Nova City Terra Novum
by Joshua Oakley
A doctor examines my brain
full of bugs and decay, even ghosts.
“Nothing to fear, don’t mind the ghosts.
They can’t hurt you as long as there is light.”
I descend into the void of my darkest self.
I spark a match, giant monsters squirm around me.
My light turns into a fireplace in a cozy study.
When I open my eyes, the monsters are my size,
And rather polite. We drink tea and read books together
in a circle during the otherwise lonely twilight hours.
So the Theater Really Was on Fire After All
Wasn’t there something in the gospels about “love thy neighbor?” If God
sent his son to die for us, don’t you think it was for a good reason?
Jesus taught nonviolent revolution against the dominant social class;
two thousand years later the ignorance of the masses has allowed
the development of the church into a weapon that turns a city block
into the surface of our sun, burning the last testament of the Way Things Were.
Peter’s crew justified through genealogy of power that zealots could rape
and murder in the name of the cross the infidels who defiled the holy land.
Even Byzantium did not escape the brutality of those who carried the cross
as both shield and justification for torture. The towers and cathedrals burned.
The ghost image of Jesus remains to this day, speaking without moving its lips
through the mouths seeking re-election. Those in charge down here don’t bother
to check with the big guy upstairs to see if they are doing things right.
Perhaps the message was scrambled between the mountain and the seer
by our old friends the Sadducees and the merchants in the temple,
who only wanted to know how they could get their cut back.
I have a suitcase: inside, one French unrated romance
movie with copious nudity, a study guide for Psychology 101,
German dictionary. In my backpack, a plastic bag of pot,
a few condoms, vodka, and a bag of panties you requested.
Birds chirp in the trees and heat rises up from asphalt
in the hot armpit of fall, on the way to your apartment.
“I was just looking at the chess set through the window.
You have some nice things here in your apartment.
I used to play chess with my daughter, and I beat her every time.
We’re cool now, she poured her heart out when they were going
to cut off my hand.” He raised his right arm and showed me
a huge gaping scar not fully healed from a few years ago.
Do you believe in fate? It was fate that made you give me
a thumb’s up sign. It’s cold out here, you know?
You have your things and I’m out on the street, but it doesn’t matter.
I stick by my friends. If I like you, then you don’t have to worry.
I’ve been through a lot of shit, seen my friends die, gotten my ass kicked
so many times. That’s life. Sometimes everybody gets their ass kicked.
Just remember what I said when you get to wanting and needing,
and you just have to put your hands to your head and scream.”
Lady of the Mountains
For the Russels of the world
She lost one of her first born to tuberculosis.
He was only three years old when his throat
closed for the last time. She often told me
I looked like him when I smiled. Seventy years
have passed since this phantom uncle died.
One by one the other children died of broken livers,
poisoned by years of drinking Bud and cheap whiskey.
Those that survived to mourn their brothers’ passing
continued to drink, determined to drink themselves to death
before old age got to them first. They erected towers
of empty beer cans in the yard, sat around drinking,
telling themselves all the ways they knew what was really
going wrong in the world: the old ways were gone.
And through it all my great grandmother survived,
outliving most of her male children, like some
relic of the Smoky Mountains, before tourism.
In a trailer, with late night TV reruns playing
in the background, she reads novels over and over.
She bends down to get the snuff tin just as
the tall dark handsome man sweeps the buxom
young virgin away to his impregnable tower.
She wipes away the brown mucous from her nose,
turns the page to what she already knows must happen.
Crows in the Wheat Field
For Mary Ward
She lies in the cadmium yellow wheat shafts,
soft hair and yielding thighs, scented skin and green eyes
soft lips and ample breasts for the taking, and giving away.
Crows beat their wings and caw against the wind from the west.
I want to die with her, moaning whispers in darkness,
my eyes safe for a moment from the sharp beaks of the watchers.
For the little girl who stared at me while I was sleeping many nights in Saint Elizabeth*
Through my window I see the hundred foot cypress.
The cathedral steeple on the left, tall walls on each side.
Blood red clouds cover the horizon so I move my bed.
Outside these cursed walls the sky is clear and blue.
A Jewish girl died under the floor seventy years ago;
Every night she wanders the hallways of this huge building,
searching for her mother, taken by the Germans,
watches with contempt those who dare to dream in her domain.
A Nazi pilot crashed his plane into the courtyard,
screamed in burning metal and buried himself without blessing
under the foundation of a building interrupted by the war.
He whispers secrets in the wind around the garden, up to my window.
In my room, the old woman with black hair spent months coughing up blood.
When the nun tried to bless her at the end, the witch woman laughed,
cursed the sisters’ god and the church steeple she saw every night.
She left her body that night, but her spirit never left the room.
The next day I sit in the garden under the cypress: the sunlight
drifts down at my feet in patterns of light and dark between leaves.
Pigeons shuffle and spread their wings on the gutters far above;
I hear faint whispers of something that could be language.
* For four months, I lived in a former hospital called Saint Elizabeth, in Leiden, Holland. This was a boarding house for temporary students. Over the course of its history, the site of the building had been an almshouse, church, hospital, boarding house, and refugee shelter. During World War II, the nuns of the hospital decided to hide Jews and other “undesirables” in the basement and in between certain floors.
I walk away from Lucifer, over a long sloping valley of green grass.
The sun sets in front of me, lighting the clouds with specks of red and orange.
Then his dark shape passes over my vision; I see nothing but black.
I have never felt colder than I do now. I can hardly remember the warmth of the sun.
I walk now in darkness, with no memory of how to get back to the fields I know.
I stand on top of a high hill, and feel like I am the only person left on the planet.
The moon appears barely out of her first quarter, sitting in the sky
whether waxing or waning I do not know and do not think to ask.
Venus, the morning star, appears brightly shining over the moon.
for my mother’s father
Sometimes he visits me in my dreams
in his Masonic lodge uniform
“What do you think you’re doing down there?”
“Do you love the right people?
“Helping those who should be helped?”
Why do you want me to hear you?
“My boy you must surely understand,
it’s hard to resist the desire for your own extinction.”
Your voice tells me what to do and not to do,
the one I try to forget. I suspect,
(my rational mind forces me to think this way)
you are only a part of me.
In my secret prayers
there is something to rumors
of sea fishermen who return
from the belly of the whale,
and whisper to strangers in bar rooms
that they will never be afraid again.
Walking the Dog
“We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars” – Jack Gilbert
Just last night, the heat and humidity lay heavily on the air.
Tonight the piercing cold night air sharpens my senses, giving me
time to pause and consider what intelligence really is, and what it is not.
I walk fast under the laurels, maples, oaks in cover of darkness,
My dog by my side, breathing heavily in her old age, working hard
to keep up. Hundreds of acorns lie on the ground, crunching under my feet.
Little yellow leaves resembling Chinese fans cover the path too.
We reach the highway, and ambient light emanates from each building and car,
blocking out the stars. My dog looks up, whines, shakes her head.
I agree with her so we turn around; Lampposts line up on the path
back to my apartment like way stations. We follow the lights back
the way we came, before turning once again into the darkness.
II. (after I grudgingly agree to take the dog out again)
Up there, giant balls of energy burning millions of degrees
Down here, dead maple leaves falling and turning in the wind
through trees laden with an evening’s rain on the hill behind my apartment.
Lassie sniffs every blade of grass. Starlight shines on helicopter petals
spinning and reflecting down. One lands on my lap. It is as if
all of these falling petals are gifts from the stars. The dog’s nose twitches
as she sniffs the cold air. The world seems quiet from the top of this hill,
only an occasional passing car to break the silence. I count the lights,
give up after forty-one. Lassie points with one paw.
She’s trying to tell me something. Timmy in the well again.
A sound? I look up one last time before going inside.
In blinking lights lie the fuel to burn a billion years.
A tiny blossoming of white opens with a dark circle expanding in the center.
In that space a billion years ago, a star has just died, exploding dust particles
brighter than our entire galaxy for only a moment. Then the dark space
comes back and it’s as if nothing ever happened.
The Egg Sandwich
I am standing in my kitchen, eating an egg sandwich.
I stop in mid chew, staring at the ketchup oozing a little over the side;
A gray cat has just bitten the back of my calf muscle.
He looks up and cries out in a pitiable version of a meow.
“Can’t you see I’m trying to eat here?” He keeps whining.
That’s when I decide to put him in the closet for an hour.
He scratches against the door for what seems like an eternity,
Then stops. At first I don’t care, but then I start to get worried.
When I open the door I find him there, waiting patiently.
“Have you learned your lesson?” He squeaks as he gets to his feet,
As if it is the most difficult thing any animal has ever undertaken.
He stands there for a moment, then insistently pushes his little face against mine.
His fur smells like dryer lint.
That which can be given can be taken away. One disability should not stop us from getting out of bed in the morning. A Chinese man has a stroke and one side of his brain no longer operates; he paints one letter symbols of no language except the heart. A woman on a public transit bus speaks only guttural noises; her shamed and frustrated eyes are the only thing that can communicate to the passengers. Beethoven, deaf to everything except his own genius, created a revolutionary symphony that brought James Agee in the twentieth century to tears.
Coming Together as Happy Consumers
Primal hunger to consume permeates all humanity under these florescent lights.
The Muslim woman carefully chooses a pear; a fat man picks his favorite soda.
The effort required to search these ails for the perfect deal is a heavy burden.
There are too many decisions, and my mind feels on the verge of collapse.
No matter how much I try to deny the pull of advertisement, here I am with my cart, overflowing packaged foods, which a man in another part of the world would kill for.
There is nothing that is not Zeus
Nowhere else to go, and a thousand places left to be
I sat all afternoon at the fountain of Europa and the bull.
He carried her on his back. I watched men and women
pass talking to friends both real and imagined.
Just as the light began to wane into twilight,
I noticed squirrels feasting on acorns
in the laurel trees over my head. Pieces of nuts falling
around me, I thanked the day for doing a good job.
After the sun set, the library’s windows across from me
shined like a hundred eyes staring into the void,
daring the darkness to quench all lights on earth,
and all the while the sky kept track from its lofty throne.
What Living Is
An old man walks through the city at night,
fat with a long gray beard. He drags his broken leg
to the side like a faithful dog. Tonight,
in the body of the full moon, a star explodes.
He sees the star’s death, and stops for a moment
to study the sudden bright flash in the sky.
It happened before us, and it will happen long after
men and women cease to walk the earth
Songs for a Funeral
I came to realize
the richness of bone.
The right wingers were right all along,
We all die eventually,
so why not take
some of the less desirable
The truest things may be ugly,
but what is lost
may be found again.
For the pre-thinkers,
state sanctioned hemlock
is the chosen solution.
Cherubic faces of youth are fed with
myths spun from television magic.
Tricky Dick Nixon explains why the rights of men
are no longer the realm of debate.
For in the streets of Commie Russia,
they have learned to ignore
the American Dream
of one nation under the grand old party.
Wounds burst into conflagration on rotating eyes.
Wine colored blood flows through rivers into oceans.
Triple horned maple leaves fall on the ground
littered with fragments of my former lives.
The trees line up like silent sentinels.
Fear returns to bile.
Years ago the Indians were not Indians,
they were their own people,
with their own language.
I would think we could at least
give their name back.
(as they must)
upwind of the secret cause.
All to easily we forget the names of the dead
carried through stars
into the blackness
beyond the sky.
In the final hours, the white goddess
gives birth to peace
suckles him with breasts of gold,
and comforts the dying
with a song of rebirth.
Even now at the edge of our galaxy*
I imagine the soundtrack to the death of a star
something like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony
at high volume with ear firmly pressed to speaker.
In their final sacrifice, the huge stars
give us radiant jewels of heavy metals
from the very core of their being.
More than any other event inside or outside
of human history amazes my small mind.
Things will end in different ways,
like to like and each to each
just as it has been from the beginning,
just as it will be for the future
until the last star burns out and
there is no fuel to burn another.
*The small ones die peacefully; the big ones grow hot not cold, and collapse
inward as the mirror opposite of their birth, a fraction of a second later exploding
in a brilliant stream of energy releasing more light and heat than all of other stars in the galaxy. The energy disperses throughout the universe a permeating spray of rich metals impossible to create other than in the star’s death.
A gardener dreams of a seed
The wings of an angel close,
and it dreams a human life.
It wakes up,
drives to work in the city,
flirts with the women on its floor,
smokes a cigar in the parking lot,
meets a girl for drinks at a bar,
gets her drunk,
and takes her home
an hour later.
After it is done,
it falls asleep,
only to dream
of what it would be like
to be in the presence
of the divine forever.
A world within myself
I rise up like a bird, newly born, unsure of his wings
borne up as if I am a feather newly born by the clouds.
Flying is easier if you trust yourself, and forget
your aunts and uncles who helped the family
prove you could not survive a fall from your roof.
After what could be a moment or a lifetime
I reach the top of the sky curved dome, and a tiny
crystalline globe hangs there, suspended in air: inside
is a microcosmic world complete with trees
animals people water creating each other constantly
from my own imagination. What else can I do?
At least I will have fun in the time I work to forget
the sorrow that comes from learning too much.
The Demon in the Darkness
What of the demon who hides and whispers
seductive secrets to me as I sleep?
Nothing matters when the green dragon
comes to call on my soul and overhead
I fly across the dark moonless sky,
breaking the clouds in pieces and not caring
that I will fade away and another will take my place,
eager to stake his claim on life,
The other will find a similar fate,
the same demon will gnaw at his soul,
and he will not break free before
the cycle begins again. In the meantime,
cloudy sky is silent milky white and succulent.
I open my mouth and float through without fear
of death of the body or anything else
my subconscious mind conjures to confront me.
I remember when I was five and a monster’s face frightened me in the darkness of my bedroom wall.
I am twenty one years old today. Now I feel the strange desire to belong to that very same darkness.
Ending is just the same as Beginning
We went over a cliff
in a Jeep Cherokee.
(I always knew those cars were unsafe)
Things got strange
when the love of my life
licked my nipple
with the tongue of a serpent.
The transportation station was covered
in beautiful red flowers,
and we could take a train
just about everywhere we wanted.
The gate was locked from the outside.
He watched the succession of kings in the city,
The genocidal waves sweeping through
Leaving men and women dead in the streets,
And always there was a new group of men
To rule over the bones of their predecessors.
He was jealous of the men and women,
Of their ability to fade away gracefully,
To give up their place in the world
And transfer energy to their next life.
Even he did not fully understand
what made him “divine,”
All he knew was that he
would live forever, yet
He no longer wanted to live.
He ran his fingers through the grass,
Searching for the perfect flower, something
To make his sister’s time bearable in the night,
While he dreamed of when the wheel would turn,
the gates would open, and his sister’s dogs would fill
an entire city with something beside the sounds
of helicopters, tanks, chainsaws cutting through
metal and flesh.
Another Generation’s Heroine
A young girl gets pregnant
marries the football star
has a child and tries
to make a go at life,
even though her small family
(always in debt) and she
must scrape just to give her children
shoes and baseball cards and video games.
She tries to live with her new husband,
but the sorrow of this life is too much.
She moves to the city and doesn’t look back.
Her former husband goes on to another woman
and moves to Australia,
where he lives with the natives
like a beached whale upon the rocks.
The young mother finds the children
puts them in a private grade school,
obsesses about their grades and hygiene,
goes out with strange men on the side
Just to buy the kids something nice
every now and again.
The Sun And Moon Are Jealous Lovers
The sun sends down waves of heat and light.
The glowing heat sphere eats my flesh.
The skin on my arm curls ever so slightly,
like old paper with burning edges.
I can no longer hide my lust
from my king in the summer sky.
I have taken his wife as my mistress.
Contemplating a Tower
The grass is bright and green,
we lie, crushing the fragrant flowers
rolling on the soft ground,
not caring what damage we do.
All around us in the air,
fragrant mist of morning dew
heavy on the world.
The sun shines down
bright rays of light,
bringing warmth and life
to us, greedy for both.
The darkness of the unforeseen future
will come to haunt our waking
and our sleeping dreams again.
As long as we have this moment,
alone together, together alone
accepting that the cards are stacked
against us, we shall not despair.
An end makes the time
after the beginning worth
working, laughing, loving.
We must remember the comedy
and the tragedy of human existence;
the heroism of every
Man, Woman, and Child
Who gets out of bed in the morning.
We must light a beacon
in order that others might later come.
A Sleeping Bum
for my youth
When you were a child
everything seemed perfect,
and you might still see traces of good,
were it not for the man kicking the shit out of his friend.
You know what happens when you don’t share.
This is about real money: five bucks kept back
from food and beer. Enough for a wonderland
or at least escape from what you do not
want to face alone.
You, sitting on the rail of the fence, smoking
A hand rolled cigarette, and the drops of
Rain seem to slow their fall, and your
Crimson hair glows in the light of lanterns:
All is quiet this night in the garden.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you
You are the most important thing to me
I wouldn’t choose anyone over you.”
In my dreams, I taste your cool lips,
You whisper secrets and dance in a garden of light,
I hold onto your foot and
Magic words form from our tongues and we cry
(for joy or sadness I do not know).
In the first moments of groggy eyes and brain,
I think you are in the bathroom,
But when I get up to see
You aren’t there.
The Cat Crouches at the Window in the Slanting Sunlight
He licks the gray fur on his paw, then rubs his head.
The cat does not know much of the outside world.
He sees a brick wall, avenue, cars parked, and a few buildings
How can he know of the temple heart?
I will tell you. He watches from inside the window
As an orange and white female sniffs the tire of a Jeep.
He’s just fallen in love.
My House Is A Museum With Many Doorways
The raven calls up old ghosts for a mad American,
Citizen Hurst’s pleasure palace lies forever incomplete,
and an Irish aristocrat at the top of his broken tower
ponders secrets revealed to him by spirits
who come by night and whisper in his ear.
Poetry is not a fiction,
we must write what
our hearts tell us to write
Speaking Only of Possibilities
A phone call, a reminder of another lover for you,
the sound of your voice as you call yourself a bitch,
loud rock music and drugs help numb the pain,
necessary just as the separation of body from body.
I wait for the goddess to come and revive my
broken body and spirit so that I may walk with her
in the garden of paradise as the sun warms my steps.
There will always be a chance
that we can find happiness together again,
one day when the darkness of our lives
does not threaten to drown us in misery.
Meeting the Buddha Under the Bo Tree
He sits and waits
in the yogi position crouched on top of
a deadly cobra whose many heads
form a crown with faces of despair to
protect him from the raging storm.
“We struggle daily to find meaning
in our transitory and temporary lives;
if we only knew that at the center of ourselves
we would see what the under mind wants us to see.”
Preparing for Winter
“You might spend your entire life trying to get out of the cold.”
The man in the CK T shirt rocks back on his feet,
laughing with the woman leaning against the brick wall,
As they share a forty ounce bottle of Hurricane malt liquor.
That’s one way.
The other way is to find a cave somewhere,
collect berries and nuts,
hold up for three months.
Night Walk Home from a Reading for an Anthology of Local Writers
How easy it would be to stand in front of oncoming traffic.
When I get home, I turn on the stovetop on high and stand there for a moment.
I reach out without thinking and grasp the metal grill of the stove eye,
Causing intense pain to blossom on my thumb into an immediate slow swelling.
As the shock forces my senses back into raw, harsh reality,
I try to imagine the surface of our sun, itself only medium sized as stars come,
Millions of degrees hotter than the trifling pain I so recently experienced.
Explaining Life through Etruscan Funerary Rites
Mary told me once that all of history could be explained
by a faithful observation of decorations in Etruscan tombs.
All we know of these people is in how they decided
to arrange themselves after they died. How they managed
to glorify the dead without taking away from the joy of life.
I am reminded of the silence after a modern American funeral,
when the family, friends, and acquaintances come together
and try to take away the sadness of their loss with thoughts
that the person is in a better place, with thoughts that he or she
no longer suffers as we suffer, no longer is disappointed by
the thousands of missed opportunities and could-have-beens
that everyone who breathes and hopes must face.
Perhaps Singing in the Rain
The man climbs the hill alone in the cold night rain.
A sheet of dampness clings to his clothes, his body.
Water on all sides bearing down but he doesn’t care.
He tries to pay attention to scenery passing him by.
Rain drops freeze in the glow of a street light
On the very top of a telephone pole, etching
The slanted fall of the rain drops one by one,
The force of the sky as a weapon against him.
The cold works its way under the man’s skin,
into muscles, bones, blood vessels, molecules.
For a moment he knows why he’s walking through muck
With no protection from the storm raging all around.
Warmth flows inside him from somewhere deep and hidden.
Foo Dogs Speak
“You guard the gate, so speak, tell me what you will
For I wish to pass and I do not know if I should be afraid.”
The female lion’s eyes slowly opened, a strained voice as if she spoke through
water. Then a shriek, they were open wide and staring at me.
“Come to me, my child, I will smell your hand.
Don’t be afraid, for the first test is painless.”
I walked up to the lion mother, let her sniff my hand.
The cub at her feet snarled, scratched my leg.
“You reek of selfism, and the demons fear, arrogance, insincerity.
You are not ready to pass out of the wasteland into our domain.”
“I am the only one who can help.” The father lion did not move.
He was larger than the mother. “I must eat your flesh before you pass.”
“I’ve tried so hard to find what I lost so many years ago,
and I am willing to do anything to reach it,” I murmured as he chewed.
Today the world broke, and what came out
Was something like egg custard, but thicker.
I saw myself in the window of an abandoned car.
The glass was shattered. I don’t know why.
Thousands of tiny glass shards lie scattered
Across the road— perhaps from beer bottles.
Maybe cats are my best friends.
My head hurts so much, It lets in every thing.
Light reflects through a wine bottle.
Every where a residue like pomegranates.
My Hymn to the Full Moon
A blood red ring rises around her white body
wondering in the midnight sky. A man lives
there: the sun king in disguise, her first lover.
The wind blows cold and shocking from the north.
Liars and false leaders of men entice my sleeping brothers
to meet their fate in the desert over the sea.
The poppy fields burn with their farmers.
Execution squads singe only the people, not the oil.
Fragments of their bodies, as snow, fall to the desert ground.
I Hear a Voice
“Hey, can I walk with you?”
I look back and see a black woman in a hot pink sparkling dress and heels.
I keep walking. “Hey white boy, I need a walking buddy
It’s not polite to ignore people, and I’m going the same way.”
Her voice trails away into the hot evening air.
I look back again and she is gone.
The Found One
for Micah Ward
Last night I dreamed of the time right after sunset in the Smoky Mountains,
when rosy tinged clouds die away and night spreads its wings over the world.
Two haggard men lowered your casket into a hole. All was quiet then.
Your brother left a rose for your body to rest with underground.
Your parents sat quietly in their car, waiting for the time to leave.
Black sparrows flew in formation on their way into the mountains you love.
I imagined I heard your voice as a gust of wind “Take care of her, and don’t fuck up.”
All I can say is that I will try, and thank you for showing me the way to die.
The phone rang in the early morning; I quickly hung up
Without waiting to find out who might be calling so late.
Fifteen minutes later, I made scrambled eggs while your twin sister showered.
Mary wanted to be clean before she entered the hospital.
I cracked the shell and two yolks slipped out into the mixing bowl.
I mixed the yellow and white together until there was no difference.
We talked about other things while we waited for a taxi: children, love, money.
Dawn opened into red tinged clouds strung like fluffy pillows across the sky.
It was one of the few and happy times when the sky seems to stretch out forever.
The grass in front of my apartment rejoiced and soaked up the first rays of the sun.
A red-breasted bird leaped from his perch and soared on a gust of wind over my head.
Time slowed for both of us, things felt like they really weren’t happening—
Any moment we could wake up and everything would be as it was before.
We saw you in the critical ward, on a stretcher with tubes tied to machines blowing air Into your lungs. I dared not come closer to you, hissing and struggling to hold onto life. Painkillers coursed through your veins, and the poor man’s heroin. I hope to God
you didn’t feel any pain. Mary touched the brittle skin on your arm; spoke your name.
We joined your family in this cruel reality of loss and foreboding in the waiting room (private for the hospital wanted to show it cared for critical patients’ families)
Some prayed to save you, others that God would stop your pain, but we all prayed. Your father had not even begun to grieve. When he told us he was happy to see his son,
we knew what he meant. Perhaps smoke inhalation was the Lord’s way of a blessing.
Mary and I drink coffee outside in the courtyard, where the sun is still shining
and the birds are still singing; though we think others should feel differently now,
nobody seems to notice the change except us. It’s eight in the morning.
Through a few hundred feet of cement, you do not breathe, you are the one who is breathed. This isn’t an end or a beginning, it just is. Even a star must die.
My end will come easier now that I have the time to prepare for it.