The Poolside Chat

Three women lounge beside a pool —
comparing scars and silently,
the sizes of a spreading waist.
Laughing at the family branches,
reading stories for reprieve.
Different brands of syllables
to suit the weight of sorrow’s cloth
and longing, well, it hangs
in sacks beneath the eyes
behind their shades —
it hangs in every swaying elm.

Children cackle in the water,
race across the hot cement
to blankets of their mothers’ arms.
Dancing like a moonbeam’s stripe
toward that grand chameleon, death,
unaware that bodies
are tenuous treasures at best.
Denominators of the years
will water sadness tacitly.
The chairs are facing east
where light arrives and doesn’t stay.

One discusses discipline
for nine year olds
who think a mouth is meant
to tell their father off.
Another, brands of tanning cream
that fake a blush for summer months.
The third is reading Lucy Grealy,
hiding titles under towels
that also drape a half a leg.
She’s the one who wears her grief
like stains across a white lapel.
She’s the one reminding them
that shaving pairs of flawless thighs
is running digits through dazzling silk.

Clinging to the Caving Walls

The battle went flat like a candle pinched.
One moment you were pale soap
resting on a double bed,
dwindling as our tears raged on.
I’d read to you from hardbound books
as if thin scrolls of verse you loved
could break the silence
rubbing against my quiet screams.
A hospice nurse shut down the drip.
I made her check your pulse
at least a hundred useless times
between my racking sobs.

We’d clean and paint the haunted house
as if a broom or brush
could mitigate this hurt.
My sister and I drew straws.
The short one got your bathroom drawers;
the long one got your greenhouse
full of gangly roots,
scents of old geraniums
smothering the faintest smell
of Nina Ricci clinging to the caving walls.

We passed the trinkets of your life
back and forth across the room.
Bubble-wrapped your china dolls
to open when our strength returned.
Balls of cat hair raced my arms
like moths react to woolen sleeves
we rearrange as seasons fold.
Your shoes became two empty rows
of bobbing boats beside a pier
that’s slipped into a stormy sea.
Whatever we grabbed
scalded our tender hands.

*First Published in Retort Magazine

the age of myths, deconstructed: notes on self


the bleeding horse

who is everyone
and no one

who knew pollock
and picasso

who died in ’56
and again in ’63 and
again in the summer of ’97

who lives

stumbles blindly down
all of the empty streets i’ve
ever lived on

crawls crippled through
broken glass alleys

through november fields
in upstate new york with a
crucifix carved into his
soft belly and his
eyes gouged out

who is pain and
the lack of hope in
a sunlit world

things that matter
whether you
talk about them or not


the burning girl

says she loves you
as she’s dragged through
a barren field in
upstate new york

everything else
smothered by the sound
of flames


the woman who loves pain

calls me ten years later
to say that all is forgiven

to tell me that
her youngest child is dead

her voice nothing
like i remember it


the god of starving dogs

refuses to see himelf
that way

wants nothing more than to
fuck this seventeen year-old waitress
with crosses carved into
her wrists

than to rub her face in
broken glass until
she says she loves him

reminds me of my father
ten years after his death


the burning girl

is raped once
and then a second time

screams against
the black and then
lights it up

brilliant but
not like the face of
any god i’d ever call
my own


the drowning boy

has a name which
no one remembers

is more than just these
last desperate moments
recorded on a cheap sheet
of lined paper
but it’s not enough
to save him

there is possibly
a lesson here


the poet

hates himself

hates the idea of poetry
and he has no use for god
and only a limited concept
of the truth and
his wife loves him despite

her smile
all he needs to know
about religion


the queen of open wounds

who i always describe as
and being fucked

who i never knew
any other way


the man downstairs

with his wife on
her knees

with his hands at
her throat

a picture i’ve painted
a thousand times before

an image i
can’t seem to shake

all of the time
i spent sitting on the
floor and just


the drowning boy

is found
twenty miles away
in the town i grew up in

a small body caught
in the branches

a message from god
if you believe in these things
but what it means isn’t


the god of starving dogs

shows up at my door
on a thursday afternoon

holds out his hands
which are empty but bleeding
from where the nails have
been driven through

are stained with the tears
of his wife and child

of the women he’s touched
in windowless rooms

and maybe i
laugh in his face or
maybe i make the sign of
the evil eye or maybe i
just turn away

something this simple to
help split
the future wide open


my father

collapses on the
kitchen floor

dies two days later
in a
windowless room

i don’t remember
ever telling him
i loved him


the room of empty chairs

in a house where
no one speaks the truth

the way men scream
without conviction about
the will of god

the way gorky steps
easily into empty space

spins slowly for
next fifty-four years


the eye of god

is blind

the words of christ
are meaningless

picture the bodies
of four small children
laid out neatly
on their mother’s bed

picture a hand held
to a burner
in a house five doors down
from your own

talk to me
about faith with the
smell of charred flesh
wrapped around you
like a shroud


the man who murdered cheerleaders

only to end up dead in
a prison cell
by his own hand

i will always regret
not being there to watch
this final act


the man who crushes the skulls of newborn kittens

and then goes home
to kiss his wife

tastes of blood and
of bone
and she wants more

she crawls

believes there are
worse things
than being in love


the burning girl

like anyone else

will prove it
if you ask her to

will be remembered as
a better person than
she actually was

the comparison
to christ
too obvious
to miss


the prince of swords reversed

who i think
might be myself

a face in a
second-story window
on a street that goes nowhere
in both directions

the weight of the sky in
or in january

the sound of my son
playing in another room

something real


the woman who loves pain

crawls into my bed
on the night
before her wedding

tastes of smoke and
of ashes
and i don’t see her again
for four years

i don’t recognize
the person she’s become

don’t understand
the need for all of these
bitter poems

the act of bleeding
was never meant
to be enjoyed


the house of the dying man

is where my wife goes
to be happy

calls me at midnight
to tell me she loves me
and then starts to cry

says that what she’s
afraid of
is the future

all of the ways that
things might go wrong

this space that
has grown between us
no matter how close
we are


the season of rust

is now

look at your hands

consider the world
beyond your pale blue walls

dirt and ice and
a young boy abandoned
in a store by a man who
no longer has any
use for him

the space shuttle
breaking up over texas like
the failing mind of god

the need to know why
is was up there
at all


the season of rust

is forever

this is not prophecy
it’s certainty

i have lived my life in
slowly collapsing buildings
on pitted grey streets

i have stayed thin on
a diet of anger and fear

have become a father
not once but

these beautiful children
who will eventually
be stained by
all of the filth i can’t
protect them from


the queen of open wounds

and her lips that
taste like gasoline

her skin that
bruises too easily

rubbed raw at the ankles
and the wrists and
she smiles for the camera

tells herself that
none of
the pain matters

drinks from a
bowl in the corner then
waits for the next man
to find her


the man who starves horses

says he
knew my father

a drunken fool
he whispers
and then waits for me
to answer

watches my face for
any emotion

laughs when i
turn away
without answering


the burning girl

says she just
wants to be left alone

says none of these poems
have anything
to do with her anyway

doesn’t understand
how easily
addictions begin


the human cathedral

which i would never
call home

walls of bone
and windows like eyes

a door
but always locked
from the wrong side

always smeared
with the blood of priests
and the children
they’ve raped

anything built in the
name of god
never meant to stand


the hill of fifteen crosses

where children are buried

where flowers grow
from the bones

this need to
bury tragedy beneath
so much fragile beauty



who on some days is
the bleeding horse
and on others becomes
my father

always a frightened man

always lost

possibly even myself
which i
almost never admit


upstate new york

beneath the grey skies
of february

a woman found
raped and strangled in a
plain white apartment

her boyfriend

the smell of gasoline


upstate new york

and a six year-old boy
who has been
missing for twelve years now

a barn with
pinted on the side in
letters ten feet tall

all of the fields
i’ve ever walked

all of the people i’ve hurt

none of these
empty confessions ever what
i mean to say


burnt hill road

and all of the years
it took me to escape from there

all of the excuses i’ve made
to avoid going back

the crosses that have sprung up
at the ragged edges of
dying lawns

the fathers who have raped
their daughters
and their daughters’ friends

the ones who begged for more


the man who starves horses

who sits on his porch and
watches the flies gather

listens to the approaching sirens

looks at the shotgun resting
easily scross his knees



which i
still believe in
despite everything


the poet

wants to talk
about addiction

34 years old and
a husband and a father
and he wants only to
stand in a sunfilled room
and feel clean

believes only in the
things he can hold and
the ease with which they
can be broken

understands how
words really are


portions of this poem originally appeared in Muse Apprentice Guild


by John Sweet

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