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Winter 2004, Volume 21.2


Winner of the Dr. Sherwin W. Howard Poetry Award

Joel Long

Photo of Joel Long.

Joel Long's book Winged Insects was published in 1999 by White Pine Press. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Seattle Review, Talking River Review, Prairie Schooner, Mid-American Review, Sonora Review, Poet Lore, Crab Orchard Review, Bellingham Review, among others. His poems have also appeared in the anthologies American Poetry: the Next Generation, Fresh Water, and Essential Love.


The Iguana Knows Your Voice

The Iguana Knows Your Voice
He is roaming in the house plants,
sunning himself among leaves.
With pearls on his jaw and a tail
like a noose wrapped in foil,
he wouldn't seem real if he hadn't
moved his head slow as an orchid blooms.
He was quicker when you brought him out,
when he twisted in your hands.
I imagine how it feels, the curl
of his ribs like a coil in your hand,
the skin like crumpled dollars, warmed
by sunlight. When he writhes like that,
he's a fish caught, swinging his body
in the light, but he's the one with hooks
piercing his feet like the slivers
of a pistol. He shreds the air with them
as you hold him up, a sacrifice, such irony
there, as he catches the skin on your wrist
with one of his gestures, cuts down the center
of a scar. You coo to him, say things to his stone eyes,
set him on the wooden sill, and he scratches
his way into a corner where he feels right enough
to stay still. You read his posture and say
that he's alert to me, that he doesn't like the sound
I made. I am being watched. You watch him,
more quiet here than I've seen you.
You admire the claw marks on your arms,
as though they are lines of poppies,
erupting from within. You say there is nothing to explain
that darkness, nothing to stop it from spilling
onto the surface. You inspect the iguana,
waiting for him to turn his head, to open his mouth.
You say he is getting used to you.


Migration of Monarchs

A bad winter followed by a bad spring could be catastrophic.
—Dr. Karen Oberhauser, monarch ecologist.

It rained wings in Mexico. In Sierra Chinqua,
water turned to bodies, and water froze at night
to stop the breath, and the monarchs fell heavy
as glass from the canopy of trees, and what was above
was on the ground, and the ground was still.
On the dim floor, butterflies, countless as leaves,
like an elementary lesson for "infinite," are gray.
Try to think of a verb for that, gray, not lying,
not resting, just gray, inches thick, Tiffany
wings, mute in black and white. How quiet
it must make the bottom feel. They could subdue
any sound, the caw of any green bird needling
in the dust, the flute of any reed pretending its future
from beneath the layers of debris. Blur of detail,
at first, all this gray covers every fern and stay
of grass. But close in they are clear as reptiles,
their eyes cut with the smallest knives, tufts of fur
this side of air, their abdomens empty
as syringes. We need a serum. We need it soon.
If we could read it, if it weren't so small, if it weren't
in the inward clicking language of insects that speaks
only to wings, we could read the miniature of distance,
inside each ashen monarch, beneath the curled antenna,
behind those hollow tongues, in the dry nerve and nectar.
We'd find the contour map of a continent, a molecular scarf,
which in one grain holds the sign for "here,"
in the next grain the sign for the next place, and here,
the sign for leaving, pristine, wrapped in its own skin
that, if it bursts, bursts and makes that moment
seem new, glittering, capable of flying with colors
of the blood orange, with the outlines blind as death
or script still wet from the scratching pen.



for Neila Seshachari

Giotto knew to place the living with the dead,
Christ, parallel, his mother draped like a shawl
around his head, so close
their halos mend in gold.
Her mouth leans a breath away from his mouth,
the portal to sweet air and voice everyone wished
to keep in clay jars
like mead or oil,
syrup to taste once in a hundred years. A woman,
turned away, supports his head—it does not fall
from Mary, the woman's hands a basin,
the wood carved to delicate thinness, sanded to talc.
We will see these hands.
We will see these hands
but not her face,
though she inhales his halo, fragrance of light,
thick incense.
What weight her hands contain.
How it must feel to hold him up. And Mary Magdalene
lifts the punctured feet, cleaned of blood, perfumed.
She gazes, stricken, at the fact of his body,
not his head but glossy knees,
dead as his jaw.
She feels his skin in her palms—a corridor opens
in her arms, wind of cool fire like flute noise.
Mother Mary almost kisses him, lips clenched,
struggles to keep something herself, her eyes so near
the blank behind his eyes,
unsheltering dark
from which everything human and beyond bows back,
grieves. Angels like comets flare out, sputtering
in Giotto's color for night,
that crumbled blue.
Even they shriek for heaven, wrench their hands,
and cause the whole sky to groan, convulse
in sorrow.
So, he is the only stillness, the only shape
in the frame that does not grieve,
that does not move beneath their sight, does not feel
its own weight, does not feel the chill—
a blessing.

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