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John Grey
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Home At Last

John Grey

         

My support group

assures me  

these aren’t

the gates of hell

They say it is just

the door to my

one-room apartment

on the tenth floor

I can call

a dozen names

any time day or night

to hear my curtains

are not red fire

and the ceramic figure

on the mantle

is not the devil

Nothing like a voice

on the other end of the line

telling me that

I am living in this world

Relieved

I prod a cigarette

into my trembling lips

and the room lights it

Prey

 

John Grey

 

 

From the crumbling edge  

I stare into the open mouth of night,

no defenses, no argument

merely the implied contract

of hunter and prey.

Wind hustles out memories

like cheap perfume,

darkness hones the landscape down

to just this body

and the abyss beyond.

Not a thing here

I can claim for humanity.

When the known abandons me,

the unknown licks its lips.

 

 

 

The Escape

 

John Grey

 

 

Somebody climbed the fence.

Barbed-wire didn't bother him.

Cuts and blood and searing pain

were just the price of liberty.

On the way down the other side,

he jumped,

almost crushed his ankle,

half-crawled toward the woods

and the swamp.

But if that was the only way out,

he’d do it ten thousand times.

Likewise with the swamp,

mosquitoes chewing on his flesh,

damp heat sitting heavy on his chest,

and snakes curling around

his crimson wounds, fangs raised,

venom at the ready.

If there was a choice

between bog and cell,

he'd sink into the foul-smelling mud

every time.

The guards came out after him.

They let the dogs loose.

He'd be back inside in an hour.

Sure they could lock him up again.

But that hour would always go free.

 

 

 

 

The Crows at Sunset

 

by

 

John Grey

 

 

 

A flock of crows 

startle a sunset. 

They drop down upon 

the orange light

like it’s a rodent,

their talons tearing

at the color,

soaring this way and that

with bits of it

dripping from wings

like blood.

 

 

Chopping up the Body in the Forest

 

by

 

John Grey

 

 

 

You can tell that the birds 

are clamming beaks shut

around their songs.

If you’re going to hear

their trills tonight,

they’ll have to vomit them.

They cling to the boughs

like notes on sheet music

for you below who doesn’t know

a crochet from a quaver.

They understand how a dead body

is a dead tree

is a dead sky

is a dead season.

Meanwhile, you whistle

while you work.

 

 

 

 

Bacteria Days

 

by John Grey

 

 

never let it be said

we are not

thrilled with existence 

 

but if we were larger, 

stronger,

our limbs more versatile,

we would build houses,

sit on porches at twilight,

smoke cigars

 

it is not the envy

of the mite

towards the giants

in our midst

merely what the insignificant

must do to dream its way

out of the practical

 

of course,

we have been handed

the key to his defects,

and, once in a while,

as if to compensate,

we open the door to them

and watch that virulent opening

suck all of him inside

 

still, that doesn’t get us

a house with a porch,

riot even a cigar

 

his light goes out

in a coffin of ashes

is not unlike

ours flicking on

a little

 

 

Room 254B

 

by John Grey

 

I dreamed

I floated through the air.

But then the earth beneath me

exploded to dust,

blew away.

The longer I dreamed

the more I had nowhere to land.

I grew weary, lonely,

and afraid.

I awoke not caring at all

about flying,

just happy to

have some place to land.

The doctors here

have such a twisted sense of humor.

They set my alarm clock

to estimated time of arrival.

 

 

 

Watching Amanda

 

by John Grey

 

The night is black as eyes

with just the faint

deliverance of light

in bare moon patches.

Tombstones part

like waves of her hair.

She steps through

this crack in death,

graveyard dirt dripping

from her pale dress,

arms outstretched,

hands bent

as if pulling on the

heavy air,

leaves no trace in

the generous mud,

all of her footsteps

on my flesh

as I watch from the

pathetic safety of

a nearby oak,

eyes opened wide

by the pennies

of disbelief,

blood blanching

in my veins,

my skin crawling over

my bones like

snakes feasting.

 

 

Man and Moths

by John Grey

I had a velvet jacket.

I saw it skitter away

in the mouths of moths.

I couldn't go out without it,

sat back in my chair

watching the moths

circle the bare bulb.

I didn't move,

was slumped in that wooden cradle

for days, for years.

The last thing I remember

was the moths

crowding my rotting body,

convinced that I was

something I'd wear.

 

 

Ax-Man’s Walk

by John Grey

I step out

with my ax over my shoulder,

past the broken fence

and the one rock that always

reminds me of a head

but where's the neck,

where's the tongue hanging

out of its mouth

like blood.

I am an ax-man

and even the light

that has me out here

bright and early

I would chop into tiny pieces

if it would only stay still on the block.

Even the thin trail I walk

between the morass of melting snow

and rising mud, I'd flay at,

not to make the distance shorter

but to make it sweeter.

Even my wife of twenty years,

hoarsely shouting her twisted good luck

from the bedroom window,

who thinks there is nothing

wrong with life

that a wheelbarrow loaded up

with firewood

wouldn't put right

has a moment or two under my blade

as I march into the forest.

If every living thing

must sing together in this wood,

why not the dying things,

the sudden jerk,

the dart of hands towards the crimson throat,

finding their shared song.

 

 

Confessions of the Anatomy Instructor

by John Grey

It's true. I see corpses.

These bright, fresh faces

dazzled by their own youth

are merely a preview

of foul green flesh

and blood black as eternity.

Upright heads,

spines at perfect angles

in row after row

of lecture room seating

are coffin fodder

with arms crossed

in pointless attentiveness,

cadavers masked by that quirk

of physical law that mistakenly

sparks these wretched anatomies

for a brief moment

in numbing infinity.

I've cut up sewer-smelling bodies

on blood-drenched tables

on bitter cold, moonless nights.

Where was the humanity then?

These fools think they have a future.

No, they have a date

with either my blade

or worms.

All this heart-pumping,

and nerves jangling

and brain imagining-

the body has a lot

to answer for.




Armageddon Afternoon

by John Grey

End of the world,

I am struggling to make love

to Maria one more time.

Walls are caving in.

We spend a minute or two in hurried foreplay.

The roof is threatening to

break away from the rest of the house.

I climb atop her soft pink body.

A large tree crashes through

the window, scattering glass everywhere.

I kiss her flesh, enter her.

The earth beneath the house cracks apart

with an almighty roar.

She moans. I sigh.

Our bodies thrash against each other

like ocean and rocks.

Mountains collapse.

Rivers explode across their banks.

Physics gone mad,

we are suddenly spun out into space

grasping onto each other

with desperate fingers

dug into the sweet meat

of each other’s sweaty backs.

We come at the same glorious moment,

our sperm spitting out a geyser of pleasure

that swamps Venus and Mars

in a great white meteor shower.

Exhausted, she falls away from me

into the contented corridors of sleep.

I light a cigarette,

prop my head against a pillow,

reacquaint myself

with the book I was reading.

The world returns to its senses,

eases back into order,

opens another flower,

puffs a breeze through

the upper branches of a willow,

spits a drop of rain or two

across our roof.




The Living and the Dead

by John Grey

He undresses

to the music

of dead composers,

in a room filled

with books

by dead authors

and prints

of the masterpieces

of dead artists.

Thankfully,

the sheep

that provides

his blanket,

was only sheared

not slain.

And the woman

who slips

into bed beside him

is surely living somewhere.





Blood on the Butcher’s Smock

by John Grey

So much for the handsome bearded face

and the glowing welcoming eyes.

Man’s got a hacksaw in his hand

and is coming down hard on that dead pig.

The older he gets, everything is pork to him,

even the ones in his backyard

who claim their right by their unwitting

imitations of his mouth, his nose.

Such little trotters, he thinks.

What ugly snouts, he reckons.

Doesn’t slash them all to pieces

because he’s sure they’d fetch a lousy price

in his shop.

His wife has gone the way of black-and-white striped aprons

and sawdust scattered on the floor.

The best in life is cold, refrigerated, hanging from a hook.

The face is worthless.

The gut is where the money is.

One good cut and money peels back from bone,

meaning fattens up the ribs,

chops and loin fill his dream’s meat locker.

So a little blood spills.

What else has blood to do?







AT NINE YEARS OLD

 

by John Grey

 

 

What's in my room?

The black shape creeps toward the bed.

I try to speak but can't.

My heart cracks hard

into my ribs

like a woodpecker's beak.

 

Monster, I'm thinking.

Shade. Phantom.

I want to run

but the sheets and blankets

press down on me.

 

This thing could crush me,

strangle me,

or shriek in my face

and frighten me to death.

It's a trick of the dark

that plays out like a horror movie.

 

It draws closer and closer

and my throat grows

more parched by the moment.

 

I'm about to die.

I’ll never see my family again.

Sheer terror rises through my body,

encapsulates my brain.

 

Maybe if I just close my eyes,

I'm thinking.

And, here I am, forty years later,

still with my eyes closed.

 

Parents, siblings., lovers, wives,

so many have shared the dark with me,

but still no one will answer,

"Is it safe?"




NORMAL

 

by John Grey

 

 

It's not wind.

It's a scream

muted by the boisterous air.

Something's being tortured

but the weather doesn't want

you to know.

It would rather rock some trees,

rattle windows,

swirl leaves,

anything to separate sound

from terror.

 

So someone's darkest fears

blow up a gale.

The last moments of a life

scatter papers,

beat against a door.

 

You look out

at the urging of a gate banging,

a soughing bough,

a swaying pedestrian.

 

Just normal for this time of year,

you reckon.

An unsuspecting hiker,

a creature pouncing from the brush,

pathetic struggle, searing pain—

any more normal




WRAITH

 

by John Grey

 

 

It began as

the possibility of a woman

long forgotten,

even longer thought dead.

And yet she was here,

for a flickering moment, in an attic

of a wintery house,

in one deep corner,

where ceiling joins bare beam.

The possibility of such a woman

always drifting across

the back of your mind,

an eeriness, inexplicable,

as all imaginings must be.

And now fulfilled,

not dust motes this time,

not brief wind draft

fluttering the stillness,

slowly, gradually, the wisp

evicting dust, mutating to ethereal light,

making something solid

of this vacuum of a room,

a vision, for all its flimsiness,

made clear as pain, as joy,

its meaning propagated by its own haunting.

A wraith, then, someone

you once knew, many years ago,

a fragile wraith spilled over eyes and mind,

tantalizing, disappearing

as soon as it appeared,

this dark wraith

born of dreams

then dissipated.




A ROMANIAN REFUGEE COUPLE

 

by John Grey

 

 

They met and courted in a small village

in the Carpathian mountains of Romania,

married and fled the region together,

because of the war, so they said,

the invading armies,

half their families dead,

fled through forest nights as dark

as a sinner's soul,

in a God-sped horse and carriage,

their past lives stashed in some small satchel,

both dressed in clothing of their own tailoring.

 

Ten years later, they live in a tiny French town,

in the shadow of its cathedral,

he works at the textile factory,

she keeps a poor but humble home,

mourns two stillborn children.

"War? What war?" asks a visitor from the old country.

"Invading armies? You must have been dreaming."

 

It could have been war.

That might have been an army.

Certainly, he lost a sister,

She, a cousin and a spinster aunt.

"Totally drained of blood," said the doctor's report.

Besides, what does it matter what they ran from.

Stay behind and, in midnight's unholy realm,

she'd be visited by something bat-like,

eager to slake a centuries' old thirst.

A night of evil bliss and she'd become

one of the dead.

He'd be another of Van Helsing's hirelings.

Exhume the body, stab it deep and hard,

futilely grit teeth, put hands to ears,

as she shrieks and moans that unbearable death rattle.

What kind of life together would that have been?

 

Better a stake in the ground far, far away

than a stake through the heart at home.



CONTAINER GOODS

 

by John Grey

 

 

What she thought was hers,

regulating by her pumping heart,

circulating throughout her body,

was merely liquid stored for twenty years

in a pretty virgin bottle.

 

Those occasional cuts and bruises,

from felling down as a child

to biting her lip in anger

were mere cracks in the packaging,

soon patched up.

 

A man came to her bed at night,

unscrewed the lid, popped the cork,

with nothing more than fangs and thirst,

drank her dry and tossed the flesh and bone container

back onto the bed,

like an empty into a recyclable bin.

 

"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,"

intoned the priest at her funeral.

No deposit, no return,

is how I look at it.



FAVORITE WORD

 

by John Grey

 

 

death

sewer

disease

stench

rotting

monsters

devour

mutilate

nightmare

abyss—

 

so hard to choose

 

and yours is

dawn,

you say?






SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE MOVIES

 

by John Grey

 

I'm the only one

in the cinema.

 

No cuddling couples,

no restless kids.

 

Cafe's closed.

No popcorn.

No soda.

 

But I'm not alone.

A rat's scouring the floor

for leftovers.

 

Screen's tattered

and crawling with spiders.

 

Lights aren't just dim,

they're totally dark.

 

Another rat's nibbling my shoe.

There's more of them

swarming over the seats behind me.

 

Well at least I got

the student discount.



PREDATOR

 

by John Grey

 

I float with just my eyes

and nostrils

nudging through the surface.

I make no sound.

No ripples give me away.

 

She doesn't suspect anyhow.

To her, this is all

cleansing, life-affirming water.

It can cool her down,

rinse away the grime.

And she can become as one

with the natural world.

That's where I come in.

 

I have no name for myself.

Instincts drive me.

How long it is since I've last eaten

factors into the survival of both of us.

 

And I'm quite sated from that raccoon meal.

So she can splash about in perfect safety.

Down south, it's alligators

that fill this role in life's cycle.

Here in the north,

it's guys like me.



VICTIM WATCH

 

by John Grey

 

 

Soaked in last night's

gray rain,

not even blue sky,

warm wind,

can dry damp cheeks,

matted hair,

lips dripping blood and water.

 

The city sprouts anew

but alleys can be very old,

no cars, no foot traffic,

just last month's newspapers,

green trash bags

split down the gut,

and one man,

discarded.

cut open at the throat.

 

Radio, dog bark,

laughter, clip-clop of heels,

thump of briefcase against thigh—

a parade of unembarrassed riches,

youth and beauty,

privilege and success—

its unwitting audience

has one eye open,

the other permanently shut.

 

There's a killer on the loose

a victim even looser.



A ROLE FOR DEATH

 

by John Grey

 

 

death is by my side,

a constant companion—

 

he pretends to be my servant,

lays out my clothes in the morning,

prepares my meals,

stokes the fireplace,

cleans the windows—

 

he also doubles as a friend—

he chats amiably in the passenger seat

whenever we drive anywhere,

walks with me down by the river concourse,

even shares a drink with me

in some out-of-the-way bar—

 

more than a friend,

death has this routine

where he's the older brother I never had—

he wants me to bask in his achievements,

to endeavor to be just like him—

 

he can even be a father figure—

offering advice on everything

from my choice of bride

to investments and careers—

 

death, in its own way,

is drawn to life

even though he knows

it doesn't end well—

 

he wants to be around those

who believe that death is something

that happens to other people—

his motto is.

"why should other people have all my fun?"



RAVENS

 

by John Grey

 

 

Here come the ravens

descending on the cemetery,

taking up their perches

on tombstones and angel wings.

 

Just in case the funeral

wasn't dark and somber enough,

here comes a feathered shroud

separating into black blobs of gloom.

 

One cries out at the sight

of a dead squirrel on an overgrown pathway

and the birds leave their momentary roosts,

gather at the carrion.

 

Yes, it was sad to see your man buried

but imagine if you had just left him there.



TUNNELS AND THE MAN

 

by John Grey

 

He always feared tunnels.

And the Alps were pockmarked with

those horrible holes.

The locomotive barely had a chance

to bask in the Austrian sunshine

when it was dragged back

into the darkness.

 

The other passengers didn't seem to mind.

They read their books, their newspapers.

They ate their meals at leisurely pace

in the dining car.

 

He wasn't claustrophobic exactly.

But he hated that feeling

of the world being

suddenly snatched away.

And, if there was no world,

then what exactly was he living in.

 

Speeding through those mountains,

reality was lost.

Imagination took over.

But it was reluctant to rule.

 

Where am I?

What am I doing here?

The questions didn't dissipate

even in the light.

Or when they pulled into a station.

 

A sign said "You're In Eissenwart."

He stared at it for some time

but he still wasn't convinced.





 

 

 









 

 

 


hisbodydugupfromyourgarden.jpg
Art by Patty Mulligan 2017

HIS BODY DUG UP FROM YOUR GARDEN

 

by John Grey

 

 

it's years later

and his flesh

has been passed

down worm generations

like an heirloom

 

there's just bone

caked with mud

a skull with

the startled grin

of the permanently ambushed

 

there's nothing

in this drab skeleton

to compare with the roses

the chrysanthemums

 

it's as if you

planted the flower

and it was a seed that grew

 

 

 

 

John Grey is an Australian poet, U.S. resident. Recently published in New Plains Review, Stillwater Review, and Big Muddy Review, with work upcoming in Louisiana Review, Columbia College Literary Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review.  

In Association with Fossil Publications