Mudlark Flash No. 91 (2014)

Night at the Cyclorama
by Annie Kim

Dispatcher | Cyclorama | New World (III)


Jonah is more popular than Jesus
on the walls of the chilly catacombs.
Leisurely reclining beneath his vine,
at sea in his little boat. He’s the Man
of Sorrows and our man, too—
no one wants to bear bad news.

For years I listened to 911 calls.
Sorting photos on the conference table—
a bullet tweezed from the lung; an arm
peeking out from the wet blue tarp;
all the mangled cars, starbursts in the glass
where heads hit. My job was to tell
the story and I was good at it.

There was the man trapped in his bedroom
while his house burned around him.
There was the man calling in his own death—
before it, that white wall, before
they found his head blown, his long legs
scissored in the grass behind the bulky generators.
His voice square, rehearsed.
Did you say a gun? she asks the empty air
before the click.

In the story of Jonah and the whale
I think I am the whale. Full of Jonah, kelp,
and all the nameless floating bits
just below the surface of the ocean.


Panel 1

“We report one gunman
26 dead, mostly children”
(Reuters Twitter feed)

To view the cyclorama, you must enter
the silo built for a single painting,
step inside—you step inside the painting—

gawk, swivel,
spin your head, climb up and down
the scaffolding, walk. You piece the story
as you walk. Memory,
that withholding stranger, doesn’t give us much—

half a horse, a bayonet,
dribbles of pink sunset in the corner,
a bare arm dragging through the grass—
so we stretch the canvas. Fill. Crop.

I admit I watched the interview—
she was beautiful. Six years old?
Describing gunfire pops & the screams...
articulate, composed.

Hanging from the ceiling,
a canopy of clean white cloth
to blur the canvas edge.

Paul Philippoteaux, lead artist:
“Where the actual material things begin and where
imitative art commences must be so well done that
the deception must be invisible.”

(New York Times, 1882)

Panel 2

I read the timeline on CNN—
                            Worst School Violence in American History
September 15, 1959: Convict Paul Orgeron explodes a suitcase
of dynamite on a school playground, killing himself, two adults
and three children.

                            An ad for Montblanc—

                            FIND THE PERFECT GIFT


Here’s a young Confederate soldier
nearly our height, thrown from his horse,
looking straight at us. So close

we see the whites of his eyes
rolling back like pinballs, the O
of his lips mid-scream—
Elmer Fudd without his gun, trying to mime
a message like Retreat! Retreat! or
We shall not perish from this earth—
his flabby, painted skin the pink
of a six-year-old’s balloon.

“Grown men wept.”

Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, former
Union artillery chief, 1884:
“I never before had an idea that the eye
could be so deceived by paint and canvas.”

Days after: I notice every door,
cabinet, window. Every post
on Facebook. Do we
have a lockdown procedure?
Someone is playing Barber’s
Adagio for Strings. If you
don’t think it’s time for gun control
you’re dead to me! Someone launches
a 501(c)(3). Then another.

Panel 3

Ruins they piled
before the canvas base—

stones plucked from battered fences;
whole tree limbs, shaved;
a cannon (field-retired); torn broadcloth uniforms
dangling some original brass buttons;
wet Gettysburg soil.

Buckled, ripped,
rolled up like carpet after a stint in Boston,
the painting toured in Newark, Brooklyn,
Baltimore, Washington;
sometimes in fragments, sometimes whole.

Rain. Wind. Two fires.

I click.

Pine trees in the parking lot
quickly looped for Christmas;
single-file on the pavement
long white daisies. At each head
they’ve laid a bright stuffed animal:
bears, dogs, a big yellow duck.

              —Clumsy, categorical,
and like all makeshift memorials
made from things because we are.
And here I am crying
because I want to cry, I am at home here,
doing what my body wants to do—
flapping, shaking, leaking—
                                                I’m the white balloon
bobbing slowly to the ground,
dirty, hungry, beautiful.

Panel 4

Night at the cyclorama.

Then love poured into
the restoration.

Five years’ work
replacing the sky, all fifteen feet
from floor to ceiling.
Then stitching, swabbing,
archivists brushing
faint swords in the cannon smoke.

What’s the point, we might ask, why
stitch this history of violence
so minutely?

I guess I mean the kind of love
that is attention mainly—
the way a cat claws
her mouse until the stuffing bleeds,

free of blame or hope
and therefore
capable of anything.

New World (III)

One man beats the drum. The other builds the fire. Chanting, while the snow continues to fall outside, embroidering the old stone lanterns in the garden. From time to time the monk by the fire dips his hand into a shallow bowl, flicking water on the flames. Clicks the wooden beads nearly buried by his thick orange sleeve. The flames blaze a little higher. Sticks taped in thick white paper—black ink, names of the dead or prayers—now he’s tossing them into the fire. I follow with my eyes. It’s hard to stare without forgetting. There is no center of the flame, only flame, no matter how hard I look. No room but this room. So when he reaches for the lotus blossom lying in a bamboo bowl, I understand that all this time we have been waiting for this gesture. The end. At first the creamy, heavy petals don’t flinch. The heat seems familiar, like the hands of the first boy I ever kissed—secretly, behind the dividing screen. But then they start to curl, folding inwards, easily, the fingers of a person about to drop into a deep, delicious sleep.

Annie Kim lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she works as an assistant dean for public service at the University of Virginia School of Law. Kim's poems appear, or are forthcoming, in Asian American Literary Review, Belle Reve Literary Journal, East Coast Literary Review, Randoseru Review, and Sharp Road.

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