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
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.