Five Poems, by Jeff Whitney

“in this dream / no child was ever killed by a government / bullet”

Five Poems, by Jeff Whitney


That Halloween he lead the small parade
of child ghouls and bloody doctors making
wild demands, waking up in beds he was
meant to leave. It was like he was in love
with his own misfortune: he’d take it out
to a dead man’s dream of a castle, fly it
like a kite from the ramparts and shoot
the sky hoping for angels. Thinking it was all
he could do, calling it living.

The Train Wars

The beginning of the dream always ends
the same storied way: her husband goes
to die in a war her son will come home from
with a great wound in his head, only nothing
ever touched him, and bodies keep getting up
from the ground to ask him why and where
have you gone
? And for her the street is too
clean, the fox approaches too easily, the old train
is growing dignified in its rust. She of course
is you, and you didn’t know you could dream
her, but you did, so taught yourself fear.
Which keeps us old, which brings the birds
down, saying you, you, under Kansas
clouds walking on legs of lightning; and in this dream
no child was ever killed by a government
bullet, by hands too strong to know what
they could do. No citizen is crushed
on pavement and even pavement grew, often, into something
softer — air, most likely, but then there was a tax on that.
The ground was always frozen or on fire or just
about to be, and we lit ourselves on fire, to be
close, maybe, to heat, that first maker, that first
star. Or maybe there was nothing to do after
the bowling alley closed, and the cops skulked
in unmarked sedans, and our parents dozed
heavy under different stars. Maybe that was
our chance to be a little dangerous and get away
with it, before the world began telling us how
many ways it goes wrong, before the quarterback
sitting in his busted letterman caressing a butterfly
knife, afflicted with the mañana syndrome: tomorrow
I will, tomorrow…And who’s to say what matters
when the only moment that matters
is this one, when, just now, another heart
is being plucked from a stopped chest
to pump another back to life. Don’t we
make our own miracles? Apples in a basket
and cheese laid out onto pieces of bread. Centuries of hurt
in a single language. Whole nights rotted
with light. Like nothing changes in the world but the day,
slaughter to slaughter, until the end of time.


Not snow, but dust on the horns
of cows in cages next to cages, the man
who spits the day’s breakfast with black saliva,
who brings his bullets of air in a can, who
you want to hate. But he woke this morning
in the bramble of a person who loves him,
in a house full of children. And whatever he kills
he says a prayer for. Thunder makes him stop,
the lightning if only he could catch it. The well
where his first born fell. All his life has been here,
the details never change. Coyotes laughing
under floorboards, owls catching bats from the air.
Nights broken by light. Day crumpled into stars.

Instructions for How to Walk Through Walls

Jeff Whitney is the author of The Tree With Lights in it, available from Thrush Press; Radio Silence (Black Lawrence Press) and Smoke Tones (Phantom Books) were co-written with friend and poet Philip Schaefer. His poems can be found in journals such as Adroit, Beloit Poetry Journal, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Narrative, Poetry Northwest, and Verse Daily. He lives in Portland, where he teaches English.

About the Author

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