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The Marionette
A man to the sky is a lesson:
a veiled performance of pigskin,

carburetors, amens and falling:
the leaves from the tulip

poplar, an old letter, a confession
to a dog over a glass of bad rye:

Love’s the only thing
that will save your life. A fiction

of becoming a real boy, a man,
a chest carved in his chest

with a drawer that weeps
down the wood and stains

his hollered name there.
This is what the sky learns:

his upturned face
is unbearable, his open

mouth so loud
you can’t hear a thing.


Act Three

Childless in a world
full of children.
A tobacco plug

and Hibiscus tea.
Six sisters and a mother
who darkened her door

no more. In the streets
a man dressed
as a dead president

handing out tax
flyers. In her dreams
a baby drowned

in honey. All the people
turned into birds.
The needle and the thread.

The crochet hook
and the weight of that word,
mend. To mend, she thought,

but she felt tragic
sometimes the way
our reflections

come out of nowhere
in storefront windows
and leaded glass.

She was not
concentrating. She watched
him outside

urinating on the Queen
Anne’s lace and singing.
At the river’s edge,

when the water rose
to her feet, or she
walked out further,

she was changed
like a bird is changed,
the baby cardinals

putting on color
at last, at last the Ugly
Duckling crying:

I will fly away to them.
Lines of water
and land, sun

and trees, the dog
fetching sticks,
no man moved me –

till the Tide . . .
The way the fish
came up to clean

the meat off
a chicken bone.
That fish she saw

alone one morning,
that whale of a fish,
the big treble hook

he pulled from a drawer
after she told him.
She felt betrayed

and loved that he
listened all at once.
She felt the rim

of the china cup
and read from the book
of John: Now is your time

of grief, but I will see you
again and you will rejoice,
and no one

will take away your joy.
The way that back door
closed like god

was closing up shop
forever. Gone fishin’,
she thought,

and never forgave
herself for laughing.
The moment and all

the years. The days
and days punctuated
by men begging

for spare change
and an angle from which
better to see her,

the lines of the grocery
store, the lines
cashing checks, the lines

running electricity
from her house
to the power company,

from the power company
to the train station,
from the train station

to wherever it was
the great big world
went out there.

The lines of cars
leaving town.
At night the stars

looked down on her
like eyes. She felt
watched, and embarrassed,

and safe. She felt
softest sometimes
alone with the crickets

and a bottle of beer.
Was the hope drunk?
She wondered

if the mosquitoes
would bleed her out.
Bloodletting, she thought,

her life a stained glass
of giving and red;
she wanted to drop

a leaf on the water
and sail away.
Life was not a prison

but she counted
walls, quietly in this boat
of fools and deaf mutes.

Some days she felt
he took the best
of everything.

How she looked forward
to his return.
She was the battle

between fire and water,
born of the drippings
from stalactites

and candles, the wet
match-box drying
on the counter.

At night she dreamt
of her hair held beautifully
with fish hooks, adorned

in thistle. At night
she poured the sea
from her head,

an ocean taken
with its own image
of oceans.

The news was nothing
new. Through her gold-hoop
earrings she watched

the rain turn heavy,
and she felt herself
a heavy drop

and wanted only then
to fit through
such a small circle

and be somewhere
else, to grow
small enough

the wind
would permit her

*with lines from the Manger Flood Story, the New Hebrides Flood Story, the Mangaia (Cook Islands) Flood Story, the Hawaii Flood Story, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” Emily Dickinson’s “I Started Early – Took My Dog,” John 16:22, Shakespeare’s MacBeth 1:7:512  


Clay Matthews has published poetry in journals such as The American Poetry Review, Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. His most recent book, Pretty, Rooster (Cooper Dillon), is a collection of sonnets written in syllabics. His other books are Superfecta (Ghost Road Press) and RUNOFF (BlazeVox). He teaches at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee, and edits poetry for the Tusculum Review.