The clouds have ripped a little.
A knee of stars presses down
on my throat. The sky, low
and confused, keeps moving
to conceal the moon. The next town
over, sirens are gathering
to a sustained howl. Here
the horizon is leafless —
a blueprint of trees superimposed
on my wild weather. In another minute
that knee will kneel
on a different neck. I choke
until it drifts like steeple music
back to its many bells.
The Man on Break
She’s waiting for me inside, patient,
letting me finish the cigarette
I’ve treated myself to beside the giant doors
where the ambulance always backs up
without any of its spinning lights.
When I go in, I’ll rubber-glove myself
and crack her open — to cut and weigh,
to sample and stain. Her dead heart
in my hands won’t say anything I couldn’t
guess. She’s young, probably drugs. I tell the cops
not to mention anything about how
they find the bodies. It’s a game I play
with myself — like crosswords or solitaire.
Later, perhaps, they’ll show me her note,
the gin-smeared script of her good-bye.
I’ll stitch her up tight for the family’s sake —
who wait with a marble patience
so they can hide her in the ground
this weekend. It’s the same ground I see
all over town — the borders of lawns
bursting with daffodils, and the lawns
themselves like damp emeralds.
It’s obscene. This is my proof for god
having abandoned us. Why wouldn’t he
reach his great finger down to this girl
as if he were gluing the handle
back on a teacup? He either can’t or won’t –
both of which disqualify him from anything
approaching praise. When I smoke this down,
I’ll return to the table I’ve set for her —
the silvery utensils lined up,
the halogen lights arranged in her sky
to cancel the shadow she can’t stop making.
The Ocean at the End of Our Street
It was there after we stayed up making love
in the 2 a.m. light of the television set.
It was there on the patio where one of us went
whenever we’d had a fight. It was there
in the dawn in a glory of gulls — a vastness,
a churning, a landscape we could taste.
The beaches were built of trucked-in sand.
If we walked the line where the tide gave up,
we could see the sand didn’t match
from one end of town to the next — shifting
from tan to an almost pink to a block
of windy rust. Whenever we swam in it,
the bottom ran away into rocks
and cold water, and everything wore down
in that cradle of sloshing grays: whelks
and beer bottles, wharf pilings. All summer
the party boats cruised offshore — the just-right
wind taking to the beach a stray guitar,
the clinking of ice in a single glass,
but never the song entire, never the gin itself
with its wedge of puckering lime. Month after month,
the moon rose up like a lopsided peach
that threatened to fall back down, while the ocean
stayed big and kept its promise
to polish the pieces of our breaking world.
The Man Describes the End of His Escape
The yard is soft with melting. I leave
deep tracks in the grassless mud
between the back door and the trash cans.
If I were a fugitive, I’d be easy
to follow — no need for bloodhounds
and helicopters, just an overweight sheriff
with a gun he’s willing to use.
It’s the kind of landscape that forces you
to turn. And that’s what I find myself
suddenly wanting, ready
to confront that which has followed me for years
through the slackening pace
of my escape. I need to make sense
of the hands that held me, the problem
of being locked and loving it —
the body’s unleaveable jail.
The Man With a Cardinal in His Bedroom
He wakes to a scarlet commotion
above his bed — a bird unable to distinguish
the three-inch crack of air where it had entered
from the glass it finds repeatedly.
When the cardinal tires, the man is
able to scoop it off his sheets. He feels
the fluttering heart-heat of a bird
so bright it almost seems fake —
as if some kid had painted it,
as if it came from some other continent
and would not be able to live
among his looming and everyday oaks. But no,
the cardinal is common here.
It thrives just out of reach in the branches
beyond his room, filling the man’s mornings
with the rung metal of its call,
and as he cradles it to the window, he feels
how easily he could snuff its tiny flame.
But then he opens his hands outside
and the bird explodes, leaving a tail feather
in his palm, a smear of runny shit. All day
the man thinks of the bird as it bit into his thumb
with a brilliant beak, how he had stared
into the black ball bearing of its eye —
both of them refusing to flinch.
Charles Rafferty has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as grants from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. He is the author of four full-length collections of poetry: The Man on the Tower (which won the Arkansas Poetry Award — University of Arkansas Press, 1995), Where the Glories of April Lead (Mitki/Mitki Press, 2001), During the Beauty Shortage (M2 Press, 2005), and A Less Fabulous Infinity (Louisiana Literature Press, 2006). He has placed poems in The New Yorker, Oprah Magazine, The Southern Review, TriQuarterly, Quarterly West, Massachusetts Review, The Literary Review, Phoebe: The George Mason Review, DoubleTake, Poems & Plays, and Louisiana Literature. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.