrow i take comfort in the gentle haze of distance i find despair around every corner open your eyes, for christ’s sake


what you love will be stolen haze of distance confused w/ clarity thought about that for a while in the late afternoon heat no sound but the sound of hawks riding the ghosts of currents no motion but the motion of silent flight around the sun you and i earthbound


the faint illumination of your heart the sky at this late date huge and raw above these snow-covered roofs and what is space but some simple thing between us? i know your name your skin your lips and would gladly place any part of you on the tip of my tongue even as our secrets all dissolve into smoke and ash i would trace my way through dark rooms just to watch the faint illumination of your heart and you call this love and the taste it leaves is thick bitter but addictive and the doors refuse to close completely the phone rings at awkward moments or the baby falls and draws blood


and if i take this one last step towards you what am i forcing aside? does it have or even need a name? and when we touch i finally understand the futility of language

a better dog let the weight of faith be what finally pulls you under close your eyes as you touch bottom then open your mouth to sing


myself a father what my father never lived to see was myself a father what the moon fails to illuminate is the drowning boy's face you will find his name written in chalk on the walls of these abandoned factories and you will caress it like your lover's breast will repeat it like a litany of broken glass and will understand that no one is saved that no one is safe not even my son and for this reason alone i place my foot on the throat of god and press


in the room of empty chairs tuesday morning in the room of empty chairs and does it matter what color the walls are? can you speak a magic phrase and go back to a time in your life when you thought you were happy? i'll tell you this much there are days when i wake up and understand that all of the poems i've ever written are meaningless that my marriage is sinking beneath its own grim weight and what can i do in this land of burning crosses when the only way to fight violence is with violence? how do i tell my son that all i have to give him are empty ideals? and i cannot say for sure that nothing is worth dying for i cannot remember the reason these chairs all face the open window it was a mistake thinking the sky might ever care enough to offer forgiveness


there is a girl there is a girl who has had her hand caught in the machinery who has had her arm pulled into the blades then torn off and she will live for two more weeks and then she will die and there is a house down the street from mine where the children write JESUS RULES on the sidewalk in pastel chalk and then the next day it rains and summer is over my fingers crack and bleed my need for language fades away and the silence in this place becomes a tangible thing my wife and son sleep in the next room my childhood keeps an uneasy distance what i remember is my father drunk not on any particular occasion but always and at some point we became strangers and then enemies


no reasons were asked for and none given and i can't seem to stop whipping myself for these things i can't change the sky has no color and nothing i hold casts a shadow nothing i love is permanent and what the hell can i do with these facts but drown?

self-portrait on the last morning i am the reflection of the sun in tinted glass i am an unspoken apology there are only so many ways to state the obvious


words scratched quickly into the skin do you remember cobain? some unwilling spokesman for a generation of feral dogs and all it got him was dead and gorky and rothko and hemingway and all i'm asking for today is rain all i want is for the crows to blot out the sun these are words scratched quickly into the skin even as the baby begins to move in the next room these are small prayers from a man who will always turn his back on god who among you has the need to hear them?


thinking of two friends dead of cancer this thing that eats you like cancer but slower three years of unreturned phone calls growing into five of unopened letters until you finally have shed your past can wake up to a grey sky reflected in deep water and know there is no one left to hate but yourself and even this is a gradual decay the fingers have to begin to bleed and the words that fall from them should all sound hollow should all become tiny graves filled with dust you have the rest of your life to bury all of your failures beneath bitter lies


waiting for rain late afternoon a small breeze like maybe the storm will be here soon the streets empty the children disappeared or worse a toy forgotten on a burnt lawn and it is against all of these things that i try to hold you and you ask what time it is but we have chosen a room without clocks in a house without mirrors understand exile isn't freedom your ghosts will exist no matter how much you try to starve them gorky knew this and dali and a man i spoke to only four hours before he went home and ended his life there are always husbands and wives and sleeping babies


there is hopefully the taste of fresh air through an open window do you see where the difference lies between love and rape? not everyone can

finally, the future we should have been braver or stronger, should have been older or less in love should have just kept running towards the late afternoon sun


the human cathedral in darkness cold yes and afraid of jesus christ afraid of the patron saint of starving dogs in this season of crucifixions and that my past will rise up to swallow me whole and poems are only walls that offer no safety silence is not a weapon and what the fuck do i do with all of this worthless anger that still clings to me fourteen years later? i stand in the kitchen in the cold fluorescent glow of five a.m. with the knives and the bread box and the mindless efficient hum of the refrigerator and i can't remember how i came to be here i don't know how to stop hurting the people i love or maybe i just don't want to there is a man from michigan who writes to tell me that i've lost my edge and to him i will give the tiny body of an ex-girlfriend's dead baby i will peel the labels from my wife's bottles of prozac and place them over my eyes and none of the starving will care


and what exactly is my responsibility to all of the battered women in the western world? how many lives am i expected to save and who on the other side of this thin sheet of paper has the balls to give me an answer? what matters is that the mortgage is due is that my son has an ear infection and that his lunch needs to be packed and wars don't alter this or the suicide bombings of religious zealots the final number will be five thousand murdered in the name of fear and most of the bodies will never be found and the sun on this day will rise but will fail to warm my hands i will sit for eight hours in a windowless room and think about the sky no one ever warned me how much its weight would matter


the bleak joy of hopeless causes and this is the poem in which i wish you had hung yourself, and this is the sound of bees in the gentle warmth of indian summer this is the subtle truth of leaves falling through pale yellow sunlight the fog lifts and you stand there with broken arms news arrives of this young girl’s death father killed her with a shovel, with a metal rake, with a baseball bat, or maybe it wasn’t the father stepfather, someone says, or the mother’s boyfriend, or an ex and i use my own children as talismans, as shields, but none of us are safe the priests with their necklaces of fingerbones, their pockets filled with splintered teeth lions in the streets the streets on fire and he misses her voice, and he misses her smile, but the ceiling is collapsing reminds me of driving to work on the day i heard that cobain was dead


girlfriend sitting there in the back seat, passing the joint to her sister, and she told me again that she was going to have the baby was laughing while she said it, and the past is always a stain that we can only try to wash clean each lie is a promise that can’t be undone what a fucking mess it all becomes

incident or this woman who says that her daughter knew me says she died in a drunken car crash on the interstate in the last hours of february waits for me to remember


in the room of missing children like men & women fucking in the mud don’t wait until your father dies before you start planning your escape don’t listen to your brother if christ had been given a hammer, his songs would all have different tunes they made the movie, you see, but they got the ending wrong it was cold there at the water’s edge where all moments were reflected black and with dead trees rising up out of them and no one talks about the bleeding horse in this house, but at least they understand the need to burn picasso to the ground at least they listen to the woman who says her grandchild is missing says her daughter’s car smells like violent death you want joy, of course, but it’s not always that simple there are seasons of rust to live through, seasons of famine, and there is the hairtrigger weight of the phone when it rings at three in the morning


my mother calling from the hospital, says you need to be here no one next to me in bed my lies scattered like pills and crumbs across the bare wood floor

zimmer ave, end of summer called up said yr husband was gone said the kids were asleep and i was there in 15 minutes i was gone before daybreak seemed like we were happy at the time


because love and hate even here in the clean, cold light of early april, in the solemn emptiness between berkshire and speedsville, between somewhere and somewhere else, nowhere and nowhere, the shit of civilization growing up through the weeds and dirt, the cigarette butts, bottle caps, fast food wrappers, the wounded and the dying the trees and the hills crisp blue sky no sound of traffic or of industry, but two empty beer cans and a shattered bottle on the side of a rutted dirt road taste of rust when i turn to kiss you birds screaming


sonnet for patriots or history, maybe a burning witch or a hanged one one with flowers spilling from her severed head they didn’t say THIS IS AMERICA, MOTHERFUCKER back then, but the idea was the same screw with us and we’ll screw with you conform or die glory glory hallelujah


neruda, obliquely but is this the dying room? no one will say old man in a chair in the corner, young girl at his side, both of them with filthy wings five below zero and blinding sunlight prisoner has one good eye left, and so he pulls it out and eats it ask him his reasons and all he does is smile bomb the fuck out of your enemy because the only way to win the war is to kill everyone who doesn’t think like you vallejo knows this, but he’s out of money & out of time refuses to believe that poverty is just another form of defeat sits in his room on that last day and mistakes all of his mirrors for windows


lovesong or maybe what you write lives on, or maybe it dies with you would you call this futility? a life wasted? sit here in the cold light of 10 a.m., upstate new york in january, and pretend you have an opinion that matters we’ll discuss the meaning of a yellow christ, both gaugin’s and serrano’s we’ll fuck on the kitchen floor your husband doesn’t ever need to know


resurrecting kasmir malevich in the age of despair not white as in clean but as in empty the sky for example or the streets beneath their skin of salt and grime the smell of something reduced to its core a man tied to a truck with a length of chain and dragged until his skin peels from his bones maybe maybe a young girl found in the desert after the animals have been at her not vanished but devoured negated and the wind moves without effort through these walls and the windows rattle against the sound of the freeway


i offer these same bitter stories over and over with the hope that they will eventually catch fire i refuse to define myself as either innocent or guilty others are waiting to make this decision for me


some of these poems originally appeared in Pig Iron Malt

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