crooked little teeth
BY JENNIFER K. SWEENEY
Churches full of dark chatter and rain,
dripstone, padlocked fence, the river
rising above the street.
Think always of the shoes the warm feet
of everything that wants to be loved,
the cemetery buried twelve layers deep, the names
murmuring across drywall.
Chainmail coats hang silent in the museum,
throats lined with gold.
Open a cabinet and find a staircase.
Ascend a staircase and find a map,
mirrors that seem to be everywhere
and all at once.
Death turns his hourglass
and it becomes a cask of wine.
A man drags paintings under a bridge,
crooked little teeth
scavenge for something edible in the mud.
Matchstick, bloated rat, iridescent pink
of an empty vodka bottle.
Wind blows wild in the canal
a music of goblets thrown to cobbles.
The city at night and all its ghosts,
baroque furniture left in an orchard,
a monk asleep in a ticketed car.
Wrought faces of fighters and saints
peer from third-story porticos,
gesture of wings before the exodus,
last haze before the pitch,
and the priests
having fled the monasteries
prayed secretly in empty wine cellars
under the same coal black bowl of sky.
"THE game of life"
BY JENNIFER K. SWEENEY
debuted in 1860 as “The Checkered Game of Life”
First, that we all lived in convertibles,
tucked our certain pink or blue genders
in like pushpins and sprung our lives
in the highway’s metaphor, and what
could go wrong too was tidy,
portioned out in the acceptable idea
of what could go wrong, a lost job or car accident
that would be statistically rebounded
by climbing Mt. Everest or the family horse winning derby.
We collected mates, again certain our pink or blue
choices; to get married was to open
the passenger door, though sometimes I moved
the peg of me over then so my blue man could drive.
And children were spawned
shortly after without pregnancy or labor,
just dropped into one of the available holes
from the sky. If you had more kids than holes,
the directions suggested crowding them in as you would in real life.
Real life we knew little about but took Milton Bradley’s
word for it traversing small mountain ranges meant
to symbolize law school, taking out various insurance policies,
collecting promissory notes; promissory a new word
I thought sounded religious.
And that we were trying to win at this, move through it faster
than the other eight year olds, arrive first
at our retirement nursing homes so we could secure
a room with a window at Millionaire Acres and finally begin
what then, real life?
Sitting on shag carpet with processed cheese,
we did not know that blue could abuse pink,
that pink would earn less than blue on Pay Day,
that pink could fall in love with pink, or blue with blue,
and that if you were pink or blue and also black
you would live under the suspicious gaze
of those who were not.
Rooting for our dice to fall
only on the good, we were indoctrinated
again and again into goodness, we did not know
what an art messing up a life could be, how you could
dent it, drain it dry in a full flung collapse
and somehow rasp a weary breath in and watch
it eventually take hold. There was no mental illness,
no notion of the spectrum, no sons in drug rehab,
no sleeping with your high school teacher and getting pregnant,
there were no swinger parties where everyone swapped cars
in the Game of Life yet there were spaces neatly reserved
every eighth of the journey where you could take revenge
on any of your mates for no good reason priming us
for opportunism, for ruthless neighborly cheer.
Rooting for the high spin, racing to the End
where “happy old age” beckoned in the corner opposite infancy,
to park at the Day of Reckoning where the last tapered years forked
into millionaire or bankruptcy, nothing in between what could be
measured in polarity, the game of mockery in a final yes or no,
and we wanted that greedy yes, that glittery good finish,
to have slipped through the whole ruck unscathed,
unravaged by any veer or rupture in the safe story, we were
at the clean beginnings of our devastation, pre-failure, heading out
toward the mild hills hoping for nothing
special but to park at the unlit horizon.
Jennifer K. Sweeney is the author of Little Spells (New Issues Press, 2015); How to Live on Bread and Music, which received the James Laughlin Award, the Perugia Press Prize and a nomination for the Poets’ Prize; and Salt Memory. The recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, and a Hedgebrook residency, her poems have recently appeared in American Poetry Review, The Awl, Burnside Review, Cimarron Review, Crab Orchard Review, New American Writing, Puerto del Sol, Stirring, Thrush, and Verse Daily. Visit her at www.jenniferksweeney.com.
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