The Secret Life of Truth
Poems by John Valentine

Father | Ghost | Unknown Soldier

The Angel and The Swastika

Kaddish | What Rises


to Larry Levis

The poem about your father. The one
About living in an infinite
House. The one about his name.
I know it.
Or rather
I’m standing just behind you, watching you move
Towards death. A soul’s length. What else
Can I do? You and he gone.
Mine too.
I can barely move through the tangle of memory.
You’re like a porchlight at the back of the house
Of the lost.
You shimmer, glistening like glass.
Who could carve a better stone? This solemn
This life.

Because you built houses
Out of light
I’m at the door again.
Everything’s open, windows
A kind of pain pouring out,
Love of the wound, beauty
Running red in the blood.
You moved out long ago, moved
But it does me good to sit a while
With you. I can feel
Your shadow. How you loved
Telling that the world
But now the door swings open.
Beyond the gate, the long road.
Shards of fire.

If I see you on the way
Even air will burn.


for Jean-Michel Basquiat

Clutch of a cold city wind. More like
A shadow blowing down
Late at night. Stopping for cigarettes
And brown tar. Not the black kind.
Both covering holes and the rub
Of years. Hiding things.
Everything quicker in the city.
He had to be fast to get by.
The paintings only meant for music, the high
That snapped his head back awhile.
The notes singing through his
The last song, surging.
Nothing but a shiver now. Something
Leaving. Stillness. The sudden sound
Of night.

Unknown Soldier

Laurel Grove Cemetery, Savannah

Can yearning rise in moonlight?
He might have left back then.
His spirit
Rifling straight as a bullet to home.
Soft grass.
The distant farm. Unknown
Now too.
He may have left only in the wind.
Without a whisper.
Only in the air.
But this boy. This one. Right here.
The broken
Bones. He never left. Even without
A name
He never left. Can ground be
Can it hide him, like a lost memory,
Always in the roots, always
On the far side
Of forever?
Can it only do what dirt does?
Can it only forget?
In this garden of the dead, no sound
Awakens him.

The Angel and The Swastika

Laurel Grove Cemetery, Savannah

Sun and rain touch her. And night.
Semiotics of silence.
The beautiful finger touched to
Her lips. Like a lingering secret
Of the dead.
Seven hundred Confederate graves.
Quiet, the only commandment.

I’ve seen the Northern angels too.
Their own duties. Their flocks.
They mourn the war. The widows.
Almost too many to bless.
The days, the moonlit
Prayers in sunlight and shadow.

And now the bright red swastika
On the Angel of Silence.
I do not judge the dead. Not among
Them. Not in the garden of graves.
The rub of years and paint.
But I choose. I walk the rows.
The sacred ground. The quiet whispers
Of their world.


Auschwitz, 1945

Ashes scattered in the smoke.
Absence, a writ of release
From the gods of hell.
Souls like a child’s balloon.
Shabbat, and nothing
But work in the yard.
Nothing came down
From the stars.
A gather of prayers for the cold.
Salt for their souls.
The words were like leaves
Lost in the air,
Torn from the book of the wind.

What Rises

What rises purer
Than a snow-white egret,
Wing beat filled with air
And light?
Gone now to wind,
Pure ether,
Blinding sun.
So like the bright magic
Of death,
The quick scarf that rises
Before our eyes,
The blur,
The sleight of hand
That sends a trembling dove
Far away,
Flying into thin air.

John Valentine teaches philosophy at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. His poems have appeared in various journals, including The Sewanee Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, The Adirondack Review and Rock Salt Plum Review. He has had five chapbooks published with Pudding House and one chapbook with Big Table.

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