2 Poems by Carl Boon
The Western Interior Seaway
Before there was a need of God,
gave us the scope of a continent,
and before love, the Gulf of Mexico
forked the land northward
and let it flourish. Paddlefish
as long as my sister lost their scales
in that different weather; birds feasted.
You’ve listened to their calls
in dreams that frightened you,
that forced you to surmise the time
there was no need of God.
They call it Paleogene; they’ve uncovered
the bitter and the long, the dinosaurs
our children draw on bedsheets
when the domes of their lives
concede to ours. So good they are
in reconciling fantasy and real:
green demons freed, red mouths
bearing down on pines
where the rivers came later,
those we’ve seen and those imagined
as we moved against the continent
in search of women and gold.
At nightfall the breathing
would've been atrocious, sacrosanct,
but adjectives came later, after the fire,
before the flood, when God became
a necessary—a veil of understanding
against the galaxy’s confusion.
A mammal sought food, a platypus
with gray teeth and an onyx snout
wondering at the new, uncertain light,
the neverending wind. What we call
Dakota lay under a torrent of salt,
then moon-like fires swallowed it.
My daughter at six lined up menageries
of plastic animals: proud horses
and serpentine dolphins, turtles
and mockingbirds, a Collie.
Then one day I came from work
to see she’d marred them
at their throats with a purple marker.
Each one dead in the imagination,
each one succumbed to a greater force,
and so I loved her more and carried her
to bed as her fingers clutched
my neck then stilled. I was happy.
You would’ve noticed no outcropping
of rock, nothing thumb-shaped
against the western horizon.
Your skin would’ve displayed
glowing algae where you slept,
a dazzle of light in the humid night.
You would’ve asked forgiveness
for the peacock unable to fly.
The buzz you heard would’ve been
the buzz of the unholy. There being
no need of God, you would’ve fallen
to sleep and dreamed nothing.
Then the ancestor of the nightingale,
then the rockfish with ghost-white
belly and eyes seeking inlets
where there was no salt, no wind.
Lilies bloomed obscenely
where the burden of the continent
became eventually ours, storm and carbon,
indigo where persimmon lingered.
A pomegranate dropped, a fig
split on a branch, and the smell
they knew is the smell we know
when summer in Istanbul ends.
My daughter at nine asked me
of death, why Grandfather died, why
her mother’s eyes grow dark at night.
I told her that in Florida
where she was born she used to feed
the baby alligators bits of bread
and meat, and that she laughed.
She wasn’t afraid—there was nothing
to be afraid of, for she was one of them,
a mobile creature in a swamp
of women and men and need.
I don’t think she understood.
The first boy measured black
dahlias against his arm, mesmerized.
The first girl felt pain when her elders
lashed her breasts with sticks.
The bobcat froze, unwilling to give up
her taste for flesh. All along the new-made
plain the people we call our own
persisted with implements
and sparrow meat and air.
They reached rocks toward the sun
and called for God, at last, a name,
a way around the desolate earth.
We Saved Paris
Winter appeared in the trees, the bones
of hands raised in a final goodbye.
Stripped of life, clumps of them
studded the northern farms
and startled us in the morning.
Bleak solitude, machine guns
pattering the distance like toddlers
hopping on hard-wood floors. I wrote a letter
to my mother in Liverpool; it was time to die.
Time only to offer her one last caress,
a laugh about the French girls
who dared their bodies to bring us
blankets and wine. I never knew October
to be so cold, so bereft of the sense
that made us men before.
The burned-out churches
offered no solace; in the marketplace
old and toothless men pawned
crosses, Crenshaw melon, and calendars.
We asked ourselves if these we dug
were trenches or graves,
and laid our shirts on the corpses
as a sacrifice, for if we clothed the dead
the dead would clothe us when the great
eventual arrived. I smoked my first
cigarette the day James Mercer lost his arm
and studied it in the soil between rotting
stems of pumpkins. We were mannequins.
We weren’t real. Our real selves lay
sheltered in libraries and schoolrooms,
intent on the language of Dante and Milton,
their hells everlasting but metaphor, only,
while the true hell raged in bile
and phlegm, severed necks and shoulders
split as if by lightning. I asked James Mercer
why he’d come, but he offered no reply,
sat grimacing inside the confines
of death from sound, of death from sin.
My sister was married on the seventh
of November in a ceremony
marked by the absence of birdsong.
My father wore a white carnation
on his breast and pleaded
for the Holy Ghost to intervene somehow,
to fill my hours with strawberry jam
and Margaret’s perfume. I imagined them
dancing to music I couldn’t hear.
On the outskirts of Reims we plied
the local priests for crumbs
of Communion bread, a Wednesday.
We assured them that the rain had blessed it,
that we never intended this destruction,
this sorrow, these long marches
past the filth of day. Compassionate,
they offered what they could and promised us
God would speak to the weary sweetly
in a language we’d understand.
I didn’t mind the blood in my boots,
the black flies of December,
the Germans singing Soldatenliebe at dawn,
carried by the wind. I didn’t mind
the smoke between the stars, James Mercer
soaked forever in a shallow grave.
I’d learned enough to compromise death
by swallowing a little gas, just enough
to bring a cough and Margaret’s hands.
She was out there in a different world,
chatting with her sister at the Babylon Café
on Victoria Square, remembering me
when I kissed her by the sea and we
decided we’d marry in the fall
among yellow chrysanthemums
and readings from Corinthians.
Remembering me in the muck
beneath a thousand graceless stars
on Christmas Eve, 1914.
When the New Year came with fog
we got news the Germans were retreating,
moving east through the pines toward Ardennes.
I scrubbed my boots and what remained
of my feet and it seemed I had survived.
That afternoon we napped in a ring
inside the shadows of a scarecrow
and the weather was warm
and my forearms tingled.
That spring the Lusitania fell into the sea,
a thousand dead, a thousand who’d danced
and eaten crab legs and drunk champagne,
dreaming the Mediterranean
where there was no war, no gray
monotony. Margaret sent me
clippings and quotes from George V,
and I imagined him in silk pajamas
at high tea, stroking Bertie’s knees,
wishing for the boy while Edward dozed.
We saved Paris because we believed
in the women that strode
the Rue Vieille du Temple
at sunset and the women that strode
Carnaby Street as the hat-sellers
polished their shop windows
and we saved Paris because
we believed in democracy
instead of corporals with knives
and maps of a different continent
in their pockets. We saved Paris
because no one else would save the world
if we did not. By Good Friday 1916
the majority of us had gone
inside the glows of brittle flames.
In the only church left standing
on the Belgian border, I stood aside
while a dozen blue-clothed nuns snuffed
candles and fell to their knees in misery
for their Savior. I saw their tears
and the ducks that swam the parish pond,
crimson and green, gold-throated
as the angels were. I propped my machine gun
against the statue of St. Paul
and picked daffodils, praying Margaret
would do the same, and braced
my shoulders for the coming
of a greater doom. The certainty of death
seemed better than the candle-smoke
that stifled the air and didn’t drift away
On Easter we ate chocolates
shipped from Oxford Street and prayed,
arms locked, near a fire we’d made
from German uniforms.
They burned brighter than elm-wood,
and in the leaping flames we saw
the figures of their sisters in Hamburg
and Berlin, the figures of their mothers
cooking stew from barley and the bones
of shriveled sheep. We sympathized
without the certainty they
sympathized for us, as well,
Christian soldiers frying one another
for some eternity already lost,
for nothing had been gained
at Verdun, and therefore nothing changed.
In his dying James Mercer told me
there was nothing stupider than war
and also nothing grander.
On and on. Cycles of thunder and mud,
gas and desperation, ignorance and folly.
Margaret sent me a letter and a five-pound note
and told me starlings had invaded Liverpool,
starlings up and down the reaches
of the quay, and some persisted
past the storefronts and the pubs,
and some had landed on the steeple
of Saint Nicholas. The men at the Yellow Hen
insisted they were German spies
trained to gather secrets of the shipping lines;
others drew pints to their mustaches,
sick of the news, the stagnant flailing
of machines and gross politicians
getting fat on American dollars.
She called Wilson “a cocksucker,” “a demon,”
and “a pinhead.” I ate cold rice and thought
how lucky the crafters of epithets.
But I loved her, her perfumed breasts
and how she’d kissed me hard
when I was just sixteen, when there was
no thought of war, when I wore
corduroy shorts all summer
and she laughed at me
and called me Kitten. I never understood
because I roared at her and took her
while the bystanders looked away,
absorbed in oysters and the great
Titanic that foundered and met the sand
in an epic display of our failure
to know fragility and God.
A prologue, a precursor, a boy
who failed to bend steel and fought
the waves until he died. A lucky one, I thought.
I polished my bayonet on my sleeve
and waited for the Americans,
strident boys in tall ships, hips made
in Nebraska and Arkansas, Knoxville,
Tennessee and Detroit. Makers of cars
and makers of mansions impenetrable.
I waited for them from Iowa and Ohio,
corn-fed, sleek like night and New York gloss.
We saved Paris, but they would help us
save the world. These brutal fat boys
holding tins of beans and bottles of bourbon,
these ghosts from San Francisco
and San Jose who wouldn’t sleep,
who’d clown at night then rise
in the morning so ready to die. So ready
to die so that some of us wouldn’t have to.
Secretly Irish—forged documents, his father’s
father a priest in County Cork—Jimmy Mercer’s
bones remain in France where I left them.
Perhaps it was only I who saw
the Virgin Mary folded in his wallet.
Dark lady, eyes questioning time,
eyes questioning mine and the landscape
a spilled sack of exploded shells
and photographs of girlfriends
and cigarette butts and clippings
from the Daily Express. Caps and flasks,
capes and combs and teeth fallen out.
We were afraid to look, afraid to know
what lay among that human rubble, sun-
blanched, stirred by the steady wind
of August 1918. We saved Paris, but we couldn’t
save the world, after all, and less ourselves
who stared at the skeletons of pear trees
and the fires dying one by one along the Front.
He’d only been a teenaged shoeshine,
but now he was scraped forever, what he’d been,
into a land he couldn’t call home. The flamboyances
we’d sought would never come;
the blond-throated girls drifted away,
ready to perceive their lives again among the holy
broken, but we could not. We had to go home.
The Philosophy Student
As I’d surmised, the Americans were arduous
and terrible and unafraid to strip
the trees of fruit. Charlie Rice
wore thick wool socks in the heat
and sharpened his switchblade on human teeth.
He read Nietzsche at breakfast
and commented on the moths
and told us stories of snowy Iowa,
his father’s shotguns, and girls with breasts
like the capital dome at Des Moines.
I saw him kill thirty men one July afternoon;
he did it cackling with laughter,
a crow before carrion, a picture of Roosevelt
stitched to his breast. He called his machine gun
Lucy, and dreamed of going back to her
a hero, parades and sweet corn, sex
and chocolate souffle. I wept when a sniper
got him on patrol on the 1st of November,
nicked his ear then shot him through the throat.
I’d never imagined blood so red,
so hopelessly red on that wide, green meadow
near the village of Douaumont. I kissed his mouth
because Lucy couldn’t, because he’d saved Paris
and couldn’t save himself.
The Barber’s Apprentice
Yusuf was born in a place I’d never heard of.
Yusuf laughed when we asked him why
he ate olives for breakfast,
if he were an Ottoman spy
come west to gauge the world’s decline.
He spit Koranic verses like cherry stones
and took his tea from a little glass,
a silhouette he carried in his knapsack.
Vigorous and mean, he laced barbed wire
at deceptive angles through the No-Man’s Zone
at night and befriended the German hounds
too enticed by occasional raccoons
to stay true to their masters. He’d come to France
because he loved a boy in secret, an Antoine
with long, black hair who stuttered his name
and was born, he’d said, to be surprised.
Yusuf died a traitor to the Sultan
when a pellet of chlorine produced
in a Berlin bunker by a divorcee
called Grete fell at his feet. No hadiths
could save him, neither our God nor his,
and from his corpse grew a grove
of cherry trees that blossom pink every May.
I dream those colors from my house in Liverpool
tonight, the 3rd of March, 1937, as the radio
brings strange news of a rising corporal.
I have no name. I’ve come only to bring you
closer to the glimmer of life, the quotients
of death we faced when we believed
the world was mostly good.
They decorated me with stripes
and medals, and I breakfasted
at Windsor Castle with George V
in 1919. I remember only the rustle of papers
and his chapped, red palms, how odd it felt
to have a fork in my hand after years of gruel
and peas. I felt like Defoe’s Crusoe come back
from the dead, come back to tell you all
that the corpses had been bodies once,
living and real, coughing and lying
of great loves far away. What does it matter now?
We saved Paris, but Margaret died
of pneumonia in 1925 and I could not save her—
my hands too fragile at her chest,
my hands a savior’s that knew nothing of healing.
I write this merely to remember
our failure, how our skin shone,
how hers shone when she said
don’t be long, when she said I love you,
and when that was all that mattered.
Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at Dokuz Eylül University.