By Brandon Courtney



All things good are changed by pain:

lightning charred the void


and made it sacred. Light dredged

from a reservoir of darkness.


Now, stars burn—Earth’s shadow

learns it shape from the moon’s


chrome face. Soon all my cells

will radiate with fire from the first


of days. Lord, why make the lily

more ornate than my frail body?


Look: my blood is flightless, quivered

as an arrow without aim, carving


through the empty space.

The universe is little yet. But see:


You forged the earth and from the earth

formed me.





        You forged the earth and from the earth

formed me, but first: you spoke the sea.

        From dark, you laid a galaxy above it,


starless: one for man’s eyes to unwind

        and one to flood his lungs. Two days,

two plagues: ocean and everything above.


        Two halves, split; named firmament—

the source of thirst and birth of rust,

        my blood you’ll will from copper dust,


from hills of salt: my teeth. No sign

        of angels yet to come, to kneel in fields

and envy seeds, buried deep beneath


        the clay you’ll form upon a latter day.

No sign yet of angels who will touch

        the tongue and hush the outline of a wing.


No chaos, but of chaos soil fed. Is this

        the reason soil hungers for our dead?



Soil hungers for our dead,  but will they

       wait beneath our feet and be restored?


Or are they storm and sycamore keys

       seeding heaven’s floor, until their weight


above the stars becomes a singularity?

       One man’s death means nothing when


the world is filled with scorpions and sleep,

       all things bearing thorns and frantic wings.


We till the fields you lease. Below our feet,

       our fathers rot into our crops, and cannot


see or speak. Were we meant to pick

       the cotton of the lion’s teeth? Lightning,


bright enough, can burn a throat into the sky.

       Night tilts its head to watch ash rise, scorch


earth, and fall. If you can’t raise this flesh from dirt,

       can you raise anything at all? 



How can you raise anything at all?

       If you designed the waking world


below the moon to fall: hail, and the space

        between impure stones; snow


and the temperature of air, a sky

       made heavier with wings. You made all


things recede—and afterwards cast me.

       Now, I can see scarcely, obscured


by liabilities: night and its emergencies

       enter through the hovels of my eyes.


I do not fault you for the Sun: gravity

       pushed into the vault until atoms


coalesced around a spark, giving animals

       a thousand ways to navigate the world.


And once you graced the beasts

       with hoof and horn and tooth, you took


up what was left of your debris:

       you conceived the better parts of me.



You conceived the better parts of me—

          breath and the thickening

of a gasp into a rasp of ice and vapor,


faulty eyes to find the wind unhidden,

          as the air around my prayers

crystalizes. Show me, Lord, an animal


devouring its tongue to fill its throat

          with something more

than speech, creatures who have found


beyond the moon a black hole sunk

          into the charcoal sky

and understood the reason why you built


a prison for light, for the worlds you lost

          along the spine of the event

horizon. Show me just one untamed thing

that’s walked upon the Earth and not felt

          pain, not heard the voice inside

its brain and knew that I was not the same


as blood or skeleton that glows within

          its pervious skin. You can’t:

every name you’ll ever hear is human. 



Every name you’ll ever hear is human:

who else can I blame for my body


orbiting the moon around the ruins

you have made? The world will spin


and you will see me once again

for everything I am: massive to atoms,


infinitesimal to the Sun. I must be

more than some corporeal bell, but no—


all you need is wind and tongue

to strike discordant notes, so I am left


to pray in muted decibels

with breath enough to leave my mouth 


and plummet to the ground.

With untrained hands, I’ll modify


what has fallen as sibilant weather

into arrows, boat, a ladder; and pierce,


sink or scale these wooden rungs

until your design is laid before my mind


and I see—truly see—what it means

to be the assembler of everything. Lord,


you made it easier for my eyes to move

than my mind to remember, so I’ll wander


aimlessly, studying your sprawl; but a god

I must believe in is no god at all.




A god I must believe in is  no god at all:

admit to me, and everything, the world’s

unsuitable for nightmares fixed below


our skulls, our ears tuned to the surge

of blood beneath the skin, the words

our breath is written in. I see your form


in everything; the ridges of finger-

prints brighten the surface of the universe,

as all the hours inside our air congeal


once more into the night. Here I am

left to question whether I is just

an ancestral name that circumscribes me—


a thing—that rides its end and disappears

into this earth, unready as it came, where

all good things are changed by pain.

Brandon Courtney is a veteran of the United States Navy, and the author of The Grief Muscles (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2014) and Rooms for Rent in the Burning City (Spark Wheel Press, 2015), as well as two  chapbooks, Inadequate Grave (YesYes Bøøks, 2016) and Improvised Devices (Thrush Press, 2013). YesYes Bøøks will publish a full-length collection in 2017-18. His poetry appears or is forthcoming in Best New Poets, Tin House, Guernica, Memorious, The Progressive, and American Literary Review.