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The Land Agent

He’s on the front porch wanting to buy your mountain. A band of sweat seeps through his hatband. When he mops his brow, his hankie comes away black. He has a long, bald prehensile tail that sends the cats skittering, and a bottomless briefcase full of maps that he unrolls with a flourish on the dining room table. He lords over them like a general, pointing, talking, pointing. There’s coal beneath you that runs like a seam up the back of a stocking, or like a blue scar bisecting your grandmother’s neck. What about the dust? you ask. What about the explosions? No problem! The top comes off clean, like a hat or a scalp. Later, in his rented room above the VFW, he mops the puddle of his face and draws the curtains, trying to keep the light out. (Lights from Chilhowie to Katmandu, forests of lights where forests used to be, halogens illuminating cathedrals of kudzu, empty mesas, parking lots where insomniac seagulls graze.) A sweet little grey-eyed ghost he met at the truck stop drops by. She’s eighty-five pounds of air with a tarpit bubbling in her mouth. When she massages his purple bunions, the light shines right through her. His eyes roll back in his head and he mutters, Honey, oh honey. He holds his rotund gut delicately, with two hands, as if he’d just devoured an enormous supper of dynamite.


Black Hole

The workers are organizing! On the field recording you can hear the bone-scrape of chairs in the union hall. A man in the back coughs up rivets into a rag, and then a collective wheeze and shush before the widow begins to sing. But put your ear to the speaker, and you’ll hear, smothered in static, the man still coughing. Someone’s pounding him on the back. He’s coughing up broken combs, dead chickadees, dried up rivers, the papery husks of flies, a lost shoe. It all spirals down a black hole that empties into a dungeon on the other side of the world. There, the workers are sullen and jaundiced, skinny as brooms. Each morning the widow’s song is piped in over the loudspeaker, but when the record ends and the stylus bumps and bumps the paper, the coughing keeps drifting down in toxic clouds. The workers huddle around the high barred windows straining for air. The ones in front can glimpse the empty streets where the tanks are buried in snow.


End of the West

When gallstones doubled him over, the surgeon snipped the little swollen purse and lifted it free with the tip of his knife. Packed in a snuff tin, the bladder looked like calipash. He carried it home for the priest to bury, riding all night through deep snow, woozy, wrapped in a grizzly hide he bought off a Chinaman. MeMaw says he smells like Lazarus himself, so now he sleeps on a cot in the barn. He dreams of painted ponies that prance across a lake of fire, a pack of blue wolves, a forest that burns like a Bible soaked in kerosene. He sleeps with his boots on and his hat over his face, breathing in the dry lunar air that the hat breathes out. Once, I tiptoed in and lifted his undershirt. Where the stitches should have been was a garland of barbed wire mired in a crust of blackened pus. When I put my ear to it I could hear the wound sighing. The light in the barn smelled of leather and ether. The horses snorted and stamped in their stalls.


Mink Collar

In the rest home, where the walls were always on fire, she stroked them nervously and they purred, their dry backs stippling with static. There were four of them, limp and breathless, each hard snout clasping the tail of its neighbor. They crawled, an ouroboros of fur, circling her neck too slowly for the eye to see. Their bellies were a velvety depth, but their claws left a rash of tiny cuts at her throat that wept the bile of John the Baptist. At night, when she dabbed their glass eyes with rosewater, they shivered. She shushed them and hummed a little lullaby before slipping out her teeth.



A military band squeezed inside a bomb shelter. Buttons busting, plumes razing cobwebs draped from the ceiling. The flautists were crushed against a wall, wilting like lilies. The bored saxophonists primped in the bell of their horns. But the tubas loomed in the middle, blubbering back and forth like hung-over lumberjacks commiserating about a heat wave. The conductor tapped his baton, just wanting a moment of silence before the fire rained down. But the tubas, hammered from the bowels of walrus, kept bellowing, the red-faced men teetering beneath them. Who was blowing whom full of bluster and menace, we asked, when a team of oxen pulled their bodies from the rubble, still yoked to their Cyclopes, to those brass ampersands shining in the sun.  


Brian Barker is the author of two books of poems, The Animal Gospels (Tupelo Press, 2006) and The Black Ocean (SIU Press, 2011), winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition. His poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in such journals as Poetry, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review Online, Ploughshares, Agni, The Washington Post, Quarterly West, TriQuarterly, Indiana Review, and The Writer's Chronicle. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver and a Poetry Editor of Copper Nickel.