One sighs heavily down the telephone
Another pours the assassin’s quicksand
One leaves the garrison lonely as a bullet
Another fills white tubs with kerosene
One is surveyed from the border glass
Another guards against the darkness of trees
One clinks to the enemy’s thimble
Another fantasizes death in a flyway
One slugs the sitter at his pianoforte
Another takes shade under a fig tree
One discerns bloodiness from the siren
Another brandishes the manacles
One juggles dust between his hands
Another combusts the basecamp
All night the Commander,
With a high, baronial laugh,
Peels a scent of sweet mandarin
From the waist of a waitress.
They will heap mud over her eyes.
The boy soldiers entered the house
And rounded up the market gardener,
His two sons, his fiery old grandfather,
And shot them where they crouched
In their shadows.
A mother counts penitence on her rosary.
The baby in her stomach grows eyes.
At the tribunal, the army secretariat
Blamed Mother Nature herself—
A great and sudden simoom that caused
The sorry fire. And nobody can condemn
The amnesiac history of the wind,
Or the amnesiac history of fire.
They did not mention the bolted doors,
Or the gasoline tanks strewn like tooth stumps.
The frost-bound face of a government judge
Deemed the newly-widowed witnesses
The village has been stripped to a wound.
Two scorpions scrap in a crucible of sand—
The question mark of their tails singeing the air.
The boys have made a giant playhouse
From the rubbled stanchions of the razed compound.
Two kid Generals line up teams
For a game of Guns vs. Swords.
And then the swashbuckle
And then the rat-tat-tat from their mouths
To make the guns seem real
For the onlooking father’s of the Revolution
Who pick sides, shout and cheer.
At the far wall of the bombed-out mosque,
A prayer tannoys back the Prophet’s take
On forgiveness during times of anger.
But the muezzin dragged in the dust by his collar
Now cracks and cracks again
Against the tantara of his voice.
These are two of the postcards that could not be sent.
Beetle-nib eyes under the slivery sheet of a moon
That quakes over her sea-wrinkled face.
The profile of the skeleton
Who visits her by night,
His mechanical arms
At the military mountain base,
Five men are led down its steep side
Then deep into the shallows of a grove.
Nobody will tell the story here.
The mountain is quiet and infinite.
The buzzards silent in their appetites,
Only the olive leaves hiss back to the sky.
The Pure Nation
after Czeslaw Milosz
Whose forcefield is irretractable as a suburban king
Who is cityless and the nutritious dirt on a microscope
Exulted by Hegel at the moment he mortgaged his soul
The golden generation subsists on a menu of breadrinds
The auctioneers prefer impressionist florals
Art as a bidding war equal to the pure nation
Who would birdcage Beethoven as a mere romantic
Who say: ‘another language means blood in the ears’
They sloganeer contingency plans as the great leap
They claim the brothel matron will design a brooch from it
Inside every house they are looking for somewhere to live
beyond the gulch
at the river’s source
over black stones
to the monsoon
widening its mouth
balds back centuries
the sitting council
adjust a wad
and cannot agree
from the windows
of chamber rooms
green river of traffic light
crash of a house umbrella
the minutes are drawn up
where the ink swells
the water rises
[James Byrne’s most recent poetry collection Blood/Sugar, was published by Arc in 2009. Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poet, published in June 2012, is co-edited with ko ko thett and is the first anthology of Burmese poetry ever to be published in the West (Arc 2012 / Northern Illinois University Press 2013). Byrne is the editor of The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine, which he co-founded in 2002. He was the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, in 2011-12. His poems have been translated into several languages including Arabic, Burmese and Chinese and he is the International Editor for Arc Publications. His next collections are Everything that is Broken Up Dances, forthcoming from Tupelo Press, and White Coins (Arc Publications).]
Copyright © 2014 by James Byrne, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.