The small silver crucifix bearing traces of Drano.
The two-hundred-fifty pound biography of J. Edgar Hoover, its pages bearing teeth marks.
The parrot who endlessly recites Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody!
Who the hell are you?” to a revolver at the bottom of its cage.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg digging their own graves on the White House lawn.
Frida Kahlo’s back massaged with a smooth wooden spoon by her spider monkey.
The handwritten note in the margin of a collection of Sappho: Language is always a modality of desire.
Specks of lipstick from the lips of Marilyn Monroe clinging to a toothpick inside an unmarked white envelope.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg digging up Crazy Horse’s unmarked grave.
A thread of blood zigzagging across the clear glass dinner plate forming the words: Paper fan.
You shadow me
You shadow me far enough behind to be my brother, but never close enough so I can ask. Did you ever finish that book about Houdini in the next life writing on the bathroom mirror with a bar of soap a message to his wife in the bathtub, hands dangling over the side? All these purple paper clips in my pocket—I have to get them back in dad’s desk drawer before I can sleep. I draw maps of tongues, all sizes and shapes, the intersection of pronunciation and future income. Your brown brogans, two sizes too big, you stuff with newspaper in the toes, which makes them go squish, squish. When I open dad’s desk, there’s that small drawer I can’t find the key to that you once told me you opened with a black Lab’s incisor.
I draw maps of dragonflies trapped inside a donkey’s bladder.
Something’s humming in here. Can you hear it? I say to my mother, who slips into the room just as I sidle away from the desk. I once won a medal, busy with bronze bumps, which I lost long ago, for drawing a map while blindfolded of a mountain range that melted into black licorice. If you look up at the sky and a raindrop—traveling at speeds only a liquid crow can know—passes through your pupil, it will take eons before it arrives at the point of departure. A car pulls off the road and comes to a skidding stop, the driver scribbling on his hand a word made of circles and squares. If I get out the frying pan and start scrambling some eggs, sprinkling on top some chopped black olives and feta, please, sit at the table with me for a bit.
Pretend you want to stay. You want to say: To linger in the lilt of the tongue. When I get out of bed, I know what I’ll find in my pocket—a map of long fingers stuffed with cow nipples and red silk. Downstairs someone’s going squish, squish.
You know I’ll do most anything in defense of the sleepless tongue.
Sleep for Rent
Though it’s already morning, I need somewhere to lie
this heavy body down. There’s a wooden sign
on the nearby yellow house that reads: SLEEP
FOR RENT. I knock on the door and a sullen woman
appears. I tell her of my need. She pauses, pushes
the door open wider, turns, and I follow. She leads me
to her garage, the open side door. You’ll have to pay,
she says, as if testing me, for last night. I’m so tired
I agree. She points to the beds with her chin and murmurs,
You can have the one with the crib railing. I look around.
What she calls a bed is a blanket, folded lengthwise
in half, spread out on the concrete floor, with a pillow.
There are two rows of these so-called beds, three feet
apart. Unsure of which bed she means, I wander
amongst them. A few renters stroll off into the morning
glare, having had their fill of sleep. I want a bed away
from the door, away from the light, but I notice something
has been scattered over several of the blankets—dried brown
pellets. They look like cat food, though I see no cat about.
I end up back near the door and find the bed I’ve avoided
has no brown pellets strewn across the blanket. Then I see
a wooden railing, broken from playpen or crib, leaning against
the garage wall. This must be the bed the landlady told me
to take. I lie down on the blanket, the concrete floor
pressing hard, the sun boiling in the window, burning
through my eyelids, through my jellied eyes,
to the brain’s pulsing core. There’s nothing to do
but lie still and mutter: Morpheus, come find me,
hold me in your long, bony arms.
The Eclipse of Uncertainty
Q. What exactly are killer robots?
A. The fear of snare drum, bell, glockenspiel, marimba, cymbal, gong.
Q. Why are autonomous weapons so attractive?
A. It has been found that binoculars from New Jersey may alter the skyline of Hong Kong.
Q. Is there anything morally wrong with deploying a killer robot in war?
A. I was falling into a trumpet just before the last act, while you were singing inside my splendid belly.
Q. Could a robot ever act morally?
A. I never encountered Margot in orange-gone-green language slippers.
Q. What if autonomous weapons could be perfect?
A. Pieces of Irish Catholic clothing in the bottle of wine perplexed everyone on the living room floor, which undid the magnetic seal.
Q. Would deploying killer robots be unfair?
A. A person someone buried in the south of France could not stop saying: Even a feather or an avocado pit targeted for amnesia must nap.
Q. Could deploying killer robots make war too easy?
A. I tend to eat the texts I don’t agree with to prevent unfleshed people from nibbling my wings.
Q. What exactly are killer robots?
A. I see two small insect-like children nested in my body, said Julius Caesar, with a slight touch of vibrato.
Q. What happens now?
A. Never play a dirty valveless horn while burning Dallas or Berlin.
On the Finding of Fecal Pellets in a Stargazer’s Braincase
I am not in control of my father
lurking in the bathroom shower, waiting
to pounce on whoever enters
with abalone eyes. It’s hard to push
a few silent words out of the Andes
flying out of Indiana. I could hear Gene
Kelly in the kitchen eaten slowly
by 17-century French DNA.
I do not own Greenland, though I do
wear red shoelaces retrieved from the Adam
Eve Amusement Park. Even my mother
claims she saw Catherine Deneuve
with a trace of Ernest Hemingway
on her upper lip. I cannot control the soft,
glowing, rectangular eggs in your 1975
canary yellow Volkswagen van.
Holes forming in Australia. Stargazer
ash stashed in the freezer. A crow
(that once lived in Borges’ armpit) sleeping
in the mailbox. I just paint the lightbulbs
whatever blue they tell me to, blue
shoe soles as the earthworms pass below.
In Some Localities It Is Still Illegal to Fly Out of Your Body
Someone loiters over a flattened hat (or is it a kidney?) lying in the street and photographs it with a wallet-size photo.
While the spheres—smelling of migrating rain—never pause in their work, eating the air.
Really. I’m only telling you this because I know some obnoxious poet with speakers mounted on his car will be driving by your house tonight loudly reciting “There Is No Bodily Form That I Cannot and Will Not Escape.”
While a man in a silver raincoat goes door to door selling lightly used cars once owned by celebrated celebrities. Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo. And Francesca Carbonata, the Venice Beach surfer with the butt implants.
While a shout, injected with sleep, gives birth to another shout.
While you mistake me in Athens, Ohio, for a mail carrier from Des Moines who was prosecuted for taking a bite of a cello. Near an oily black pool.
The spheres—engulfing a gray pickup truck disguised as a gray pickup truck—never pause.
A room full of teeth my mother cleanses, with a Q-tip dipped in baby oil, an eyeless face carved into a petrified ham sandwich.
So in the southwest corner of the basement someone is holding a match, trying to ignite a glass of milk while blindfolded. The cold in the concrete floor creeping into the bare feet.
While the spheres—translating tight little bags of netted rain into rain—never pause.
Really. I go about carrying a hollow Bible, once owned by Henri Rosseau, filled with fire ants which keep spelling the word PALPITATE. Finger, hand, head, eyeball, cup.
While visible wavelengths—stiletto red, stiletto blue—eradicate a pair of eyeglasses dipped in honey and doused in a spill of sugar. In a spill housed in a finger. Hand. Head. Eyeball. Cup.
Letters to Infinity
I wrote a letter to the moon with breast milk and arsenic.
I wrote a letter to the teeth of Paul Celan with an icicle dipped in solar salt.
I wrote a letter to Joan Baez, asking her if we were married during the year I was living inside a wandering mailbox.
I wrote a letter to the KKK asking them if it was true that they were the Kalamazoo Kosmic Klezmer band.
I wrote a letter to Dorothea Lange’s camera, describing the diagram Euclid drew of a tongue intersecting a wet plum.
I wrote a letter to Laika, the Soviet space dog, but it was delivered to a tiny snail shell.
I wrote a letter to the moon using a crow feather dipped in the Gobi.
I wrote a letter to the Tower of Babel, but it was delivered to a stolen white tuba.
I wrote a letter to a murmuring mound that moves from place to place one grain at a time.
I wrote a letter to Machu Picchu, using only the words further and flutter and farther.
I wrote a letter to Thomas Merton, each word tied by a thread to the breeze made by a bee’s wing.
I wrote a letter to Covid-19, but it had to be burned thirty-nine times, the ash cauterized.
I wrote a letter to the Eiffel Tower, but it was delivered to a warehouse of untranslatable faces.
I wrote a letter to the pomegranate on the kitchen counter, too gnarled and brown to be broken open to eat those juicy red carpet tacks.
I wrote a letter to my father falling from the night sky; he’s trying to read the Gospel of the Asterisk by flashlight as he’s falling, sand leaking from his left boot.
I wrote a letter to my baby teeth, but when I placed my ear to the envelope, I heard someone tossing dice into a hot frying pan.
I wrote a letter to the day I was born, which wrote a letter to the day the alphabet will be devoured by a poisoned armadillo.
I wrote a letter to Fulang Chang, Frida Kahlo’s naughty pet monkey; the letter smelled of a fish in the pocket of an asbestos raincoat.
I wrote a letter to Herbert Hoover, or was it J. Edgar Hoover, asking how to boil the weevils out of the Book of Infested Insomnia.
I wrote a letter to Elizabeth Bishop’s toucan, Uncle Sam, using smoke from Krakatoa.
I wrote a letter to Lorine Niedecker, cutting small squares and triangles from a leaf throbbing with liquid light.
I wrote a letter to the moon, which wrote a letter to the back of my head, saying: Tell me long and slow in Sumerian everything you owe.
Nine Things to Do If You Dream of an Immediate Rat
Draw a square around your eye. Thicken
the wall but for one small hole. Let the letter
“L” glow in its lowly, lovely lair.
Someone in Istanbul is using a credit card bearing
your name. You bought a statue of a shark springing
from the back of a woman with a faulty valve.
Hold tightly in your left hand a spoon. When it falls,
your will be clutching a violin—or is it a scrub brush—
in the Upper Volta. Swallow only when the bell allows.
Shimmering red, apostolic green. An iguana breathes
when you breathe. Your left foot, no, the right
half of your tongue, it’s begun to swell.
Rub your face with an unpeeled onion. Then try
to pry from the wall the shadow of a mammal
eating with a group of mammals a molten star.
Be gentle to the arsonist’s charred kidney. The WWI
soldier hiding in a jam jar. Be kind, whenever you can,
to the bottle of fox urine in the medicine cabinet.
Draw a crown around the downed crow. Erase
your fingerprints from the moon. Now. Note:
Someone replaced the sandstone eyes.
Yes, an eel can slip into your leather knife pouch.
If you should exhale through a frozen green
pea. The letter “L” palpitating loudly.
If rain was a word, it would rain. If rat was a riddle,
you would dream the flicker of a tongue. And wonder
if it was your own.
John Bradley's poetry has appeared in the American Poetry Review, Calibanonline, Diagram, Hotel Amerika, Lake Effect, Otoliths, Pedestal, Sulfur Surrealist Jungle, SurVision, and other journals. His most recent book is Hotel Montparnasse: Letters to Cesar Vallejo (Dos Madres Press) a verse novel. He first encountered the poetry of Cesar Vallejo in Thomas Merton's Emblems of a Season of Fury and became further fascinated with his work while reading Poemas Humanos / Human Poems (Grove Press, 1968), translated by Clayton Eshleman (Eshleman's first book-length translation of Vallejo). Bradley's admiration of Vallejo's poetry led, many years later, to the writing of Hotel Montparnasse, the hotel where Vallejo finds himself confined after his death. The recipient of two NEA Fellowships in Poetry and a Pushcart prize, Bradley is a frequent reviewer of books for Rain Taxi. Currently, he's a poetry editor for Cider Press Review and editing an international anthology of poetry on the war in Ukraine.