The 49 Days by John Amen

The 49 Days
after Richard Sassoon

Alone & hungry, I woke,
Sylvia’s hands slid across the keyboard,
she & her students hunched over a blue Steinway.
Moments later they vanished mid-sonata,
the piano gutted in the front yard,
chips of ivory scattered in the mulch.
I called into the closets, couldn’t remember names,
barely faces, no one answered, days crashed
like hailstones on a roof. I turned, a man with a blank white mask
reached for my shoulder in the yellow afternoon.
Richard? he said, & the name
meant nothing to me.

Across the berm, ankle-deep in a puddle of gas,
my brother recited the alphabet. He held
a gold lighter to the sky. I heard the tulip tree
cry to the oak, that electric thread drumming in the subsoil.
The earth swiveled, I was cuffed to a long, black table,
a revolver smoked on a purple tray.
In the thick air ripe with summer,
five naked people stared. It’s me, Richard,
it’s me!
each shouted, I had no idea in the muted light,
the now silver room who they were.

Across galaxies, the mechanic from the tire plant,
engine snarling on the highway,
growling under the pin oak in the cul de sac—
he clawed at the kitchen window, that rusty latch,
blade gleaming between his teeth.
I had to get to the orphans before he did,
guard their empty beds, empty fables,
guard their empty rooms, I loaded the rifle,
I had to save the orphans who no longer needed saving.

I’m here! I yelled. My pulse shook the steel beams,
knocked vases from shelves, but Sylvia couldn’t taste me,
the play was about to resume. I couldn’t exit
that endless intermission, floating in the mezzanine.
An understudy clutched Sylvia’s arm,
men in black suits, women in black skirts,
she mumbled as they swept her across the marble.
Dialogue thundered, staccato scenes about a mafia town,
a family that played boardgames inside a block of ice, a salesman
from California who swore he could make it rain. Sylvia
closed her eyes for the second act, I reached through a glare,
I couldn’t land my touch, I was made of darkness.

The dead soldier my father posed by the woodpile
in a Confederate costume, leaning on a sledgehammer
as he slurred barbwire jokes. He demanded laughter,
I wouldn’t give it to him, he looked away first,
I sparked through pine needles toward the curing shed,
he prodded again, again my silence, that embryonic heresy,
we drew our pistols amidst the jumbletrees
where how many black bodies were strung.
Later the drunken giants from concentric hollers
arrived in rusted cars, rolled their dice in the garage,
flung their cards at the moon, drawing blood in the crazy star-glow.
Later he mumbled to himself, that gulp of anger,
& how he wrung his hands, hurling his broken wallet
into the slug-pond, as if rage were his only inheritance,
as if it were mine now, as if I had no right to turn it down,
the fourth Richard, Richard the fourth in a withered line.

Sunrise wrapped the walls, the blind kid
swung his ax as morning arrived,
heaving its way up the mountain.
Wireweed crept across the donkey field,
kudzu galloped over the dry valley.
I couldn’t saddle my ambitions,
couldn’t find my way in the green hall.
I waved my gun, stumbled amongst lamps,
baskets & antique tables, boxes of photos. Later
the piano sounded odd scales, though no one was playing,
the brown bench crumbled, tablature wafted
like pigeons on fire, beautiful alien planet,
limbo swaddled in a morphine blur.

My cell rang in the afternoon.
My friend couldn’t shake his dream,
sitting across from me in a Sunken City café.
I tried to bring you back, he explained,
his voice disappearing in the ether.
Richard! Richard! he yelled into the phone,
the future fluttered in my throat,
I swallowed a river, my confession bobbing to the surface,
not about the dream but my mother & her obsession with birds,
how she taped feathers to my chest
before I dressed & left for school.
Protection, she said, from the world’s poisonous song.
We hung up, I hovered in that private smog,
all day stumbled into walls & furniture.
I couldn’t locate myself, & I kept
hearing the roar of water, though it hadn’t
rained in at least a month.

I couldn’t speak Sylvia my love, this tongue
made of lead, couldn’t translate my afterworld,
gases flaring, icy avalanches in the dark.
Once you lay beside me, muttering in my ear,
I tasted the heat of your breath.
The soil between your legs was loud,
flood on my thighs,
my body the brittle ark
sang through your stormy current.
So much unsaid, word by word
I’m dismantled, not how I meant to cross
this celestial fault line, dashed one tremor to the next,
my final, pulpy work, sprawled on a red chair
at eternal noon, shutters drawn, windows black.
Secrets I kept from you Sylvia, myself, now what remain.

What dark galleon flew the dock, I
perched like a mad gull the razored balustrade.
Then on infinite gangway, then
stretched arms wide to the bow,
I called in the spindrift, wait! wait!
What dying desire insane to stoke
I tore & stabbed with invisible hands.
& the restless ship, plodding mammoth,
roared like a dire Sphinx, lunged from the light,
melting as I quivered on the chain.
& the stranger for whom I felt
such rended love had vanished, I was
sun-wiped, a million stars beyond.

I floated in a black hole, gripping a paintbrush,
offered a wild, evaporating stroke to the eidetic air.
It’s true what’s said about the death-gate flash,
orbits & counter-orbits, gravities jerked & shoved,
that flipbook of faces, then a tunnel, so many shuffling
slack-jawed, carting their self-inflicted wounds.
Thin tethers snapped with each step,
above, around me, voices familiar,
a thrum of planets, I joined the queue
marching through mounds of petrified bone,
memory ever-condensing, dark & light swirled
to produce a love I could never name. Before even the spatter on the wall,
I knew a circle of grief, beauty as acid & balm,
the life so cursed soon tropical, succulent, sweeter in regret.
I was no longer that boy, that Richard, that ghost,
that wispy form flickering in a bardo.


About the Poet

John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm (New York Quarterly Books, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award, and work from which was chosen as a finalist for the Dana Award. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He is a Staff Reviewer for the music magazines and websites No DepressionBeats Per Minute, and PopMatters. He founded and is managing editor of Pedestal Magazine.