Rain on Ramadi,
stricken, sick.
Rain falls on cinders
and is never the same

        Cold for April—
we huddle around
matchlit fires:
our hands float
above new flames
        old miracles.

Sing in perfect pitch
and bones will mend,
        war will cease:
a lie told
to greenhorns.

Believing, a soldier sings,
the bone-wreath
of his teeth
        open blackly.

When bones fail
to fuse, to heal
        as those of horses;

when despite music,
        he fails
to wipe the shadow
from a dead man’s mouth,
sew roses
        into wounds;

when his tongue tolls
the throat’s final chord,
he stops.
        War goes on
another hour, another hour.


Not the golden apricots
clung to their stones—
dormant rock,
        Purple Heart.

Not the acrid smoke,
        I remember.

Not the prayers,
        sung as they were,
sunrise to isha.

Not the white storms
of sand that fell as snow
from great distances,
as any white weather
blown through
        open windows.

I remember Baghdad
        arriving, and arriving.

Where there is war
        there is fire
and a thousand names
for fire and light
enough to see, smoke
        enough to believe

in ash, and the unnatural
flight of Sky Spear
        and Jerichos.

Where there are bullets
there are graves,
        and rain to flood them.

The clear eye forgets
nothing of what’s passed
        through its pupil.


In a photograph, thirteen
men hang tight
from the strangling tree.

To walk, to wade
through their shadows,
as if through water,
you say, is nothing
short of catching death’s


        Unwilling to sleep,
a soldier traces
his skull
        with ten fingers.

Throne of compassion,
his scalp dimples
where it should hollow.

Bone plateau, skull
spooned like meltwater
canyons; he’s kissed
        an enemy’s forehead.

In this way, his lips
have touched another’s
        sense of time, memories.

In this, sighted
from rooftops, prone
or kneeling, he scopes
the hajji’s kill zone, small
as areola, and fires.

The slug enters
the crown of skull
as quickly as a thought
lodged in the seat of benevolence.


Rifle I’m holding in my hands
finger held closer
than a whisper
to the trigger.
Spent casings:
lead slugs.
My finger’s on the trigger.

My trigger finger.
Spent and empty casings
will outlive me,
fossiled in sand.
Spent casings: lead slugs
will outlive me.
My finger’s on the trigger,
closer than a whisper.

When I say rifle,
I mean the way Ramadi falls to ruin.
My finger’s on the trigger
when I say my rifle’s name.
Ramadi falls to ruin
when I say my rifles name.
I say my rifle’s name.
My finger’s on the trigger
closer than a whisper
when I say my rifle’s name.
When I say ammunition
I mean the bullets
that will outlive me,
tweezed from a soldier’s skull,
the white bone that will outlive me.

Brandon Courtney was born and raised in Iowa, served four years in the United States Navy (Operation Enduring Freedom), and is a graduate of the MFA program at Hollins University. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets, Guernica, The Journal, Cream City Review, and 32 Poems, among many others. His book, The Grief Muscles, is forthcoming from The Sheep Meadow Press. Thrush Press published his chapbook, Improvised Devices. He is a graduate student at the University of Chicago.