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Artless Silences

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PAGE 1

ARTLESS SILENCES By STEPHEN PRIEST A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF FINE ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2006

PAGE 2

Copyright 2006 by Stephen Priest

PAGE 3

To my parents

PAGE 4

iv ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Id like to thank William Logan, Debora Greger, Michael Hofmann, Sidney Wade, and my fellow classmates in the poetry progr am at the University of Florida for their guidance and support.

PAGE 5

v TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.................................................................................................iv ABSTRACT......................................................................................................................vii FLORIDA ENDING............................................................................................................1 THERE-GONE....................................................................................................................2 CONCEPTION (ESSEX, CONNECTICUT)......................................................................3 NIETZSCHE IN A BROTHEL IN LEIPZIG BEFORE DIONYSUS................................4 IKIRU.......................................................................................................................... ........5 TORPOR......................................................................................................................... .....6 PHOTO.......................................................................................................................... ......7 POLONIUS....................................................................................................................... ...8 BUDGET INN FUGUE.......................................................................................................9 DETROIT REVISITED.....................................................................................................10 MUSEUM......................................................................................................................... .11 LAKE OVERTURE...........................................................................................................12 INVOCATION..................................................................................................................13 BIT OF BETRAYAL.........................................................................................................14 SISYPHEAN......................................................................................................................15 THE PERVERTS BRAG.................................................................................................16 THE EVANGELIST CHURCH BEHIND THE HOUSE.................................................17 OUTLYING DAYTON.....................................................................................................18

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vi I-75.......................................................................................................................... .......19 CHRISTMAS AMONG THE PRIESTS...........................................................................20 CALIFORNIA OR BUST..................................................................................................21 TOIL........................................................................................................................... .......22 A LAWN GNOMES LAMENT.......................................................................................23 GET YOURSELF A MANI CURE AND PE DICURE......................................................24 NOBODY EATS SABERTOOTH PUDDING NOWADAYS.........................................25 A SUPERMARKET IN FLORIDA...................................................................................26 ODE TO BEEF JERKY.....................................................................................................27 LITANY......................................................................................................................... ....28 SELF-SACRIFICE............................................................................................................29 THE BOY ELIJAH............................................................................................................30 AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A MAN-HOLE.........................................................................31 SUMMER FROST.............................................................................................................32 BERRYMAN.....................................................................................................................33 GRAND ILLUSION..........................................................................................................34 TRAILING OFF................................................................................................................35 INTERLUDE.....................................................................................................................36 THE SWAN.......................................................................................................................37 A COVENANT..................................................................................................................38 MOLOCH......................................................................................................................... .39 TRACES......................................................................................................................... ...40 REFLECTION...................................................................................................................41 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.............................................................................................42

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vii Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts ARTLESS SILENCES By Stephen Priest May 2006 Chair: William Logan Major Department: English These poems move through the fields and ba rns of Ohio, the tenements and alleys of Detroit, the flora of Florida; into terra ins of mind and monologue, and take as their subjects things sad, swampish, and silly.

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1 1 FLORIDA ENDING Beckon me, Dante. Stand in the parking lot, robe d in the storm-severed fronds, radiant with gravel, and lead me down roads Ive stumbled over but never seen. Write into me the verdant paper refuse of the ditches, the frenzied rain, the seashells crushed into the grass, the streets oily synapses, the vagrant fog. If I were you, these traffic lights would bleed together like murals, these houses soar into the language of air.

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2 2 THERE-GONE I cant stop. While watching the ch ildren splash in the river, my feet hammer the sidewalk. One kid, shoulder-deep in the water, eyes puckered tight, calls out Marco!, flings his arms, and waits for replies. The temptation to answer ruins me. Its not right. The others stand silent on the bank and jury him, their torsos wet and haloed by the sun-glare, their faces rumors of constancy.

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3 3 CONCEPTION (ESSEX, CONNECTICUT) In the evenings blue incandescence, my father sits at the kitc hen table playing solitaire. He looks the bed over once more, finds a splinte r of blue-white foil, sniffs the sheets, and whisks his hand across the pillows, th en flushes the foil down the toilet. My mother comes home with groceries. Dragging on a cigarette, he studies her as she puts the food away, her le gs framed by her tight jeans, straining for the higher cabinets. With her back to him, she asks what he wants for dinner. That night, their sex is interrupted, not by a voiceless midnight phone call, but by high beams searing through th e snow into their bedroom.

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4 4 NIETZSCHE IN A BROTHEL IN LEIPZIG BEFORE DIONYSUS Through the parlors pallid light, the madam came to him, her face made raw by gouts of rouge and powder. The bartender winked and pointed to a line of girls dressed in silk and feather, each one calm, exotic, pure. His sister waited outside in the soot-tainted sleet. Wagner had put him up to it. It is good for a young man, hed sai d. Good to do it now and again. A girl took his hand and guided him up to her room, where they undressed alone. Embarrassed, he stood behind the Oriental screen while she lay bored upon the bed, then went to her, one hand offering a daisy hed stolen from a vase the other obscuring his genitals. As he was imprisoned in her, something escaped into him, a pestilence of thoughts thick as the sludge drifting along the cold, fragile Rhine. Sores flowered for years until he could describe the locusts stripping his nerves. No one would hear him, as she did not hear him now. Done, he was dead already, yet ripe, spent, and stark.

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5 5 IKIRU An X-ray, seen this close, could be mistaken for the portrait of a bridge swallowed by fog. On a swingset, alone in the playground, youre suspended for a moment in a gnarled arabesque a rust of frost barnacling you to the swing. To leave is the only way to go forward. You knew that evening at the restaurant, alive at last, balleti ng down the stairs, ecarte while the office girl stayed at the table and those teenagers hollered the birthday song. Better to be found here in the park, rather than naked in your room, nibbling on the silk stockings youd bought her. A gift is a gift even if reclai med. You think about this awhile, holding the chains of the swing, swaying back and forth over the ravenous soil, then wonder what will come next.

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6 6 TORPOR The neighborhood kids marched by with their ghetto-blasters tuned to different stations, the sound rawing the air like steel-wool. I wanted to yell at them but c ouldnt think of anything to say. What little I owned I got rid of. I piled things outside my door, to be taken by whoever wanted them. The crackheads flocked in like pigeons. When the supers daughter banged on the door, twice a day, to collect the rent, I quivered beneath my sheets like a newly neutered dog. I was reduced to listening to my neighbors T.V. through the wall at night. It had been a long time since Id bathed or changed clothes. My underwear was a girdle of nettles. Sweat crusted into continents on my T-shirt.

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7 7 PHOTO Its Kevins fault. At the microphone, entranced by the squeal of feedback, his shabby Silvertone slung across his chest, eyes half-closed, his hand frozen above an E chord, he obscures the drummer. Im pushed against the border, fatter, sweat-blotted, head bent towards my guitar, back to the rest of the guys. I find the picture in a drawer littered with cigarette butts, expired condoms, phone numbers of ex-girlfriends. . At the back, in the doorway between us and Michigan Avenue, stands my father, arms folded, the streetlamp in the window above him burning like an emaciated sun.

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8 8 POLONIUS Behind the curtains, I perch upon the courts shallows like a mosquito. I suckle scenes, dissolve in them. With my fish-stink hands, I tendered my daughter to Hamlet. She was worth something then. To pass the hours, I follow the queens progress, watch her rub Hamlets cheek, and feel my youth swe ll again within me. I think of May, Ophelia walking fields, swaddled in the lily pads th at soak up her stains.

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9 9 BUDGET INN FUGUE We were fucking with the television on, sketches barely there in the erased light. We walked beneath tar-leaved trees, my arm still warm from your waist, room keys and coins rattling in my pocket, your hair pearled with frost, your Firebird parked on another street. Youd gone to see someone and I was on the bed, smoking, watching T.V., saying, Nimport quoi, again and again, eyeing the shower rod. Forgiveness is like remembering a vacant room. You came back smelling of cologne and wine. We lay next to each other, cocooned in the dark sheets, building spires of matchstic ks and cigarette butts.

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10 10 DETROIT REVISITED A star gashes the sky and I follow it, listening to the cemetery of conversations drifting from doorways. In my old neighborhood, chicken bones choke the parking lots, empty vodka bot tles sparkle beneath trees. Kindled by crack, hookers crouching on stoops call out to me as I pass, Can I suck your dick? Just around the corner, I used to trick my roommates girlfriends into my bed and hope to get caught. Or Id spend nights alone on the roof, lost in a rubble of sense and nerve; even a friends voice or the blink of the radio tower were too much to bear. From across the road, the libra rys bust of Copernicus watches me with ravening eyes. In the shadows of Ferry Street, a tramp window-shops parked cars; another rustles w ithin his newspaper blanket.

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11 11 MUSEUM Dulled from so much still-life, I left you examining fossils. The exhibits were animals tarred together, sinking; a prehistoric man kneeling before a fire, his face a rictus of dumb hurt, the germ of belief. Beauty traumatizes me--Im aghast and unresponsive. A homely woman reminded me of someone Id used. I followed her into a dark room of insects that gl inted like pennies. Even the lowest forms of life get to be studied.

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12 12 LAKE OVERTURE At dusk, a thumb-sized half-moon trembles over the shallows. The sun sneaks into the waters creases, suspending the clouds oiling their way across it. Through the surface-murk, an alligator grins like an unclothed mummy. Anhingas lilt down upon the pier-stumps. Tornado-winged hummingbirds shimmer among the shrubs. The sunset flares upon the shore, then dims. With a disfigured calm, the moss-draped branches begin to sway and groan like a chorus of mutes, sinister and dull.

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13 13 INVOCATION Nothing helps. Prophets, with their sicknesses of cinder-notes and hushed crescendos, with their quills lifting light from bone, moved from town to town hawking sand and script, ignoring the estrangement of sound, the minds I am I. They didnt recognize how their tongues withered the stars to myths, and, when the angels came, no one saved them. My name terrifies me.

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14 14 BIT OF BETRAYAL Quiet as the little town sleeping around us, we crouched beneath the bridge and blew into our hands. We brushed them over the gravel and talked about going on. Boats docked in the distance, their barnacles scraping against the piers. In its sleep, the town began to shuffle and night coughed up the dawn. He rooted his feet into the gravel. Three times a rooster crowed and three times he realized I was gone.

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15 15 SISYPHEAN You, you, not you. A schizophrenics eye star es like yours, filled with seductions and hesitations. Thought is as carnal, as compulsive as the echo of a sigh, its anticipation. It leaves the body a glass case, a vacuum where we fold ourselves like maps again and again, lose and regain our edges.

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16 16 THE PERVERTS BRAG That summer teemed with vagrant fucks pressed up against alley walls or in dumpsters like sarcophagi. Hard, held, naked, condemned, my cells turned to scales. The little girls scissored their legs open and let me in, caressed me with accusations. I rent my ribs from theirs, strewed the sidewalks where we jointed. One lifted her skirt for me and I cradled her like a birds nest.

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17 17 THE EVANGELIST CHUR CH BEHIND THE HOUSE The pulpit was built from a few apple crates, one piled atop another. A shrouded weather-worn table teetered before it, displaying a nativity scene spun from straw, precise as Degas ballerinas. Crows perched upon the arms of the crucifix. In the center of the barn a beam buttressed the roof. Through gashes in the tin, dawn fissured into shrapnel-light. Chalk-blurred angels hovered at the ceilings edges. The horses sold off, the stables had become confessionals. A baseball on the dirt floor, its cover peeled away, collapsed like a withered fruit.

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18 18 OUTLYING DAYTON Beneath your feet you feel the fields like weakening ice. Youre a child again, freed of patience; everything that happens happens now. Crows swoop down, skittering to stops in clods of mud and straw. Ignorant of what you are, they caw and cling to your arms and pretend its you th eyre talking to.

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19 19 I-75 Im stuck in traffic and suddenly th e hails like rosaries snapping, and the kid in the back of the truck next to me curls himself up in vain. An tennae waver in the air as far as I can see--there are too many signals. Songs and stations begin to frizzle together. A woman in an evening gown pouts outside her BMW, then dissolves into the dust and debris. I rifle through the glove compartment. Coming down is hardest; I cant figure what not to feel: the boy I am and was, burrowing through dusks of park benches and dormant roller-coasters-or the graying static of the radio, the freeways dampened cadence, my nose sniffling in double-time to both.

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20 20 CHRISTMAS AMONG THE PRIESTS Love is all around. Love is barbed in the static. Grandmother hangs a few last ornaments. My jobs not working out, her son-in-law says-another ornament, another sentence. The tree sheds a few needles when she touches it. At the head of the table, Grandfathe r sits shaking salt into his hair. A miracle occurs. His grandson transfor ms the old mans Jack and water into pure Jack. As Grandfather gets drunker, a grain of salt slips into his eye. He wails. Assured of everyones attention, he laps his tongue over his empty plate. Uncle Jims wife hasnt shown up this year, but no one mentions it. He sits in a corner of the kitchen with his memories: his days as a commercial trucker, a drive once through Appalachia in a sleet like the one outside the window, the vulture that got stuck in his hair His nieces go on preparing the veal. Finally, the dinner bell rings. Outsid e the house, everything is white. One by one, the family trickle to their seats. They watch the plates, waiting. The smell of roast permeates the room. Grandfather stands and stretches out his arms.

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21 21 CALIFORNIA OR BUST That winter, even befo re we left New York, the dangers of the trip bega n. Uncle quietly confronted two choleriacs with a cocked six-shooter. The poor man . they broke his thumb and took his belt buckle! Things improved after that Our third-class tickets placed us in the boats storage area, where we children could frolic amongst the crates, mocking the other passengers coughs and dysenteric moans. The food on board was worm-infested, but Id not had enough meat of late and, furthermore, no one liked me, so Id reconciled myself to the company of larvae and their ilk. Mother hid cash within her bosom. Some yellow fiends stormed through the boat waving muskets and demanding money. They sh all blow our brains out if I dont give it to them, Mother said. We can get to California easier without brains than without money, my aunt re plied. Though they had no English, those yellow devils laughed so hard at this they let us go after they th reatened to execute Uncle and charge us a nominal fee for the bullet. A Panama Riot by Carri e Stevens Walter, 1856

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22 22 TOIL Waxen shrubs, fake cardboard b easts, surrounded splintered trunks. The gardens phosphorescent grass was overrun with apple cores. Ill-suited, Adam entered life by pointing, eating, naming blindly and acutely. Now he whined, sucked his thumb and shat all day. Eve combed her blight of hair and tallied her pains. The Devil lunched with them in tennis-whites, gossiped, apologized: The serpent thing--not such a good idea--I swear on my hooves the next project is much better. When his cell-phone rang, th eyd grunt with fright. The Devil smiled, stared at the sky, and said to them both, Gods sorry hes a such moody bitch, but its his town, his rules. Give him two sons, and hell take you off his black-list.

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23 23 A LAWN GNOMES LAMENT I cant speak Finnish. I mean goodbye but only ever sa y hello with a rigid wave-hello ashen cold emperor of scree, ice-scaled peels, weed-calligraphy, remorse of budding bulbs, ants and their inconstant mouths. I didnt ask for this; I didnt ask for anything. My gangly, hunched, ignorant owner is too selfish to give me a ribbon to brighten things up. I should have been a mole or an elf; Ive a nice figure and I burrow and bake well. Deep inside, I know things are nicer underground. Theres little to do and it deprives the senses-plus, no one ever comes around. Sometimes my owner whispers: I hear the weathers lovely in Finland.

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24 24 GET YOURSELF A MANICURE AND PEDICURE Our Savior isnt the only one who has to worry about his nails!

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25 25 NOBODY EATS SABERTOOTH PUDDING NOWADAYS It has gone the way of tyrannosaur-eggs hell tongue-rings.

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26 26 A SUPERMARKET IN FLORIDA Make me make sense, bagboy. I dig your name-tag and the moral way you handle groceries. I want to eat the moon. Ill have a Moon-Pie instead; its tasty and makes me a fat bald man in a nightgown getting head in the produce aisle from an Afroed albino butcher in seraph-drag. Spending all day with other peoples food, he understands fears of commitment, that Im making myself up as I go. Time seems a beatific panic, no pause for correction or thought, just urge and urge and urge. Bagboy, I know were strange to each other, but the fluorescent lights in this Winn Dixie turn me on.

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27 27 ODE TO BEEF JERKY You are as immediate and abstracted as a hookers tongue. Savoring you, I gag with delight. In the gas station, after the bars close, your supple convenience, the red-yellow plastic glare of your packaging seduce me. I will pay $4.34. A sinewy wistfulness overcomes me. What were you before I gnawed you? A maimed deity? A slaughterhouses daydream?

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28 28 LITANY Not crumbs, not boredom, not epilepsy, not ovaries, not sul phur, not feathers.

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29 29 SELF-SACRIFICE This month I dont believe in hurt. The Virgin Mary turns into a bat, claustrophobic and homesick along the borders of the night, her murmurs as tarnished a nd inscrutable as a knight. I think I need to get laid. This new bow-tie, these vampiric manners should bring the girls flopping to me like epileptics listening to the flopping of Gods unforked tongue-at least thats what my son said before he became a proverb. Me, Ive always liked things ; Ive never been pro-verb.

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30 30 THE BOY ELIJAH Wed go to visit him in the evenings after dinner, when our mothers had started to chat, taking canteens and loaves of rye to offer, knowing hed refuse and suck sap from the pines. Cat-hair-clothed, bark-girdle d, hed trained the worms to spill from the soil and rush together, rivers of them forming si gns we didnt recognize. Despite the strangeness of their sh apes, we knew what they meant and went cowering back to our mothers, while he limped through the fi elds to the highways end to wait for an accident.

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31 31 AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A MAN-HOLE Lost in an artless silence at fourteen, I sheared Barbie dolls, roamed rooms heavy with ineluctable sighs and dust-drenched curtains. Father lurched behind me holding a mirror up. At sixteen, I curled my locks, pretended I was Goldie Hawn or Plat h, learned lipstick, rouge, deceit. Boys sailed by in cars, whistled, cat-called, pulled over, and stuffed my head in pantyhose.

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32 32 SUMMER FROST I had been on the roof with my friends girlfriend, the woman Id been sleeping with that summer and trying not to care about. Shed gone back down, and I was half-stoned, cowering from the tree branches with their plastic shopping bags caught like snagged angels. The sky was a frozen lake, the clouds stretched across it like scraps of shroud and veil. Broken glass glittered beneath the only working streetlamp on Woodward Avenue. I saw something approaching, pale as a white casket, a young woman naked, floating on her back down the street. I wanted somehow to lie within her, to knot my fingers like lilies into her hair. I was at the edge of the roof before I realized how far Id gone. She had disappeared. It was getting cold but I couldnt go back in. The weathervane pointed north by northwest.

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33 33 BERRYMAN In Januarys thawless pall, your mind droned like a wasps nest. Seduced by the icicles, you waved at cars creeping along the bridge, dreamed up what the passengers would say afterwards: He was as charming as toy jewelry. Drank all the whiskey in St. Paul in one night. Should I bring anything other than boredom, a bottle of sourmash, a pack of Camels, shoe-polish, the chest of drowned books? Were all so glad youre gone.

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34 34 GRAND ILLUSION The Swiss mountains, brambled in tense, voided trees, make the two men tramping toward their haze seem insignificant gleams of shadow. Bearded, bundled in stolen trench coats frayed at the seams, they think escape. The frame rewinds and jerks forward, rewinds and jerks forward with the persistence of a metr onome, the constant winter of the screen contrasting with the rain-bursts and steam of the night. I sit at my desk, surrounded by slags of paper, and try to write about this. The blinds are closed. I pry them apart and see my neighbors on their lawn, singing to some pop anthem. The boys tug the girls between them, captu re and recapture them, shake their fists at one another. I turn away. On the screen, Marechal keeps lowering a nd raising his collar.

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35 35 TRAILING OFF We waste sex often now. Empty whiskey bottles, sealed with candle-stubs, adorn the carpet in your bedroom. What we say doesnt matter. Weve drunk a fifth already today-I go get one last last. From the street, bourbon in hand, I see you at your window, bending down towards the dining-room table in your underwear. Branches shrink against a bloated moon. In the park across from your building, a man rinses a baby doll in the drinking fountain. Caught in the twilight, you glow like a film negative.

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36 36 INTERLUDE The summer is over as it often is in July and the marrow aches like wood turning to pulp. The things wished for are gone now. Nights spent on a porch talking until four. The skin of a new lover. The sky throbbing vein-blue after a storm. Hung in a tree like a soiled shirt or sad-faced at the window of a Detroit bar, Rilkes ghost waits for the leaves to blow.

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37 37 THE SWAN The wings tremors, the necks terse pirouettes articulate subtracted alphabets in the decay of Helens smile. Beneath the pond-scum, the swans mouth accepts the depths brackish life: dim animals invisible to the eye, diluted shreds of sound. Its feathers shine somberly, innocently, alluding to transfigurations terrible, long past or not yet come. Upon the waters edge, bland with shock, the swan stutters into flight.

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38 38 A COVENANT The pilgrims follow the path of sheep and oxen hooves, dragging their fathers behind in nets of wire and rag. In thickets like wombs, they kneel and touch each other, thorn to finger to thorn. Born unborn, they sing like a miners canary: a procession of notes, a c hord tangled in the frost. They hide in gaping hushes, wield talismans to say, I have been healed before. Snow sows itself upon them, blooming blank as tundra.

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39 39 MOLOCH On an avenue splashed with a confusion of golds and sepias, a garbage man heaves refuse into the back of his truck, shouts something about his wife above the neighborhood childrens din-he cant love who hes supposed to; maybe if he could speak like a thesaurus, he says. The compactor churns sparsely, symphonically. His partner nods and collects more trash.

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40 40 TRACES Noiseless, elegant, we atrophy, radiant as axes, without reason, armless arms numb-lilting, delivering noise, fasting. Barren, taut luminaries of nonsense, we are galled by the lateness, the lazy tenure of fossil pouring tired and surely upon our faces. Nuance is the source of failure. No revisions--they distract from the ocean, from the unjust laments of the graceless, false past, from the illegible tides. There are no deaths naive enough. We shamble without penance, without comprehension, through the lazy tenor of fossil which acknowledges, mourns, contradicts death.

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41 REFLECTION The radiators clattered like a jar of beaks. Every few minutes an orderly peered through the peephole. You crouched like a buzzard at th e end of the bed, hoarding me. Your hair had been shoulder-length, brown. Now it was scoured to stubble. You flapped a hand across your forehead. I was a mannequin. You fastened yourself to my arms, moved me however you liked, your knuckles scalding white through your skin. The peephole slid open, shut. Posed in front of the mirror, your arms cigarette-pocked, you loosened the strings of your hospital gown.

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42 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Stephen Priest was born in 1978 in Ne w London, Connecticut. He grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and graduated from the Univer sity of Michigan. He likes strumpets.


Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0013892/00001

Material Information

Title: Artless Silences
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

Record Information

Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0013892:00001

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0013892/00001

Material Information

Title: Artless Silences
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

Record Information

Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0013892:00001


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ARTLESS SILENCES


By

STEPHEN PRIEST












A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF FINE ARTS

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


2006

































Copyright 2006

by

Stephen Priest



































To my parents















ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I'd like to thank William Logan, Debora Greger, Michael Hofmann, Sidney Wade,

and my fellow classmates in the poetry program at the University of Florida for their

guidance and support.
















TABLE OF CONTENTS



A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iv

ABSTRACT ............... .......................................... vii

FLO R ID A EN D IN G ............... ............................ .............. ............. ............ 1

THERE-GONE ....................... ....... .. ....... ... ......... ......2

CONCEPTION (ESSEX, CONNECTICUT)........................ ...............3

NIETZSCHE IN A BROTHEL IN LEIPZIG BEFORE DIONYSUS .............................4

IK IR U ....................................................... 5

TO R PO R ........... ....... ..... .... ........ ...................... ...............

P H O T O ...................................................................... . 7

PO LO N IU S ........... ....... ..... ......... ...... ....................... ...............

BUDGET INN FUGUE .......... ......... .... ........ .......... 9

D E T R O IT R E V ISIT E D ................................................................................................ 10

M U SE U M ............................................................................... 1 1

L A K E O V E R T U R E ...................................................................................................... 12

IN V O C A T IO N ................................................................13

B IT O F B ETR A Y A L ......................................................................................... ......... 14

S IS Y P H E A N ................................................................................................................. 1 5

T H E PE R V E R T S B R A G ............................................................................................ 16

THE EVANGELIST CHURCH BEHIND THE HOUSE .............................17

OUTLYING DAYTON ........................................ ................................... 18



v









1-7 5 ... ....................................................... 1 9

CHRISTMAS AMONG THE PRIESTS ........................................ ........................ 20

C A L IFO R N IA O R B U ST ............................................................................... ....... 21

TOIL ........................................ 22

A LA W N G N O M E 'S LA M EN T .............................................................. ....................23

GET YOURSELF A MANICURE AND PEDICURE............................. ....................24

NOBODY EATS SABERTOOTH PUDDING NOWADAYS .......................................25

A SU PERM A RK ET IN FLORID A .......................................................... ....................26

O D E T O B E E F JE R K Y ............................................................................ ....................27

L IT A N Y ................... ...................2...................8..........

SELF-SACRIFICE .................................... ..... ......................... 29

THE BOY ELIJAH ................................................ .... .......30

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A MAN-HOLE...... ................. ...............31

SU M M ER FR O ST .......... ............. .. ...... ...... .. .. .. .. .. ........... .... 32

B E R R Y M A N ................................................................................................................ 3 3

GRA N D ILLU SION ...................................................................................... 34

TRAILING OFF ................... ............... .......................35

IN T E R L U D E .........................................................................................3 6

T H E S W A N ........................................................................................................3 7

A C O V E N A N T ........... .... ............................ ............................................... ...... ........3 8

M O L O C H ...................................... .................... ..............................................39

T R A C E S .................................................................................4 0

R E F L E C T IO N .......................................................................................................4 1

B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ........................................................................................ 42















Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Fine Arts

ARTLESS SILENCES

By

Stephen Priest

May 2006

Chair: William Logan
Major Department: English

These poems move through the fields and barns of Ohio, the tenements and alleys

of Detroit, the flora of Florida; into terrains of mind and monologue, and take as their

subjects things sad, swampish, and silly.
















FLORIDA ENDING


Beckon me, Dante.
Stand in the parking lot, robed in the storm-severed fronds,
radiant with gravel,
and lead me down roads I've stumbled over
but never seen.

Write into me
the verdant paper refuse of the ditches, the frenzied rain,
the seashells crushed
into the grass, the streets' oily synapses,
the vagrant fog.

If I were you,
these traffic lights would bleed
together like murals,
these houses soar
into the language of air.















THERE-GONE


I can't stop. While watching the children splash in the river,
my feet hammer the sidewalk.
One kid, shoulder-deep in the water, eyes puckered tight,
calls out "Marco!", flings his arms, and waits for replies.
The temptation to answer ruins me. It's not right.
The others stand silent on the bank
and jury him, their torsos wet
and haloed by the sun-glare, their faces rumors of constancy.















CONCEPTION (ESSEX, CONNECTICUT)


In the evening's blue incandescence,
my father sits at the kitchen table playing solitaire.
He looks the bed over once more, finds a splinter of blue-white foil, sniffs the sheets,

and whisks his hand across the pillows, then flushes the foil down the toilet.
My mother comes home
with groceries. Dragging on a cigarette, he studies her

as she puts the food away, her legs framed by her tight jeans,
straining for the higher cabinets. With her back to him,
she asks what he wants for dinner.

That night, their sex is interrupted,
not by a voiceless midnight phone call,
but by high beams searing through the snow into their bedroom.















NIETZSCHE IN A BROTHEL IN LEIPZIG BEFORE DIONYSUS

Through the parlor's pallid light,
the madam came to him,
her face made raw by gouts of rouge and powder.
The bartender winked and pointed

to a line of girls dressed in silk and feather,
each one calm, exotic, pure.

His sister waited outside
in the soot-tainted sleet.
Wagner had put him up to it.
"It is good for a young man," he'd said. "Good to do it now and again."

A girl took his hand and guided him
up to her room, where they undressed alone.

Embarrassed, he stood behind the Oriental screen
while she lay bored upon the bed,
then went to her, one hand offering
a daisy he'd stolen from a vase, the other obscuring his genitals.

As he was imprisoned in her,
something escaped into him, a pestilence of thoughts
thick as the sludge
drifting along the cold, fragile Rhine.

Sores flowered for years
until he could describe the locusts
stripping his nerves. No one would hear him,
as she did not hear him now.

Done, he was dead already, yet ripe, spent, and stark.
















IKIRU


An X-ray, seen
this close, could be mistaken for the portrait of a bridge
swallowed by fog.

On a swingset, alone in the playground,
you're suspended for a moment in a gnarled
arabesque, a rust
of frost barnacling you to the swing. To leave is the only

way to go forward. You knew that evening at the restaurant,
alive at last, balleting down the stairs, ecarte, while

the office girl stayed
at the table and those teenagers hollered
the birthday song.

Better to be found here in the park, rather than
naked in your room, nibbling on
the silk stockings you'd bought her.

A gift is a gift even if reclaimed. You think about this awhile,
holding the chains
of the swing, swaying back and forth over
the ravenous soil, then wonder what will come next.















TORPOR


The neighborhood kids marched by with their ghetto-blasters
tuned to different stations,
the sound rawing the air like steel-wool.

I wanted to yell at them but couldn't think of anything to say.
What little I owned I got rid of.
I piled things outside my door,

to be taken by whoever wanted them.
The crackheads flocked in like pigeons.
When the super's daughter banged

on the door, twice a day, to collect the rent,
I quivered beneath my sheets like a newly neutered dog.
I was reduced

to listening to my neighbor's T.V.
through the wall at night.
It had been a long time

since I'd bathed or changed clothes.
My underwear was a girdle of nettles.
Sweat crusted into continents on my T-shirt.















PHOTO


It's Kevin's fault. At the microphone, entranced
by the squeal of feedback,
his shabby Silvertone slung across his chest,

eyes half-closed, his hand frozen
above an E chord, he obscures the drummer.
I'm pushed against the border,

fatter, sweat-blotted, head bent
towards my guitar, back to the rest of the guys.
I find the picture in a drawer

littered with cigarette butts, expired condoms,
phone numbers of ex-girlfriends. ..
At the back, in the doorway

between us and Michigan Avenue, stands my father,
arms folded, the streetlamp in the window above him
burning like an emaciated sun.















POLONIUS


Behind the curtains,
I perch upon the court's

shallows like a mosquito.
I suckle scenes, dissolve in them.

With my fish-stink hands,
I tendered my daughter to Hamlet.

She was worth something then.
To pass the hours,

I follow the queen's progress, watch her rub Hamlet's cheek,
and feel my youth swell again within me.

I think of May, Ophelia walking fields,
swaddled in the lily pads that soak up her stains.















BUDGET INN FUGUE


We were fucking with the television on,
sketches barely there in the erased light.

We walked beneath tar-leaved trees,
my arm still warm from your waist, room keys and coins rattling in my pocket,
your hair pearled with frost, your Firebird
parked on another street.

You'd gone to see someone
and I was on the bed, smoking, watching T.V.,
saying, "N'import quoi," again and again,
eyeing the shower rod.

Forgiveness is like remembering a vacant room.
You came back smelling of cologne and wine.
We lay next to each other, cocooned in the dark sheets,
building spires of matchsticks and cigarette butts.















DETROIT REVISITED


A star gashes the sky and I follow it,
listening to the cemetery of conversations
drifting from doorways. In my old neighborhood, chicken bones choke
the parking lots, empty vodka bottles sparkle beneath trees.

Kindled by crack, hookers crouching on stoops
call out to me as I pass, "Can I suck your dick?"
Just around the corner, I used to trick
my roommates' girlfriends into my bed

and hope to get caught. Or I'd spend nights alone
on the roof, lost in a rubble of sense and nerve;
even a friend's voice or the blink
of the radio tower were too much to bear.

From across the road, the library's bust of Copernicus
watches me with ravening eyes.
In the shadows of Ferry Street, a tramp window-shops
parked cars; another rustles within his newspaper blanket.















MUSEUM


Dulled from so much still-life,
I left you examining fossils.

The exhibits were animals
tarred together, sinking;

a prehistoric man kneeling before a fire,
his face a rictus of dumb hurt,

the germ of belief.
Beauty traumatizes me--I'm aghast and unresponsive.

A homely woman reminded me
of someone I'd used.

I followed her into a dark room
of insects that glinted like pennies.

Even the lowest forms of life get to be studied.















LAKE OVERTURE


At dusk, a thumb-sized
half-moon trembles over the shallows.
The sun sneaks into the water's creases,
suspending the clouds oiling their way across it.

Through the surface-murk, an alligator
grins like an unclothed mummy.
Anhingas lilt down upon the pier-stumps.

Tornado-winged hummingbirds shimmer among the shrubs.
The sunset flares upon the shore, then dims.
With a disfigured calm, the moss-draped branches
begin to sway and groan
like a chorus of mutes, sinister and dull.
















INVOCATION


Nothing helps.
Prophets, with their sicknesses

of cinder-notes and hushed crescendos,
with their quills lifting light

from bone, moved from town
to town hawking sand

and script, ignoring the estrangement
of sound, the mind's I am I."

They didn't recognize how their tongues withered
the stars to myths, and, when the angels came,

no one saved them.
My name terrifies me.















BIT OF BETRAYAL


Quiet as the little town sleeping around us,
we crouched beneath the bridge
and blew into our hands.

We brushed them over the gravel and talked about going on.
Boats docked in the distance,
their barnacles scraping against the piers.

In its sleep, the town began to shuffle
and night coughed up the dawn.
He rooted his feet into the gravel.

Three times a rooster crowed
and three times he realized I was gone.
















SISYPHEAN


You, you, not you.
A schizophrenic's eye stares like yours, filled
with seductions and hesitations.

Thought is as carnal, as compulsive as the echo of a sigh,
its anticipation.

It leaves the body
a glass case, a vacuum

where we fold ourselves like maps again and again,
lose and regain our edges.
















THE PERVERT'S BRAG


That summer teemed
with vagrant fucks

pressed up against alley walls
or in dumpsters like sarcophagi.

Hard, held, naked, condemned,
my cells turned to scales.

The little girls
scissored

their legs open and let me in,
caressed me

with accusations.
I rent my ribs from theirs,

strewed
the sidewalks where we jointed.

One lifted her skirt for me
and I cradled her

like a bird's nest.















THE EVANGELIST CHURCH BEHIND THE HOUSE

The pulpit was built from a few apple crates, one piled atop another.
A shrouded weather-worn table
teetered before it, displaying a nativity scene
spun from straw,
precise as Degas' ballerinas.

Crows perched upon the arms of the crucifix.
In the center of the barn
a beam buttressed the roof.
Through gashes
in the tin, dawn fissured
into shrapnel-light.
Chalk-blurred

angels hovered at the ceiling's edges.
The horses sold off, the stables had become confessionals.
A baseball on the dirt floor, its cover
peeled away, collapsed like a withered fruit.















OUTLYING DAYTON


Beneath your feet you feel the fields like weakening ice.
You're a child again, freed of patience;
everything that happens happens now.
Crows swoop down, skittering to stops
in clods of mud and straw.
Ignorant of what you are,
they caw and cling to your arms
and pretend it's you they're talking to.















1-75


I'm stuck in traffic and suddenly the hail's like rosaries snapping,
and the kid in the back of the truck next to me
curls himself up in vain. Antennae waver in the air
as far as I can see--there are too many signals.

Songs and stations
begin to frizzle together. A woman
in an evening gown pouts outside her BMW,
then dissolves into the dust and debris.

I rifle through the glove compartment.
Coming down is hardest; I can't figure
what not to feel: the boy I am and was,
burrowing through dusks

of park benches and dormant roller-coasters--
or the graying static
of the radio, the freeway's dampened cadence,
my nose sniffling in double-time to both.
















CHRISTMAS AMONG THE PRIESTS


Love is all around. Love is barbed in the static.
Grandmother hangs a few last ornaments.
"My job's not working out," her son-in-law says--
another ornament, another sentence.
The tree sheds a few needles when she touches it.

At the head of the table, Grandfather sits shaking salt into his hair.
A miracle occurs. His grandson transforms the old man's Jack and water
into pure Jack. As Grandfather gets drunker,
a grain of salt
slips into his eye. He wails.
Assured of everyone's attention,
he laps his tongue over his empty plate.

Uncle Jim's wife hasn't shown up this year, but no one mentions it.
He sits in a corner of the kitchen with his memories:
his days as a commercial trucker, a drive once through
Appalachia in a sleet like the one outside the window,
the vulture that got stuck in his hair. His nieces go on preparing the veal.

Finally, the dinner bell rings. Outside the house, everything is white.
One by one, the family trickle to their seats.
They watch the plates, waiting.
The smell of roast permeates the room.
Grandfather stands and stretches out his arms.















CALIFORNIA OR BUST


That winter, even before we left New York,
the dangers of the trip began. Uncle quietly confronted
two choleriacs with a cocked six-shooter.
The poor man .. they broke his thumb and took his belt buckle!

Things improved after that. Our third-class tickets
placed us in the boat's storage area, where we children
could frolic amongst the crates, mocking
the other passengers' coughs and dysenteric moans.

The food on board was worm-infested,
but I'd not had enough meat
of late and, furthermore, no one liked me,
so I'd reconciled myself to the company of larvae and their ilk.

Mother hid cash within her bosom. Some yellow fiends
stormed through the boat waving muskets
and demanding money. "They shall blow our brains out
if I don't give it to them," Mother said.

"We can get to California easier without brains
than without money," my aunt replied. Though they had no English,
those yellow devils laughed so hard at this
they let us go after they threatened to execute Uncle

and charge us a nominal fee for the bullet.




"A Panama Riot" by Carrie Stevens Walter, 1856















TOIL


Waxen shrubs, fake cardboard beasts, surrounded splintered trunks.
The garden's phosphorescent grass was overrun with apple cores.
Ill-suited, Adam entered life

by pointing, eating, naming blindly and acutely.
Now he whined, sucked his thumb and shat all day.
Eve combed her blight

of hair and tallied her pains.
The Devil lunched with them in tennis-whites,
gossiped, apologized:

"The serpent thing--not such a good idea--I swear
on my hooves the next project is much better."
When his cell-phone rang, they'd grunt with fright.

The Devil smiled, stared at the sky, and said to them both,
"God's sorry he's a such moody bitch, but it's his town, his rules.
Give him two sons, and he'll take you off his black-list."















A LAWN GNOME' S LAMENT


I can't speak Finnish.
I mean goodbye but only ever say hello with a rigid wave--

hello, ashen cold emperor of scree,
ice-scaled peels,

weed-calligraphy, remorse of budding bulbs,
ants and their inconstant mouths.

I didn't ask for this; I didn't ask for anything.
My gangly, hunched, ignorant owner is too selfish

to give me a ribbon to brighten things up.
I should have been a mole or an elf;

I've a nice figure and I burrow and bake well.
Deep inside, I know things

are nicer underground.
There's little to do and it deprives the senses--

plus, no one ever comes around.
Sometimes my owner whispers:

I hear the 1 eil, twr's
lovely in Finland.
















GET YOURSELF A MANICURE AND PEDICURE


Our Savior isn't the only one
who has to worry
about his nails!
















NOBODY EATS SABERTOOTH PUDDING NOWADAYS


It has gone the way
of tyrannosaur-eggshell tongue-rings.
















A SUPERMARKET IN FLORIDA


Make me make sense, bagboy.
I dig your name-tag and the moral way
you handle groceries.
I want to eat the moon.

I'll have a Moon-Pie instead;
it's tasty and makes me
a fat bald man in a nightgown
getting head in the produce aisle from an Afro'ed albino

butcher in seraph-drag.
Spending all day with other people's food,
he understands
fears of commitment,

that I'm making myself up as I go.
Time seems a beatific panic,
no pause for correction
or thought, just urge

and urge and urge.
Bagboy, I know we're strange to each other,
but the fluorescent lights
in this Winn Dixie turn me on.
















ODE TO BEEF JERKY


You are as immediate
and abstracted as a hooker's tongue.
Savoring you, I gag
with delight. In the gas station,
after the bars close,
your supple convenience,
the red-yellow plastic
glare of your packaging
seduce me.
I will pay $4.34.
A sinewy wistfulness
overcomes me.
What were you
before I gnawed you?
A maimed deity?
A slaughterhouse's daydream?
















LITANY


Not crumbs, not boredom, not epilepsy,
not ovaries, not sulphur, not feathers.















SELF-SACRIFICE


This month I don't believe in hurt.
The Virgin Mary turns into a bat,
claustrophobic and homesick along the borders of the night,
her murmurs as tarnished and inscrutable as a knight.

I think I need to get laid.
This new bow-tie, these vampiric manners
should bring the girls flopping
to me like epileptics listening to the flopping

of God's unforked tongue--
at least that's what my son said
before he became a proverb.
Me, I've always liked thilig,, I've never been pro-verb.















THE BOY ELIJAH


We'd go to visit him in the evenings after dinner, when our mothers
had started to chat, taking canteens and loaves of rye
to offer, knowing he'd refuse and suck sap from the pines.
Cat-hair-clothed, bark-girdled, he'd trained the worms
to spill from the soil and rush together,

rivers of them forming signs we didn't recognize.
Despite the strangeness of their shapes, we knew what they meant
and went cowering back to our mothers,
while he limped through the fields to the highway's end
to wait for an accident.















AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A MAN-HOLE


Lost in an artless silence at fourteen, I sheared
BarbieTM dolls, roamed rooms heavy

with ineluctable sighs and dust-drenched curtains.
Father lurched behind me holding a mirror up.

At sixteen, I curled my locks, pretended
I was Goldie Hawn or Plath, learned lipstick, rouge,

deceit. Boys sailed by in cars, whistled, cat-called,
pulled over, and stuffed my head in pantyhose.















SUMMER FROST


I had been on the roof with my friend's girlfriend,
the woman I'd been sleeping with that summer and trying not
to care about. She'd gone back down,

and I was half-stoned,
cowering from the tree branches
with their plastic shopping bags

caught like snagged angels.
The sky was a frozen lake,
the clouds stretched across it

like scraps of shroud and veil.
Broken glass glittered beneath the only
working streetlamp on Woodward Avenue.

I saw something approaching,
pale as a white casket, a young woman
naked, floating on her back down the street.

I wanted somehow to lie
within her, to knot my fingers like lilies into her hair.
I was at the edge of the roof before

I realized how far I'd gone. She had disappeared.
It was getting cold but I couldn't go back in.
The weathervane pointed north by northwest.















BERRYMAN


In January's thawless pall,
your mind droned like a wasp's nest.

Seduced by the icicles, you waved
at cars creeping along

the bridge, dreamed up
what the passengers would say afterwards:

He was as charming as toy jewelry.
Drank all the whiskey in St. Paul in one night.

Should I bring anything other than boredom,
a bottle of sourmash, a pack of Camels,

shoe-polish, the chest of drowned books?
We're all so glad you're gone.















GRAND ILLUSION


The Swiss mountains,
brambled in tense, voided trees,
make the two men tramping toward their haze seem insignificant

gleams of shadow.
Bearded, bundled in stolen trench coats frayed at the seams,
they think escape.

The frame rewinds and jerks forward, rewinds and jerks forward
with the persistence of a metronome, the constant winter
of the screen

contrasting with the rain-bursts
and steam of the night. I sit at my desk, surrounded
by slags of paper, and try to write about this.

The blinds are closed. I pry them apart
and see my neighbors on their lawn, singing to
some pop anthem. The boys tug

the girls between them, capture and recapture them,
shake their fists at one another. I turn away. On the screen,
Marechal keeps lowering and raising his collar.
















TRAILING OFF


We waste sex often now.
Empty whiskey bottles, sealed with candle-stubs, adorn
the carpet in your bedroom.
What we say doesn't matter.
We've drunk a fifth already today--
I go get one last last.

From the street, bourbon in hand, I see you
at your window, bending down
towards the dining-room table
in your underwear.

Branches shrink
against a bloated moon.
In the park across from your building,
a man rinses a baby
doll in the drinking fountain.

Caught in the twilight, you glow like a film negative.















INTERLUDE


The summer is over as it often is
in July and the marrow aches
like wood turning to pulp.

The things wished for are gone now.
Nights spent on a porch talking until four.
The skin of a new lover. The sky throbbing vein-blue after a storm.

Hung in a tree like a soiled shirt
or sad-faced at the window of a Detroit bar,
Rilke's ghost waits for the leaves to blow.















THE SWAN


The wings' tremors, the neck's terse pirouettes
articulate subtracted alphabets
in the decay of Helen's smile.

Beneath the pond-scum,
the swan's mouth accepts the depths'
brackish life: dim animals invisible

to the eye, diluted shreds of sound.
Its feathers shine somberly, innocently, alluding
to transfigurations terrible,

long past or not yet come.
Upon the water's edge,
bland with shock, the swan stutters into flight.















A COVENANT


The pilgrims follow the path of sheep and oxen hooves,
dragging their fathers behind in nets of wire and rag.

In thickets like wombs, they kneel and touch
each other, thorn to finger to thorn.

Born unborn, they sing like a miners' canary:
a procession of notes, a chord tangled in the frost.

They hide in gaping
hushes, wield talismans to say, I have been healed before.

Snow sows itself upon them,
blooming blank as tundra.
















MOLOCH


On an avenue splashed with a confusion
of golds and sepias,
a garbage man heaves refuse

into the back of his truck,
shouts something about his wife
above the neighborhood children's din--

he can't love
who he's supposed to;
maybe if he could speak

like a thesaurus, he says.
The compactor churns sparsely, symphonically.
His partner nods and collects more trash.















TRACES


Noiseless, elegant, we atrophy,
radiant as axes, without reason,

armless arms numb-lilting,
delivering noise, fasting.

Barren, taut luminaries
of nonsense, we are galled by the lateness,

the lazy tenure of fossil
pouring tired and surely upon our faces.

Nuance is the source of failure.
No revisions--they distract from the ocean,

from the unjust laments
of the graceless, false past,

from the illegible tides.
There are no deaths naive enough.

We shamble without penance,
without comprehension,

through the lazy tenor of fossil
which acknowledges, mourns, contradicts death.















REFLECTION


The radiators clattered like ajar of beaks.
Every few minutes an orderly peered through the peephole.
You crouched like a buzzard at the end of the bed, hoarding me.

Your hair had been shoulder-length, brown. Now it was scoured to stubble.
You flapped a hand across your forehead.

I was a mannequin.
You fastened yourself to my arms, moved me
however you liked, your knuckles scalding white through your skin.

The peephole slid open, shut.
Posed in front of the mirror, your arms cigarette-pocked,

you loosened the strings
of your hospital gown.















BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

Stephen Priest was born in 1978 in New London, Connecticut. He grew up in

Dayton, Ohio, and graduated from the University of Michigan. He likes strumpets.