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Jack-knife

 If I said red-

            handled jack-

knife blade.

 

If I played for you

            a grainy recording

of a switcher’s whistle

moaning

in the distance.

            If I pointed

 

to the Post Road, the woods beyond it,

Brockton, November

eating all

the light,

would you remember?

 

We are kneeling

in the leaves, Jacob.

I am muddying my knees

beside you.

We are seventeen.

Your mother’s death

between us

like a stone.

 

*

I am muddying my knees

beside you—

I am watching you work

 

the knife beneath the scruff

            of the bark,

and I am still

in love: your corded

                        forearms swollen

in the cold,

            drained hands

peeling clean the branch—

 

the grey

 

of the blade, Jacob, the sky

and the wind, the slip

that opened up an inch of skin

like a butterfly

in the thick

of your palm—

 

black blood

pooling

to your wrist, the knife just

            dropped, forgotten

where it landed.

 

*

Twenty-eight years

and what have I given you?

A knee to the eye.

A spit inside your grin.

A throat-hold

on a schoolyard court,

our knees gashed by asphalt.

So violence,

Jacob, but tenderness

too—fingers on the neck

of the other, stigmata

of a split

sclera, a whole boyhood

of putting stitches to each other

            like time

-marks knifed

            into a wall.

 

*

In my dreams

I see her. Whole generations

are gathering

on the front porch

for a picture. She is walking

through my childhood

lawn. She is walking past

the black fence,

unimpressed.

She is admonishing me

for the mud

still dripping

from my sneakers,

the dirt at my hemline,

my insufficient hands.

I’ve never told you.

And she is whole again.

 

*

We are fourteen.

We are learning geometry.

We are learning the words

to the Declaration, how to count in Latin.

We are reading On the Road

to each other like a bible,

naming the chambers

of a reptile heart, how the shapes

of flame can change

depending what they burn around.

How a cell shifts.

Toothpick bridges. A night sky

made from a trash bag

tent. Lying beside you

in the darkness.

 

*

I’m sorry. Electronic

            pulse. Intercom echo

even in the stairwells. Twenty-seven steps.

The bar-handle

of the metal door. When I saw the knot

of tubes I thought

of a highway. Her chest swollen

like a sodden log

bobbing in the water.

 

*

The night you heard

I didn’t answer.

I never told you.

I didn’t know

what words to say.

I never told you.

How silence

slides through years.

I’ve never told you.

The little hole

that opens

when I speak.

 

*

Weight

on the balls of your feet.

Sneaker toe-box crushed

 

in your crouch, the inch of air

between your heels

 

and the forest floor—

 

tongue and laces,

Jacob, the sky

 

in the blade, the slip, the blade

in your hand, your breath

 

suddenly full of knuckles.

 

*

If you are running.

If you are clutching the torn

t-shirt tourniquet rigged

around your hand.

If I can fix it.

If I am slowing.

If I am turning back

to the forest, tracing

the snapped

branches back, stepping back

again into the beds

our footprints pressed

to the earth.

If I can find

the branches, their skin

peeled pale

as an eyelid. If the blade

is still beside them.

If I fold it back to its hold.

If I am standing in the dark.

If lay the blade back

in your hand,

if I place it—

Grady Chambers was born and raised in Chicago. Poems of his have appeared in or are forthcoming from Diode Poetry Journal, The Adroit Journal, Ninth Letter, Devil’s Lake, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Oakland, and is a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford.