It’s a Western, Henry, it’s a downright shoot-em-up: four poems by Richard Siken

Wishbone

You saved my life he says I owe you everything.
You don’t, I say, you don’t owe me squat, let’s just get going, let’s just get gone, but he’s
           relentless,
keeps saying I owe you, says Your shoes are filling with your own damn blood,
you must want something, just tell me, and it’s yours.
          But I can’t look at him, can hardly speak,
I took the bullet for all the wrong reasons, I’d just as soon kill you myself, I say.
You keep saying I owe you, I owe…but you say the same thing every time.
          Let’s not talk about it, let’s just not talk.
Not because I don’t believe it, not because I want it any different, but I’m always saving
and you’re always owing and I’m tired of asking to settle the debt.
          Don’t bother.
You never mean it anyway, not really, and it only makes me that much more ashamed.
There’s only one thing I want, don’t make me say it, just get me bandages, I’m bleeding,
          I’m not just making conversation.
There’s smashed glass glittering everywhere like stars. It’s a Western, Henry,
it’s a downright shoot-em-up. We’ve made a graveyard out of the bone white afternoon.
          It’s another wrong-man-dies scenario
and we keep doing it, Henry, keep saying until we get it right… 
but we always win and we never quit, see, we’ve won again, here we are at the place
          where I get to beg for it
where I get to say Please, for just one night, will you lay down next to me, we can leave our
clothes on, we can stay all buttoned up?
          or will I say
Roll over and let me fuck you till you puke, Henry, you owe me this much, you can indulge me
this at least, can’t you? but we both know how it goes. I say I want you inside me
           and you hold my head underwater, I say  I want you inside me
and you split me open with a knife. I’m battling monsters, half-monkey, half-tarantula,
I’m pulling you out of the burning buildings and you say I’ll give you anything.
          But you never come through.
Give me bullet power. Give me power over angels. Even when you’re standing up
you look like you’re lying down, but will you let me kiss your neck, baby? Do I have to
          tie your arms down?
Do I have to stick my tongue in your mouth like the hand of a thief, like a burglary
like it’s just another petty theft? It makes me tired, Henry. Do you see what I mean?
          Do you see what I’m getting at?
You swallowing matches and suddenly I’m yelling Strike me. Strike anywhere.
I swear, I end up feeling empty, like you’ve taken something out of me, and I have to search
          my body for the scars, thinking
Did he find that one last tender place to sink his teeth in? I know you want me to say it, Henry,
it’s in the script, you want me to say Lie down on the bed, you’re all I ever wanted
          and worth dying for too
but I think I’d rather keep the bullet this time. It’s mine, you can’t have it, see,
I’m not giving it up. This way you still owe me, and that’s
          as good as anything.
You can’t get out of this one, Henry, you can’t get it out of me, and with this bullet
lodged in my chest, covered with your name, I will turn myself into a gun, because
           it’s all I have,
because I’m hungry and hollow and just want something to call my own. I’ll be your
slaughterhouse, your killing floor, your morgue and final resting, walking around with this
          bullet inside me
‘cause I couldn’t make you love me and I’m tired of pulling your teeth. Don’t you see, it’s like
I’ve swallowed your house keys, and it feels so natural, like the bullet was already there,
          like it’s been waiting inside me the whole time.
Do you want it? Do you want anything I have? Will you throw me to the ground
like you mean it, reach inside and wrestle it out with your bare hands?
          If you love me, Henry, you don’t love me in a way I understand.
Do you know how it ends? Do you feel lucky? Do you want to go home now?
There’s a bottle of whiskey in the trunk of the Chevy and a dead man at our feet
          staring up at us like we’re something interesting.
This is where the evening splits in half, Henry, love or death. Grab an end, pull hard,
and make a wish.


Litany In Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out

Every morning the maple leaves.

                               Every morning another chapter where the hero shifts
            from one foot to the other. Every morning the same big
and little words all spelling out desire, all spelling out
                                             You will be alone always and then you will die.
So maybe I wanted to give you something more than a catalog
         of non-definitive acts,
something other than the desperation.
                   Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to your party.
Dear So-and-So, I’m sorry I came to your party
         and seduced you
and left you bruised and ruined, you poor sad thing.
                                                         You want a better story. Who wouldn’t?
A forest, then. Beautiful trees. And a lady singing.
                  Love on the water, love underwater, love, love and so on.
What a sweet lady. Sing lady, sing! Of course, she wakes the dragon.
            Love always wakes the dragon and suddenly
                                                                                               flames everywhere.
I can tell already you think I’m the dragon,
                that would be so like me, but I’m not. I’m not the dragon.
I’m not the princess either.
                           Who am I? I’m just a writer. I write things down.
I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure,
               I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow
         glass, but that comes later.
                                                            And the part where I push you
flush against the wall and every part of your body rubs against the bricks,
            shut up
I’m getting to it.
                                    For a while I thought I was the dragon.
I guess I can tell you that now. And, for a while, I thought I was
                                                                                                the princess,
cotton candy pink, sitting there in my room, in the tower of the castle,
          young and beautiful and in love and waiting for you with
confidence
            but the princess looks into her mirror and only sees the princess,
while I’m out here, slogging through the mud, breathing fire,
                                                               and getting stabbed to death.
                                    Okay, so I’m the dragon. Big deal.
          You still get to be the hero.
You get magic gloves! A fish that talks! You get eyes like flashlights!
                  What more do you want?
I make you pancakes, I take you hunting, I talk to you as if you’re
            really there.
Are you there, sweetheart? Do you know me? Is this microphone live?
                                                       Let me do it right for once,
             for the record, let me make a thing of cream and stars that becomes,
you know the story, simply heaven.
                   Inside your head you hear a phone ringing
                                                               and when you open your eyes
only a clearing with deer in it. Hello deer.
                               Inside your head the sound of glass,
a car crash sound as the trucks roll over and explode in slow motion.
             Hello darling, sorry about that.
                                                       Sorry about the bony elbows, sorry we
lived here, sorry about the scene at the bottom of the stairwell
                                    and how I ruined everything by saying it out loud.
            Especially that, but I should have known.
You see, I take the parts that I remember and stitch them back together
            to make a creature that will do what I say
or love me back.
                  I’m not really sure why I do it, but in this version you are not
feeding yourself to a bad man
                                                   against a black sky prickled with small lights.
            I take it back.
The wooden halls like caskets. These terms from the lower depths.
                                                I take them back.
Here is the repeated image of the lover destroyed.
                                                                                               Crossed out.
            Clumsy hands in a dark room. Crossed out. There is something
underneath the floorboards.
                   Crossed out. And here is the tabernacle
                                                                                                reconstructed.
Here is the part where everyone was happy all the time and we were all
               forgiven,
even though we didn’t deserve it.
                                                                    Inside your head you hear
a phone ringing, and when you open your eyes you’re washing up
            in a stranger’s bathroom,
standing by the window in a yellow towel, only twenty minutes away
                           from the dirtiest thing you know.
All the rooms of the castle except this one, says someone, and suddenly
                                                                                              darkness,
                                                                                     suddenly only darkness.
In the living room, in the broken yard,
                                  in the back of the car as the lights go by. In the airport
          bathroom’s gurgle and flush, bathed in a pharmacy of
unnatural light,
             my hands looking weird, my face weird, my feet too far away.
And then the airplane, the window seat over the wing with a view
                                                            of the wing and a little foil bag of peanuts.
I arrived in the city and you met me at the station,
          smiling in a way
                    that made me frightened. Down the alley, around the arcade,
          up the stairs of the building
to the little room with the broken faucets, your drawings, all your things,
                                                I looked out the window and said
                                This doesn’t look that much different from home,
            because it didn’t,
but then I noticed the black sky and all those lights.
                                           We walked through the house to the elevated train.
            All these buildings, all that glass and the shiny beautiful
                                                                                             mechanical wind.
We were inside the train car when I started to cry. You were crying too,
            smiling and crying in a way that made me
even more hysterical. You said I could have anything I wanted, but I
                                                                                      just couldn’t say it out loud.
Actually, you said Love, for you,
                                 is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s like a religion. It’s
                                                                                                 terrifying. No one
                                                                                 will ever want to sleep with you.
Okay, if you’re so great, you do it—
                        here’s the pencil, make it work . . .
If the window is on your right, you are in your own bed. If the window
            is over your heart, and it is painted shut, then we are breathing
river water.
            Build me a city and call it Jerusalem. Build me another and call it
                                                                                                                 Jerusalem.
                            We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not
what we sought, so do it over, give me another version,
             a different room, another hallway, the kitchen painted over
and over,
             another bowl of soup.
The entire history of human desire takes about seventy minutes to tell.
             Unfortunately, we don’t have that kind of time.
                                                                                                 Forget the dragon,
leave the gun on the table, this has nothing to do with happiness.
                                        Let’s jump ahead to the moment of epiphany,
             in gold light, as the camera pans to where
the action is,
             lakeside and backlit, and it all falls into frame, close enough to see
                                                the blue rings of my eyes as I say
                                                                                                   something ugly.
I never liked that ending either. More love streaming out the wrong way,
             and I don’t want to be the kind that says the wrong way.
But it doesn’t work, these erasures, this constant refolding of the pleats.
                                                            There were some nice parts, sure,
all lemondrop and mellonball, laughing in silk pajamas
             and the grains of sugar
                              on the toast, love love or whatever, take a number. I’m sorry
                                                                                  it’s such a lousy story.
Dear Forgiveness, you know that recently
                     we have had our difficulties and there are many things
                                                                                                  I want to ask you.
I tried that one time, high school, second lunch, and then again,
             years later, in the chlorinated pool.
                                      I am still talking to you about help. I still do not have
             these luxuries.
I have told you where I’m coming from, so put it together.
                                                            We clutch our bellies and roll on the floor . . .
             When I say this, it should mean laughter,
not poison.
                  I want more applesauce. I want more seats reserved for heroes.
Dear Forgiveness, I saved a plate for you.
                                                  Quit milling around the yard and come inside.


Road Music

1
The eye stretches to the horizon and then must continue up.
Anything past the horizon
is invisible, it can only be imagined. You want to see the future but
you only see the sky. Fluffy clouds.
Look—white fluffy clouds.
Looking back is easy for a while and then looking back gets
murky. There is the road, and there is the story of where the road goes,
and then more road,
the roar of the freeway, the roar of the city sheening across the city.
There should be a place.
At the rest stop, in the restaurant, the overpass, the water’s edge…

2
He was not dead yet, not exactly—
parts of him were dead already, certainly other parts were still only waiting
for something to happen, something grand, but it isn’t
always about me,
he keeps saying, though he’s talking about the only heart he knows—

He could build a city. Has a certain capacity. There’s a niche in his chest
where a heart would fit perfectly
and he thinks if he could just maneuver one into place—
well then, game over.

3
You wonder what he’s thinking when he shivers like that.
What can you tell me, what could you possibly
tell me?
Sure, it’s good to feel things, and if it hurts, we’re doing it
to ourselves, or so the saying goes, but there should be
a different music here. There should be just one safe place
in the world, I mean
this world. People get hurt here. People fall down and stay down and I don’t like
the way the song goes.
You, the moon. You, the road. You, the little flowers
by the side of the road. You keep singing along to that song I hate. Stop singing.


Saying Your Names

Chemical names, bird names, names of fire
and flight and snow, baby names, paint names,
delicate names like bones in the body,
Rumplestiltskin names that are always changing,
names that no one’s ever able to figure out.
Names of spells and names of hexes, names
cursed quietly under the breath, or called out
loudly to fill the yard, calling you inside again,
calling you home. Nicknames and pet names
and baroque French monikers, written in
shorthand, written in longhand, scrawled
illegibly in brown ink on the backs of yellowing
photographs, or embossed on envelopes lined
with gold. Names called out across the water,
names I called you behind your back,
sour and delicious, secret and unrepeatable,
the names of flowers that open only once,
shouted from balconies, shouted from rooftops,
or muffled by pillows, or whispered in sleep,
or caught in the throat like a lump of meat.
I try, I do. I try and try. A happy ending?
Sure enough — Hello darling, welcome home.
I’ll call you darling, hold you tight. We are
not traitors but the lights go out. It’s dark.
Sweetheart, is that you? There are no tears,
no pictures of him squarely. A seaside framed
in glass, and boats, those little boats with
sails aflutter, shining lights upon the water,
lights that splinter when they hit the pier.
His voice on tape, his name on the envelope,
the soft sound of a body falling off a bridge
behind you, the body hardly even makes
a sound. The waters of the dead, a clear road,
every lover in the form of stars, the road
blocked. All night I stretched my arms across
him, rivers of blood, the dark woods, singing
with all my skin and bone Please keep him safe.
Let him lay his head on my chest and we will be
like sailors, swimming in the sound of it, dashed
to pieces.
Makes a cathedral, him pressing against
me, his lips at my neck, and yes, I do believe
his mouth is heaven, his kisses falling over me
like stars. Names of heat and names of light,
names of collision in the dark, on the side of the
bus, in the bark of the tree, in ballpoint pen
on jeans and hands and the backs of matchbooks
that then get lost. Names like pain cries, names
like tombstones, names forgotten and reinvented,
names forbidden or overused. Your name like
a song I sing to myself, your name like a box
where I keep my love, your name like a nest
in the tree of love, your name like a boat in the
sea of love — O now we’re in the sea of love!
Your name like detergent in the washing machine.
Your name like two X’s like punched-in eyes,
like a drunk cartoon passed out in the gutter,
your name with two X’s to mark the spots,
to hold the place, to keep the treasure from
becoming ever lost. I’m saying your name
in the grocery store, I’m saying your name on
the bridge at dawn. Your name like an animal
covered with frost, your name like a music that’s
been transposed, a suit of fur, a coat of mud,
a kick in the pants, a lungful of glass, the sails
in wind and the slap of waves on the hull
of a boat that’s sinking to the sound of mermaids
singing songs of love, and the tug of a simple
profound sadness when it sounds so far away.
Here is a map with a your name for a capital,
here is an arrow to prove a point: we laugh
and it pits the world against us, we laugh,
and we’ve got nothing left to lose, and our hearts
turn red, and the river rises like a barn on fire.
I came to tell you, we’ll swim in the water, we’ll
swim like something sparkling underneath
the waves. Our bodies shivering, and the sound
of our breathing, and the shore so far away.
I’ll use my body like a ladder, climbing
to the thing behind it, saying farewell to flesh,
farewell to everything caught underfoot
and flattened. Names of poisons, names of
handguns, names of places we’ve been
together, names of people we’d be together,
Names of endurance, names of devotion,
street names and place names and all the names
of our dark heaven crackling in their pan.
It’s a bed of straw, darling. It sure as shit is.
If there was one thing I could save from the fire,
he said, the broken arms of the sycamore,
the eucalyptus still trying to climb out of the yard —
your breath on my neck like a music that holds
my hands down, kisses as they burn their way
along my spine — or rain, our bodies wet,
clothes clinging arm to elbow, clothes clinging
nipple to groin — I’ll be right here. I’m waiting.

Say hallelujah, say goodnight, say it over
the canned music and your feet won’t stumble,
his face getting larger, the rest blurring
on every side. And angels, about twelve angels,
angels knocking on your head right now, hello
hello, a flash in the sky, would you like to
meet him there, in Heaven? Imagine a room,
a sudden glow. Here is my hand, my heart,
my throat, my wrist. Here are the illuminated
cities at the center of me, and here is the center
of me, which is a lake, which is a well that we
can drink from, but I can’t go through with it.
I just don’t want to die anymore.

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It’s a Western, Henry, it’s a downright shoot-em-up: four poems by Richard Siken