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On Metaphor

In back of daddy’s closet,

behind the cold and loaded

pistol, I find a cedar box

of snapshots—his company

in camouflage, waving rifles,

reefer, and middle fingers

at the photographer. At you.

And at me. And here,

the full-lipped redbone

he left in the world without

a goodbye. Here, a strange

boy with my father’s forehead,

same sullen eyes. Flip the photo:

a stranger’s name and dates

that don’t add, scrawled as if

rushed, as if a fugitive’s note

slipped quick to the future.

When my mother walks in,

I shove the box to the back

of the shelf, say nothing

of the redbone or the boy.

I hand her, instead, the pistol.

A .45, I believe. Its cold barrel

swelling in the room’s bum

light. When she angles it,

just so, I think I see my father

reflected in the steel. Wait, no—

Not my father. It’s me.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Poem Ending and Beginning on Lines by Larry Levis

Because you haven’t praised anything in months,

and because iron, because two ten-pound plates—

when pressed to six wheels and late sets—are enough

to drive better men to dust, and because the young bucks

curling near the mirror have paused their pretty work

to watch your old ass snatch from the bench’s

buckling uprights all three hundred and thirty-five

goddam pounds, you summon the saint of iron,

the blacksmith in palm skirt fisting his machetes,

to give you just a little bit of what you need to bring it

down, to bang it up, just once. Just this once.

—Ago, Baba Mi. Ogun Owanile O, Ogun, Cobu Cobu

Of course, the young bucks chuckle at this ooga-booga

babble, this strange ritual gibberish of an old-timer,

obviously—in the parlance of the place—dead set

to fuck his self up. But you break the weight, you do.

And the room falls quiet save the quiver and clang

of iron on iron, the few slim seconds it takes to turn

back time. Lift off, and you’re a young man in an old city.

No beard, no gray. Lift again, and Parliament is pulsing

from a ghetto blaster perched on a pair of milk crates

in a neighbor’s yellow yard, your sixteen-year-old self

is writhing under another bar, what feels like two tons

crushing you dead, and Robert Caldwell’s glaring

from behind the bench, yelling for you to drive it all up.

Robert Caldwell, barrel-chested, chiseled, and damn

near three hundred pounds, who pushed a pallet jack

for twelve-hour shifts, after twenty-something years

stretched across San Quentin, Soledad, and Folsom;

Robert Caldwell, the triple O.G., who once threatened

his boss with a box-cutter for wolfing loud, or holding

eye contact a little too long, has for reasons unknown

chosen you for his pet project, promising to forge you

into something unbreakable. Said by summer’s end,

you, too, will have grown men flinching when you flex,

and the women—oh, the women—will make disappear

all the deep deep ache a man inflicts on himself. Or,

rather, all the pain Robert Caldwell will inflict on you.

For make no mistake, this will be a summer that hurts.

Deadlifts, box squats, power cleans, and curls.

The egg yolks’ nasty, the slither down your throat.

Drop sets, pyramids, twenty-ones, and cheats. The day

you learned how Robert Caldwell found his father

dead. Days dead the day before, a stolen Desert Eagle

spent and sprawled near what once was a face.

Robert Caldwell drops this on you hard between sets,

but doesn’t pause to break down sobbing. Push, nigga.

Push, says Robert Caldwell. Pain is weakness leaving.

Push, nigga. Push. Become something unbreakable.

Robert Caldwell doesn’t break or take a day to mourn,

or ring your phone late night to chat about regret,

or counsel you to love better than you’ve been.

He does what any good ironworker does. He works.

And he works you. All summer long. Sets and reps

and pressure and flame and all the requisite ache.

You don’t break, exactly, but come close to buckling.

That summer, and summers since. So much burn,

so much weight. So much. You’ll leave three women,

the rest will leave you first. You’ll bury your own father,

lose four friends to gunfire, one to a jailhouse noose.

Your hands will shame you often. But first, this.

O.G. Robert Caldwell, his jigs, blocks, and hammer.

O.G. Robert Caldwell, backlit by the sun. Ogun

Owanile O, Ogun Cobu Cobu. How beautiful this man,

his trust in iron, what it gives us, what it takes.

What it gives again. He yells for you to push, you push.

Robert Caldwell, you think, would have loved this

beat down Brooklyn hole in the wall, its ripped leather

seatbacks, all its stale air. He’d have loved the rusty

dumbbells, the dirt-caked mirror, the young bucks

circling you now, watching and waiting. You stare hard

into that mirror, into your beard and gray. Crow’s feet

and furrows. Thirty-something summers and you’ve become

the triple O.G. Every ache you’ve earned tells you so.

The young bucks clock you as you lay back on the bench,

your hands chalked and finding their grip. Weight,

you think, they don’t have a clue. You break the bar

from its rack, feel it all bearing down. The quiver and heft,

the sudden, overcast quiet of the past tense.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Dear Yusef

Again last night, I caught Medusa

sitting in my living room.

Not the devil. Not the dog

in the shadows, made of shadows.

Not the old translucent maroon

sharpening his machete. But

Medusa, lighting a spliff, spreading

tarot cards across the floor.

I didn’t startle when a door slammed

but half expected a black cat

to run over my shoes. She wore

the same red lipstick as the night

before, Yusef. Same black teddy

with the skinny strap slipped

from her shoulder. Singing to herself,

her voice split in two—contralto,

baritone: balladeer stroking the braids

of a woman everyone knows

he beats; the woman singing Yes

and It’s alright… Sequined sleeves

hiding every track, a disco ball

scattering shards of light along

some drab and peeling wall—Medusa

cut the deck, relit the spliff, flipped

one card, then another. Took a pull

so long I thought she’d catch fire.

You’ve not always been a good man,

she said, showing seven cards,

coughing hard. There was something

she wasn’t telling me. She liked

that I didn’t ask. Liked how I watched

her dusting ashes from her thigh.

I see trouble finds you easy, hey boy?

I pulled her onto my lap, or I slid

myself, somehow, up under her

—I can’t remember which—

she singing Yes, and It’s alright

then slipping the joint, fire side first,

between her lips, she took my face

in her hands, and shotgunned a cloud

into my open mouth. Some nights,

Yusef, the serpents curse my name.

Some nights, they tell me secrets.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Upon Reading the Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,

late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this—the one

bird frantic, attacking I thought, the way she swooped

down, circled my head, and flailed her wings in my face;

how she seemed to scream each time I swung; how she

dashed back and forth between me and a blood-red Corolla

parked near the opposite curb; how, finally, I understood:

I spied another bird, also calling, his foot inexplicably

caught in the car’s closed door, beating his whole bird

body against it. Trying, it appeared, to bang himself free.

And who knows how long he’d been there, flailing. Who

knows—he and the other I mistook, at first, for a bat.

They called to me—something between squawk and chirp,

something between song and prayer—to do something,

anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not

indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,

on my way home from another heartbreak. Call it 1997,

and say I’m several thousand miles from home. By which

I mean those were the days I made of everyone a love song.

By which I mean I was lonely and unrequited. But that’s

not quite it either. Truth is, I did manage to find a few

to love me, but couldn’t always love them back. The Rasta

law professor. The firefighter’s wife. The burlesque dancer

whose daughter blackened drawings with m’s to mean

the sky was full of birds the day her daddy died. I think

his widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.

Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night—

did I mention it was night?—why I didn’t even try

to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,

truthfully, that it had anything to do with envy, with wanting

a woman to plead as deeply for me as these sparrows did,

one for the other. No. I’d have said something, instead,

about the neighborhood itself, the car thief shot a block

and a half east the week before. Or about the men

I came across nights prior, sweat-slicked and shirtless,

grappling in the middle of the street, the larger one’s chest

pressed to the back of the smaller, bruised and bleeding

both. I know you thought this was about birds,

but stay with me. I left them both in the street—

the same street where I’d leave the sparrows—the men

embracing and, for all one knows (especially one not

from around there), they could have been lovers—

the one whispering an old, old, tune into the ear

of the other—Baby, baby, don’t leave me this way. I left

the men where I’d leave the sparrows and their song.

And as I walked away, I heard one of the men call to me,

please or help or brother or some such. And I didn’t break

stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.

Let me try this another way. Call it 1977. And say

I’m back west, south central Los Angeles. My mother

and father at it again. But this time in the street,

broad daylight, and all the neighbors watching. One,

I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex

to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this.

My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny

fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow. And me,

years later, trying to get it all down. As much for you—

I’m saying—as for me. Sonny catches a left, lies flat

on his back, blood starting to pool and his own

wife wailing. My mother wailing, and traffic backed,

now, half a block. Horns, whistles, and soon sirens.

1977. Summer. And all the trees full of birds. Hundreds,

I swear. And since I’m the one writing it, I’ll tell you

they were crying. Which brings me back to Dolphy

and his transcribing. The jazzman, I think, wanted only

to get it down pure. To get it down exact—the animal

wracking itself against a car’s steel door, the animals

in the trees reporting, the animals we make of ourselves

and one another. Flailing, failing. Stay with me now.

Days after the dustup, my parents took me to the park.

And in this park was a pond, and in this pond were birds.

Not sparrows, but swans. And my father spread a blanket

and brought from a basket some apples and a paring knife.

Summertime. My mother wore sunglasses. And long sleeves.

My father, now sober, cursed himself for leaving the radio.

But my mother forgave him, and said, as she caressed

the back of his hand, that we could just listen to the swans.

And we listened. And I watched. Two birds coupling,

one beating its wings as it mounted the other. Summer,

1977. I listened. And watched. When my parents made love

late into that night, I covered my ears in the next room,

scanning the encyclopedia for swans. It meant nothing to me—

then, at least—but did you know the collective noun

for swans is a lamentation? And is a lamentation not

its own species of song? What a woman wails, punch drunk

in the street? Or what a widow might sing, learning her man

was drowned by swans? A lamentation of them? Imagine

the capsized boat, the panicked man, struck about the eyes,

nose, and mouth each time he comes up for air. Imagine

the birds coasting away and the waters suddenly calm.

Either trumpet swans or mutes. The dead man’s wife

running for help, crying to any who’d listen. A lamentation.

And a city busy saving itself. I’m digressing, sure. But

did you know that to digress means to stray from the flock?

When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which

I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left

the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday

I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

On Magical Realism

—Ontario, CA. 1981

Stained with rosaries

and skeletons, some

virgin or another praying

on his shoulder, Tiny

shuffles toward and

leans heavy, as if trying,

into the first perfect hook

my father will land that summer,

and miles north, Tiny’s mother

clutches her chest, hearing

just then, on a dusty mantle

in an empty room, framed

glass crack and crack again

just along the left jawline

of a favorite baby boy

who will grow into a man

who calls a man Nigger,

in a room full of niggers,

and the nigger with the hook—

my father—asks What’s my name,

What’s my name, What’s

my motherfucking name?

as the photo frame

shatters damn near to dust,

Tiny’s mother buckles

and she cries, God

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Mercy, Mercy Me

Crips, Bloods, and butterflies.

A sunflower somehow planted

in the alley. Its broken neck.

Maybe memory is all the home

you get. And rage, where you

first learn how fragile the axis

upon which everything tilts.

But to say you’ve come to terms

with a city that’s never loved you

might be overstating things a bit.

All you know is there was once

a walk-up where now sits a lot,

vacant, and rats in deep grass

hide themselves from the day.

That one apartment fire

set back in ’76—one the streets

called arson to collect a claim—

could not do, ultimately, what

the city itself did, left to its own dank

devices, some sixteen years later.

Rebellions, said some. Riots,

said the rest. In any case, flames;

and the home you knew, ash.

It’s not an actual memory, but

you remember it still: a rust-

bottomed Datsun handed down,

then stolen. Stripped, recovered,

and built back from bolts.

Driving away in May. 1992.

What’s left of that life quivers

in the rearview—the world on fire,

and half your head with it.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

On Negative Capability

Whitewalls Mudflaps

Late night howling down

a dark dirt road Headlights

killed and so the world gone

black but for the two blunts

lit illuminating Jojo’s fake gold

grin   One girl each screaming

from the backseat we raced

the red moon rawdogged

the stars His mama’s car

my daddy’s gun Public Enemy

Number One Seventeen and

simple we wannabe hard-

rocks threw rudeboy fingers

and gang signs at the sky

Blinded by the hot smoke

rising like the sirens

in the subwoofers blinded

by the crotchfunk rising

from all our eager selves We

mashed in perfect murk a city

block’s length at least

toward God toward God

knows what when or why

neither Jojo nor I nor our

two dates screaming had a clue

or even care what the black

ahead held

Come road

come night come blackness

and the cold Come havoc

come mayhem Come down

God and see us Come

bloodshot moon running

alongside the ride as if

to warn us away from as if

to run us straight into some

jagged tooth and jackal-throated

roadside ditch

When Jojo

gunned the gas we pushed into

that night like a nest of sleeping

jaybirds shaken loose and

plunging Between our screams

a hush so heavy we could

almost hear what was waiting

in the dark

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Variation on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop

Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again.

Lose a good woman on a bad day. Find a better woman,

then lose five friends chasing her. Learn to lose as if

your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on it.

Learn it like karate, like riding a bike. Learn it, master it.

Lose money, lose time, lose your natural mind.

Get left behind, then learn to leave others. Lose and

lose again. Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s

crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass.

Know why your woman’s not answering her phone.

Lose sleep. Lose religion. Lose your wallet in El Segundo.

Open your window. Listen: the last slow notes

of a Donny Hathaway song. A child crying. Listen:

a drunk man is cussing out the moon. He sounds like

your dead uncle, who, before he left, lost a leg

to sugar. Shame. Learn what’s given can be taken;

what can be taken, will. This you can bet on without

losing. Sure as nightfall and an empty bed. Lose

and lose again. Lose until it’s second nature. Losing

farther, losing faster. Lean out your open window, listen:

the child is laughing now. No, it’s the drunk man again

in the street, losing his voice, suffering each invisible star.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

Dolores, Maybe

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.

I slept once in a field beyond the riverbank,

a flock of nightjars watching over me.

That was the summer a farmer found his daughter

hanging in the hayloft, and wished, for the first time,

he had not touched her so.

I wish I could say we were close—the girl and I,

I mean—but only knew her to wave hello,

and walked her, once, halfway up the road

before turning finally into my grandmother’s yard.

This was Ontario, California. 1983.

Which is to say, there was no river.

And I wouldn’t know a nightjar if it bit me.

But the girl was real. And the day they found her, that was real.

And the dress she wore, same as on our walk—

periwinkle, she called it; I called it blue,

blue with bright yellow flowers all over

—the dress and the flowers, they too were real.

And on our walk, I remember, we cut through the rail yard,

and came upon a dead coyote lying near the tracks.

A frail and dusty heap of regret, he was companion to no one.

Stone still, staring. Our shadows stretched long and covering the animal.

She told me something, I want to say, about loneliness.

Something I’ve since forgotten, the way I’ve forgotten—

though I can see her face as if she were standing right here—her very name.

Let’s call her Dolores, from dolor. Spanish for anguish.

And whatever the sky, however lovely that afternoon,

I remember mostly the wind,

how a breeze unraveled what was left of a braid,

and when I tried to brush from Dolores’s brow

a few loose strands, how she flinched,

how she ran the rest of the way home,

how I never saw her after that,

except when they carried her from the barn—her periwinkle dress,

her blue legs and arms, and the fields

ablaze with daisies.

I spent the rest of that summer in the rail yard

with my dead coyote, watching trains loaded and leaving.

All summer long, I’d pelt him with stones.

All summer long, I’d use the stones to spell the girl’s name—

Dolores, maybe—in the dirt.

All summer long, fire ants crawled over and between each letter—

her name, now, its own small town.

A season of heat and heavy rains washed my coyote to nothing.

Only teeth and a few stubborn bones

that refused, finally, to go down.

Weeks into autumn, someone found the father

hanged from the same groaning tie-beams,

the hayloft black with bottle flies.

But that was 1983. Ontario, California.

Which is to say, the bottle flies are dead. So, too, the ants.

And neither field nor barn is where I left it.

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.

I gathered a handful of my coyote’s bones, his teeth,

and strung them all on fishing wire—

a talisman to ward off anguish. A talisman I hold out to you now.

Please. Come closer. Take this from my hand.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

On Confessionalism

Not sleepwalking, but waking still,

with my hand on a gun, and the gun

in a mouth, and the mouth

on the face of a man on his knees.

Autumn of ’89, and I’m standing

in a Section 8 apartment parking lot,

pistol cocked, and staring down

at this man, then up into the mug

of an old woman staring, watering

the single sad flower to the left

of her stoop, the flower also staring.

My engine idling behind me, a slow

moaning bassline and the bark

of a dead rapper nudging me on.

All to say, someone’s brokenhearted.

And this man with the gun in his mouth—

this man who, like me, is really little

more than a boy—may or may not

have something to do with it.

May or may not have said a thing

or two, betrayed a secret, say,

that walked my love away. And why

not say it: She adored me. And I,

her. More than anyone, anything

in life, up to then, and then still,

for two decades after. And, therefore,

went for broke. Blacked out and woke

having gutted my piggy and pawned

all my gold to buy what a homeboy

said was a Beretta. Blacked out

and woke, my hand on a gun, the gun

in a mouth, a man, who was really

a boy, on his knees. And because

I loved the girl, I actually paused

before I pulled the trigger—once,

twice, three times—then panicked

not just because the gun jammed,

but because what if it hadn’t,

because who did I almost become,

there, that afternoon, in a Section 8

apartment parking lot, pistol cocked,

with the sad flower staring, because

I knew the girl I loved—no matter

how this all played out—would never

have me back. Day of damaged ammo,

or grime that clogged the chamber.

Day of faulty rods, or springs come

loose in my fist. Day nobody died,

so why not Hallelujah? Say Amen or

Thank you? My mother sang for years

of God, babes, and fools. My father,

lymph node masses fading from

his x-rays, said surviving one thing

means another comes and kills you.

He’s dead, and so, I trust him. Dead,

and so I’d wonder, years, about the work

I left undone—boy on his knees

a man now, risen, and likely plotting

his long way back to me. Fuck it.

I tucked my tool like the movie gangsters

do, and jumped back in my bucket.

Cold enough day to make a young man

weep, afternoon when everything,

or nothing, changed forever. The dead

rapper grunted, the bassline faded,

my spirits whispered something

from the trees. I left, then lost the pistol

in a storm drain, somewhere between

that life and this. Left the pistol in

a storm drain, but never got around

to wiping away the prints.

from Kontemporary Amerikan PoetryFind more by John Murillo at the library

Copyright © 2020 John Murillo
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books.

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