Two Poems

Photo credit: Ramsey Mathews. 


“I Can’t Breathe.”

Eric Garner


O beautiful for spacious skies,

         His tongue

For amber waves of grain,

         Four-hundred-year motto

For purple mountain majesties

         Of murdered black men

Above the fruited plain!

         Arms scissor-wing & slice July air

America! America!

         Chokehold empties his chest

God shed His grace on thee

         & paints his sky bone & sinew

& crown thy good with brotherhood

         Yaw & pitch rush out of him

From sea to shining sea!

         Like a stain on cracked concrete


O beautiful for pilgrim feet,

         Or wicked stinging nettle

Whose stern, impassioned stress

         He will fly

A thoroughfare for freedom beat

         Above thunderclouds of racism

Across the wilderness!

         Where selling untaxed cigarettes

America! America!

         Does not equal the cost of a life

God mend thine every flaw,

         His eyes know

Confirm thy soul in self-control,

         This is reality

Thy liberty in law!

         Frederick Douglass, “When justice is denied


O beautiful for heroes proved

         Neither persons nor property will be safe.”

In liberating strife,

         One cop, judge-jury-hangman

Who more than self their country loved

         The cult of alt-right white nationalism

& mercy more than life!

         The YouTube video of his death

America! America!


         This is not a jury of peers

May God thy gold refine,

         No guilty murderous officer

Till all success be nobleness,

         A twenty-second death row on video

& every gain divine!

         Eric’s eyes have seen the glory


O beautiful for patriot dream

         Of the coming of the Lord

That sees beyond the years

         His emancipation plea

Thine alabaster cities gleam

         Fails in a puddle of himself

Undimmed by human tears!

         Intolerance cuts deeper than knives

America! America!

         Fatal freedom in his eyes

God shed His grace on thee

         His litany of loss eleven times

& crown thy good with brotherhood

         “I can’t breathe.”

From sea to shining sea!

         Eric’s truth marches on.



Sarah's Great Grandmother's Crèche


Weeks before the moving truck transports

         Sarah from Austin to San Diego, she follows

her mother’s lead when culling the cargo. Sarah drinks

white zinfandel & lobs cheap dishes

         over her shoulder to disintegrate

on the brick kitchen floor.


Years ago, during the family’s fifth Army

         transfer of three daughters, a dachshund

& a husband stationed in Germany, her mother

shattered dishes, danced a Texas

         two-step & wept. Sarah bubble

wraps mom’s porcelain,


the brass lighthouse lamp of two boyfriends past

         & her father’s golden eagle lamp. She marks

boxes with Stuff, Kitchen, Office, Bathroom, Vibrators,

& Etc. Stuff contains rambling journals

          started twenty years ago when at six

she wrote her first short story


about the rapture & a talking frog. She never reads

         her stories to anyone, especially her two sisters.

To the homeless woman near the railroad bridge,

Sarah gives a midnight-blue down comforter,

         a white night-gown & her favorite

yellow bath towels imprinted


with red pigeons. Under a strawberry moon, she perches

         on the front porch the three two-inch tall Buddhas

that held dominion over her apartment -- one soapstone

big belly Gautama, one cobalt guy seated

         in the lotus position, one a wandering

jade monk with a tote sack slung


over his shoulder. All three disappear during a sluggish rain

         before sunrise. Single now, Sarah doesn’t worry

about divvying furniture. The kitchen table & two unmatched

chairs wait on the curb after no sale at the garage sale.

         Free. Boyfriends & throw away furniture

can be purchased anywhere, but the California king




is too compatible after hours of sex, naps & reading

         & easily packs sideways against one wall

in the U-Haul. After her father’s heart attack, she felt

like the Honor Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

         Respectful. There must be value in Black

Widow’s orange label, Uriah Heep’s Vertigo Swirl


& the six apple crates full of platters. A red, white

         & blue arm cast signed by Evel Knievel.

Two Ken dolls, one as the Cowardly Lion & one

as Nicolai of the Russian military. Dad’s shaving kit,

         his Korean War uniform & the Owner’s

Manual to his ’48 Roadmaster Buick. One Craigslist


collector claims he also fought in Korea. She doesn’t want

         to haul her father’s ballast, so she keeps dad’s

shaving kit, the Buick manual & a picture of her father

& pregnant mother standing on a Key West bridge.

         In the black & white photo under horn-rimmed

glasses, her mother’s gothic lips caress a cigarette.


The one-piece bathing suit clutches her cantaloupe belly

         pregnant with the baby brother Sarah never knew.

His death not the death of newspaper human interest. No cancer.

No drunk driver. No drive-by shooting. A stupid fishbone

         lodged in his throat & a contagious hospital.

Her mother’s left-hand cradles the boy in her belly.


Her intrepid smile wrestles the sloe gin sorrow of her eyes.

         Sarah sells her mother’s silver wedding rings

to a pawnbroker. She hides the heirloom photos on her iPhone

& never tells her sisters. Her addiction to books looms large

         in the living room. Djuna Barnes, Thelma Forshaw,

Lydia Davis & Lyudmila Ulitskaya. There is William Faulkner’s


fury & Tom Clancy’s Red October abandoned by lovers

         who desperately mimicked manhood’s panache.

Microbiology she almost flunked & Organic Chemistry

she took twice. Books make her feel smart, so Sarah stuffs

         twenty boxes of books in the box truck & shuts the door.

Sarah’s great-grandmother’s crèche occupies



two wooden cigar boxes. The haunted theology full of birth

         & death crumbles as she opens the first box

adorned with a faded yellow rose. The mythical dwelling

resembles a lean-to built by Bobcat Cub Scouts on their first

         camping trip. One wall fallen & half the roof

missing. People & animals of the nativity populate


the second wooden box. A dog looks like a wolf. An ox

         sports the horns of a steer. Something resembles

a camel. There are no swaddling clothes. Joseph & Jesus

disappeared into dust, but a silhouette of the Virgin Mary

         remains. The wise men are smaller than Sarah’s

three discarded Buddhas, yet these patriarchs


are not rotund & happy. The sinewy magi, with bedraggled

         beards & torn tunics, trekked across the maddening

desert on a rumor. After myrrh & frankincense, the three

no-longer-wise men loiter outside the ramshackle manger

         with nowhere to go. Their ancient eyes glaze

with the clang of celestial ennui. Sarah tries to remember


the motivation for owning so many things. Why buy a Nordic

         Track? The marketing is not that good. Why buy

two crock pots? Why buy two coffee makers, one Mr. Coffee

on sale at Target & one mail order, thousand-dollar Grindmaster.

         Why buy a DeLonghi Magnifica espresso machine? Why buy

six cloisonné vases that never hold lilacs, real or plastic? Why?


by Ramsey Mathews

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