The Failure of Medicine

BY Brandon Courtney

He lies alone in a poster bed, a bloody hand in a nest of sheets tied above his heart, two fingers cut clean with a corn knife.  The more he bleeds, the more transparent the angels look, peering through the windows like thieves.


The thunderheads draw enough breath to collapse the dome of the sky, bringing weather to the windows, and my father, undone by a single pill, finally understands the failure of medicine.


If ten stitches could mute the music of his wound: a gust through the filigree of limbs masking hidden hives, white chambray, unfastened by the weight of wind.


If he could only see the sun’s small routines: shaking darkness from the doorways, flaring arrows through the skin of a river, parchment of birch, ink of sunset, touching and being touched.


Let children shake fire from their apples, let the stars realign.
Let the floor of the forest read fallen branches like sentences.


In the morning, he counts the channels of bone in the outstretched wings of a bird, a smear of taupe, fallow, vermillion. He sees only the piping of lead, the stained glass of cathedral windows.


At night, he counts his teeth with his tongue, thirty two thorns for a prayer to snag, like a bat caught midflight in barbed wire. He says nothing, touches the trellis of bones in his throat, praises the well; the way it swallows the fawn, the way the fawn swallows back.


And he sees burial in its simplest forms:  an egg yolk cracked into a knoll of bread flower, his wife slowly palming one cup at a time over the yellow crown.


Where once there was a body, now just a curtain of hail. Both have broken the spines of corn stalks in a field, both will be buried inside of what they have ruined.


Jesus Dreamt Only Once

& He saw his Father’s garden;
stepped into the sea,

smelled the crushed odor of weeds,
knew thirst for the first time,

the compulsion to drink –
and drink of it his fill.

He prayed for mercy and mercy came
in the shape of waves,

crushing Capernaum to sand, floating
the sternum of his body like an empty boat.

& He dreamt the sea kneeling
at the entrance of his mouth,

the swells that unstrung the necklace of breath
from his throat, beating their gospels against the fence of his ribs.

He dreamt of his Father’s coffin.
Just yesterday, men were bathing in it,

spitting, moving through it, swimming,
pressed as close as the bones of a wrist.

& for the first time, He heard his Father’s voice,
swallowed like the blade of an oar,

tongue swollen, black, filling his mouth;
the dark hymns cast like nets.

He dreamt of salt burning in the beaks of birds,
their atrophied jaws paralyzed in an arch of praise,

the sea giving up her dead, the corruptible bodies
there & there & there, swaddled in sailcloth, white flotilla –

then gone, cut reckless from their mooring.
& when the men finally woke Him,

he erased the names of Heaven with his hands:
Canaan, Elysium, Kingdom of Incorruptible Crown,

& for the first time, fruit fell from its branches,
heavy & bitter, scrubbed blank of fingerprints.

He unfolded his palms into a compass of stars
as the pilgrims, lost, marched into the sea.

When all he heard were the compressions of
waves against boat,

He, like the pelican of piety, tore from His breast
enough flesh to feed the young,

& His name was like a stone on their tongues,
pulled from a place where light could never exist.


Ghost Ocean


Brandon Courtney spent four years in the United States Navy. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets 2009, Linebreak, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. When not writing, he obsessively collects records from the early nineties. He will be attending the M.F.A. program at Hollins University in the fall.