Gods at Florence and Byrne

BY John Harvey

My neighbor’s gods scream all night for a sacrifice,
and I have to think the poor guy’s on his last child.
It’s market day so as soon as dull blue tints windows

jade-skinned and gold-skinned gods wrap
their horns in long black scarves, tramp out
my neighbor’s door, and go to market—

looking for cutters, amputees, women with penises,
or just a twelve-year old straight boy from Wisconsin.
No matter the masks and earth-toned pant-suits,

fire spinning above their leathered skulls
gives them away. My own gods demand far less,
but can’t stop crying. They’ve given up eating.

They distrust clouds, vomit all night, count
miscarriages and suicides.
This doesn’t mean they’re harmless.

Beneath my front porch steps, they’ve
built a steel-gray sky, barren earth, a strip-mine
turned upside down, spiked with feathers

and scales, incisors, blackened pieces
of sun and moon. They’ve got someone hooded
and I don’t think I’m supposed to see this

but they have dogs—no eyes, coat hangers
for legs, and bellies open in great wounds.
Someone holds a hammer, asks questions.

I’d like cheerier gods, like my neighbors,
but I don’t attract that sort.


My Own Little Dungeon In Spain

Father’s locked me in the dungeon again. He found me whipping
the bathroom rug with my belt—clasp and hook
snaring wool, burlap. There’s a little window where blue
glows like an old diorama. Father yells the bright sky

falls to me when he dies, so why don’t I stop punishing
sofas, kitchen counters, why don’t I get along
with things of the world? Clouds anchor in soot-covered

branches, but I’m not taking the bait. Here’s a lullaby.
Down by the docks a crowd fishes a little girl
out from a scurry of crabs. She wears a faded, mustardyellow
dress and white blouse grayed by fish kissing,

nibbling her bows, ribbons, pale-white web between
her fingers and toes. She’s beautiful and the crabs
want a little bit, want to take some light back home,

down to their lightless depths. My father whispers Spain
is just the place for me . . . dinner tables set with mouths
stuffing headless children down throats, bat-winged
faces talking the night sky, arms and torsos roped

round bent, broken trees like carved fists of ham.
I yell there’s no coming home from Spain. All drowned
children ride waves, rivers and seas, to wash up

on sun-ravaged shores, and all dream such brilliant blues
that they rise out of mud and silt, float above cities
of skeleton-spires like great birds riding warm currents,
hawking a rabbit as it dashes across a patch-work quilt

of burned–yellow and blood red. My mother curses
there is no Spain. We’ve invented almond groves
and Granada out of leather belts, barred windows, and boxes

of paperbacks where women are tied to trees and raped
long into the night. She leans against the door,
asks why I can’t be the son she loves, why can’t
I become the son who deserves her love.

I crawl a chalk-line, draw a hole, spit pools; prick
my thumb, squeeze out some blood. Nothing.
It must be noon already and no one’s brought

my breakfast. Grandmother’s ghost stands
in the corner and glares, then fades into bruises
I’ve collected on my legs, behind my knees.
She’s not happy. Cancer ate her from the inside out.

When I’m not bottled deep under earth, father drags me
to cemeteries, tells me to say something nice to his dead brother,
but as soon as uncle pops his head out, raises his hand,
really nothing more than bones and a few tattered

scraps of skin, well my father stamps his foot down and cries
he can’t have the dead begging, not in his family.
I hear the sun bounce down the road like a dirty ball

and all I want is for some dog, some mongrel to snare it,
snarl and growl and shake, bite it in two, then leave pieces
in a ditch for some beggar to find, take home, and boil
a weak, dark soup. I’ll stay in my dungeon in Spain

for weeks striking different poses: young king beating a horse
that won’t move; a widow’s hands gnarled and useless; father home
from work, head in his hands, crying.


The Usual Décor

A town goes to pieces.
Dead starlings litter the park,
necks snapped. My mother’s teeth
scrape glass as she watches

light flay open a little boy
trying to stick his hands
down coat pockets, deep
into the earth.

I’m the tourist she doesn’t see,
an invisible hand
turning her back to bed.
My mother curses her life.

She tells me about a shed
behind the house, a buried cat
and I shouldn’t go out there.
Dark violets coil around her wrists.

She can’t move. Her bones
dig through cartilage, muscle
trying to get out. I can’t see you,
she cries. I rub my palm against

her cheek. I’m here, I say.
The son you might have loved
as you become
the mother I can bury.


Listen to poems from our National Poetry Month "30/30" combo issue!

John Harvey is Resident Playwright for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company in Houston, TX. His latest play "Under the Big, Dark Sky" opened in April 2011. In spring of 2012, the Center for Creative Work at The Honors College, University of Houston will premiere his translation of Aristophanes' The Birds. His poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, and XCP and in other journals.