So many years since I last wrote. Where have I been? Cooking in back kitchens, cleaning toilets, slipping in blood on the kill floor. The horror of the cow’s voice at the moment of death; carcasses slung on moving hooks, disappearing down so many highways; meat trucks jockeying for position with hideous SUV’s. Where are they all going? Where did they get the money to always be on the road?
I fear that my angel now sides with all those cars and trucks. Huge beast, death angel, she has uncoupled from “candles” and “redemption” and “heaven” and become a cumulonimbus array—dark, churning—over these plains.
Why am I the only one who can see her many shapes? There is no escape. Look: her lightning...
I see blue and green and red the way saints perform miracles. What can I do with that?
The ruby of the ruby-throated hummingbird pierces my heart. What can I do with that?
Have you seen the red geranium sitting on my neighbor’s window ledge? It’s brutal red sword cuts and cuts, revealing the red spider painting red horses in a cave at the back of my brain.
I dwelled within that cave for one thousand years... and when I finally returned to work at the packing plant, ICE had raided, tossed all the “illegals” into white vans.
Plasticuffs and body armor and white vans. The angel looked on, immense, filling the sky, and did nothing. What can I do with that?
An email today, asking me: “Are you him? Are you still alive?” They find me every once in a while, want to know if I am still writing. Oh precious, precious poetry. There are those out there who still believe that poetry can transform the world? The email this morning persisted: “You must still believe because otherwise you would still be writing—to play dodge and weave with poetry means you must still think there is something to escape, to hide from...”
As if my stopping will force the mystery out of hiding? What mystery?
I think the email is from my beautiful angel of death. She will not relent, is always playing.
The angel constantly wants to know why I am running. I look into the faces of the two boys next door who lost their parents in the ICE raid. This is what I’ve been running from, I tell the angel. That—and the cow’s eyes right before the first blow.
Fear drives me. Fear—to crush the spider. Fear—to stamp out the foreign tongue. Fear—to build a wall around the soul. Fear that there is no soul. Fear that everything is useless. Poetry? How will that retrieve their mother, father? (But I also think: my mother was brutal, my father left us early, maybe it’s better this way...)
The angel doesn’t understand my fear. She can see far into the future, the past. Her left hand is ochre—forty thousand years ago she left her print on a cave wall. Her right hand is a steel hook and believes in purity—silver curves and oblivion.
Pilate asked “What is love?” and washed his hands. My hands are filthy with cow’s blood. I can never wash it off. On the radio: “Ten thousand slaughter pigs, ten thousand slaughter hogs...” Meat futures. Barrows and Gilts.
I stand in Mme Hernandez’ back garden, full of sunflowers. She is gone, shipped back to unknown Oaxaca (it used to be that you could say Venice or Arabia or Oaxaca and the word would provide luxury, mystery to the poem—now, the bottom of the sea has been raped. Mystery broken open like a pumpkin tossed out a car window. Are there really islands of plastic where children play cannibal games in the middle of the Pacific?) Mme H. reminded me of the fabled good mother, Mother Mary, a heart and mind close to the stones. But I did not really know her.
My own mother, well... when I think of my mother I think of my failure. I never made any money. I tried, even though I’ve always known that wealth just feeds the illusion that there is ground beneath the feet; that it only feeds the illusion that there is no such thing as death. (How tell the men who come and go from the main offices at the plant, their bloodless bodies feeding off of the workers on the kill floor? Have they ever seen the angel? I want to say to them, “Look at the broken beer bottle in a ditch; study the black feather caught on barbed wire, flapping in the wind; and the cow’s eye, o the cow’s eye... have you ever rolled it around in the palm of your hand?”)
Did Mme H. believe that love was all around us? The angel repeats the word, curious: “Love... love...” She becomes a towering relay station, sending out that strange word. Echoes in the ether: “Love... lufu... libet... lubhyati... lief...”
I had a girlfriend once—D—and she asked me: “Why are you here? Are you doing penance?” The kill floor, the kill floor. I said: “Do you know what it’s like to live in such close proximity to death?” She said: “Martyrs are fools.”
But still, I put half of my paycheck away every week. For a rainy day. Everyone is in love with the future. The future is a bride, waiting with open arms at the end of the church aisle. Look how the groom runs towards her and she recedes! Faster! Run Faster! I am the running man who knows I’ll never catch up and that knowledge fills me with contempt for everyone else running. “Fast! Faster!” The angel is always in front, behind, above, below, goading me on.
Maybe I am the angel, my own angel of death. Have you looked into the eyes of a cow that knows it’s about to die? My girlfriend eventually receded into shadow and spiders began lurking in doorways, whispering occult parables. Then, wind through an abandoned orchard.
Do you know poverty? This filthy country of dollars knows poverty. To have wealth we must have poverty. A mathematical formula, simple in its execution. Everything is rolling toward a wall of ice. I see my reflection coming closer, closer.
There are honey bees in the fields at the edge of this bleak town, with legs of pollen, ecstatic. Do you remember how much I wanted the ecstasy of the bee? I wanted the sound of the hummingbird’s wings murdering the air inside my lungs.
Why am I still whining about the beauty of the bee? The bee sits on the left side of the angel. The captive bolt pistol pressed to the cow’s skull sits on her right.
Did you know that when everything is magic there is no such thing as magic?
Once I filleted chickens in the back kitchen of a restaurant. (This was before the fall, before the angel’s amber colored hand—transparent—pulled me out of myself, told me to run. Run!) That first night after work I dreamed I was in a chicken warehouse, surrounded by chickens, and they rushed me, pecked my eyes out. In the weeks that followed, I was filled with rage, revenge. I gorged myself on chicken. I wore their feathers in my hair. I buried their claws in the yards of my enemies. I offered burnt chickens up to the angel and the angel laughed, told me it would do me no good, that she was the original chicken god, that she knew the secret ingredients, the eleven herbs and spices...
Did I stop ageing? Why? Have I stunted my growth with rage? My mother beat me into submission. My father disappeared. So what? That’s nothing new. It happens to everyone. But I know that if I forgive them, I betray myself. Yellow flowers that have no name sprout from my eyes when I say this. Mirrors fall from the twenty-sixth floor, shatter, and the world is reflected back at itself through the thousand wounds.
Everyone worships Christ in this town. Even I have stopped trying to betray him. No more renouncing his name three times every dawn like a petulant teenager. He was my mother’s “Lord” and so my “anti-Lord.” But I have let all that go. And still, mother haunts my fingers and tongue, my bitter face. I still want to wake up from her house. Please let me wake up. I call on the chicken god and the angel to help me wake up.
Laughter... there is only the chicken god, my angel.
I don’t know whether I can return to work. All those families gone. Across half the neighborhood the doors swing open, abandoned. Young thieves slip in and out of the empty houses, fingering other people’s lives. Last night, I stood in the middle of the street and said: “Do you know love?” For once, the angel was silent. Her mouth finally too immense and beautiful to form words.
(Why do I still write of angels? Why not sailors? Why not bearded women? Why not the sunflower with its million black eyes staring? I can still hear the whispers of those monstrous flowers at night— devotees of Kali...)
Who will call out the word Beauty! in their sleep? Maybe the fox I saw at the edge of town last Halloween, at a railroad crossing, snout stuffed into a smashed pumpkin. He looked up as I approached, then dismissed me, went back to his eating. At that moment, I knew that I was sitting inside the pocket of the chicken god, my angel. God of the feeble light, sorrow.
I want love. Loneliness stands at the end of my bed. Rats scurry along the old phone wires outside. I want love, though to say it out loud would be pathetic. An old boyfriend said: “You do not love yourself and that’s your problem.” What did he want? I don’t know. Pistols at dawn? The breath of a lion on his face? Cities inside ribbons of light on a night lake? Ferris wheels?
When he asked me what I wanted, I should have said: “Do you see the headlights, the red taillights, the people swarming like aphids in those cities rippling on the surface of the night lake? It’s a parallel dimension. Don’t you want to know what the angels are like down there? I would trade my angel for theirs in a second.” Instead, I said nothing.
Pilate was right. And yet...
Can I return? Pick up where I left off? Too much has happened. I’ve spent ten years on the kill floor alone, a thousand years inside a cave with a red spider, another decade in a back kitchen accumulating chicken bones... How write the poem of a century-long exile? The long hours, the tower of cries?
I once dreamed of a war as simple as a musical phrase. I now dream of love, simple as a door, a broken window. Why did I never accept the world as it is? I go on. A purgatory of sweat, waiting, privation, yes, and also a purgatory of golden bees transferring a part of their souls to the sunflower—a horror of gold on gold—in the sparse rain. But what can I do with it?
Something... something’s out there... waiting to be discovered, still. I should tell those boys, orphaned now, stripped of love so early, that something is out there... I couldn’t find it... but you... you...
I stand at the side of the road, stick out my thumb. I am the last of my kind. I am the first. Another email this morning: “Why did you assassinate your lover poetry? Why? How can we recover from that? How?”
This is what it’s like to be hunted. There is nowhere to go where I can be left to forget myself. Eyes are everywhere: NSA, CIA, COSTCO, COMCAST, the horrible beggars and detectives who prowl around my old poems, sniffing the stale piss. My god, every sunflower knows what I have abandoned. But I did it so I can live. I just wanted to live.
I looked into Mme H.’s eyes as she was being led away. This is what I saw: a Calliope run by the motion of hummingbird wings; a Toltec mask; a stake driven into the heart of the sun; a beach full of the bleached bones of Babylon’s navy; a sunflower speaking the language of the dead; and a tower of cries, cries as thick as milk, as sewage, as the chum tossed into the sea to lure the angel up, the one angel, the forgotten angel... oh dark one, my dark one...
Funeral barges and thunder cross the night sky. I see the blinking lights of a distant jet, up there so lonely, gently cradling a neutron bomb like an orphaned child.
Christien Gholson is the author of the novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind (Parthian, 2011), and two books of poetry, All the Beautiful Dead (Bitter Oleander Press, 2016; Finalist for the New Mexico Book Award), and On the Side of the Crow (Hanging Loose Press, 2006; re-issued by Parthian in the UK, 2011), a work of loosely linked prose poems. Kill-Floor is a section from a new manuscript called The Black Edge. Two long poems from this manuscript have previously appeared here at Mudlark: The Sixth Sense and The Black Edge. Six poems from All the Beautiful Dead were also published by Mudlark and can be found here. Gholson’s take on Beauty & Terror, the paintings of Leonora Carrington, Rimbaud, The Day of the Dead, and many other subjects can be found on his blog: noise & silence.