FIRST BOOKS ISSUE
A GRAVE MARKER AT GETTYSBURG SOLDIERS' NATIONAL CEMETERY
A cube of stone sits silently,
its granite teeth tight
in this stiff, green place.
The words Unknown 425 Bodies
are carved neatly
into its blue-grey face.
It stares up at an angle,
professional, mature, documented.
As if it has just looked
up from its desk,
work still to be done,
buried by eternal tasks.
The original stone
would be furious if it could see
the use the carvers made of it.
It would have strained
and struggled to get away
the announcement of this much misery.
It might have thrown itself
into a stream had it known.
This dusted stone
was destined for
a water-goddess’ form,
something cool and wet,
curved and delicious
in its desire.
But no, it remains here
in this land of loss,
unable to remember
the names of those it marks,
unable to say their names aloud,
in a voice the living can hear.
THE BUDDHAS OF BAMIYAN
You held your breath
for nearly twenty centuries.
One hundred and eighty feet of sandstone
made you into a standing sand painting
for the wind to frighten away.
In teaching us the impermanence of rock,
you taught us the permanence of fear,
and we have lived here forever.
Your compassionate gaze drifted over
valley and village and river,
a fixed star, a buoy,
in this land of stone.
Your monks lived and slept
in caves that wound all around you.
Here they could
awaken within the image
of the one whose life meant
Your grandeur taught us a deep truth:
our beautiful human smallness.
Perhaps this was your downfall,
your silk turning to dust.
BEFORE MY FATHER WAS MY FATHERBefore my father was my father
he slipped off a sinking ship.
In 1942, in the war waters of the Pacific,
two explosions tore holes
in the skin of the SS Coolidge--
the captain should have known were there.
This mammoth troop ship shook, shivered,
and then leaned into its own death.
Its yards of steel strained and winced,
shrieking in unnatural directions.
While thousands panicked
my father slipped out a porthole
with a friend who couldn’t swim.
He could see Espiritu Santo Island,
and, knowing that a sinking ship
is not your friend, out he went.
He wriggled through the porthole
and then, with chest and stomach
pressing the ship’s side,
slid down that vast grey metal wall,
which was slowly flattening itself.
He crawled past welds and markings
which were not intended to see daylight,
designed only for the emerald light
of a drowned world.
He groped his way over thousands of rivets,
and acres of steel, curving and slipping
into their own wet grave.
Finally, he could let go,
and with the SS Coolidge,
he too plunged into the sea.
But unlike the ship, he could swim.
He came back up, tossing water droplets
from his army haircut, breathing,
and splash-walked to the shore
of an island named after the breath of God.
At ninety years old, my father has let go
of wife and home and so much more.
He walks now in the waist-deep waters
of age and quiet, toward an island
whose name we do not know.
The rooms of our house
ON EMPTYING MY CHILDHOOD HOME
feel swollen with air.
Its walls once bloomed
with photographs of backyard roses
and a beaming teen
standing beside his first car.
But now, they stand empty-handed,
unsure of where to look.
The ceilings snap with a noise
living people do not make.
It sounds like gone.
It sounds like goodbye.
As I stand in the kitchen
the walls nearly shrug.
They have nothing to say.
They look almost
Where a living family
once smiled out from wooden picture frames
now only dust frames
guard the faded paint
of these walls.
And these frames,
that took years to be born,
outline photographs of nothing.
These dirt frames cannot be straightened.
They cannot be taken down and saved.
They can only be wisked away
into the empty picture
WHEN THE DEAD STAND UP TO SINGWhen the dead stand up to sing
they clear their dusty throats,
remembering a song they learned long ago
when breath actually flowed through
their beating bodies.
Today they stand to sing,
not in their own world of damp and darkness
but in mine.
They are a surprising choir, for sure,
row upon row of stony singers,
heads thrown back,
mouths open wide as water.
They pull air into skeleton lungs
from all sides and they sing it out
the same way.
First quietly, then stronger,
a melody that rises and falls
like they did:
Their choral sounds layer each other
their notes slip in and around each other.
They are dense, with barely enough space
Their song is sometimes hope
and sometimes horror.
At one moment their voices
are bright, like light.
At the next, they drop like darkness.
These singers have fallen and risen,
they have come through
and come out.
This skinless choir stands always ready
to sing its searing notes,
while I wish, in my childish way,
for the piercing hope that their song
will come to an end.
But no. Their song is not
of blood and breath.
It cannot just stop
like those things.
Their song is of victory.
Their song is of overcoming.
It is not the music of ashes,
clinging to us all.
It is the music of light
breaking through every crack
in every stone.
Joseph Ross is the author
of Meeting Bone Man (Main Street Rag, 2012). He is co-editor of the anthology Cut Loose The Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib Paintings
(DC Poets Against the War/American University, 2007), and founded and
directed the Writing Center at Archbishop Carroll High School. He
now teaches in the English Department at Gonzaga College High
Ross's poems have appeared in the anthologies Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality; Come Together: Imagine Peace; Poetic Voices Without Borders, and Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC.
Main Street Rag
publishes a quarterly print magazine, poetry chapbooks and full-length
collections, and operates a bindery and publishing company. Founded in
1996, it is located in Charlotte, North Carolina. Reprinted by
in Volume 14:1, Winter 2013.
To read more by this author:
Joseph Ross: Evolving City Issue
Joseph Ross: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue
Joseph Ross: Floricanto Issue