Illuminations / Poems
by John Valentine

Praying Hands / Dervishes
The Hands of Ché Guevara
Knots / Palimpsest / Ahab
Shelley Dying / Crazy Horse
Diagnosis / Toulouse-Lautrec

Praying Hands

They were waiting for Dürer,
Beckoning, it seems, 
For a careful caress to make
The ink glisten
On finger tips, the holy
Reach out
From shadows. An Apostle’s
Hands. Meant 
For another world. Penance
Perhaps, or sheer adoration,
Giving thanks for luminescence.
A steady hand was all they needed 
To make their way from darkness
To light. To prayer.
To the silent sheen of faith.


If I were a Sufi I would be one of the spinning kind. 
                                          — Mary Oliver

Can a prayer be whirled to the sky?
Danced on the bright

Petticoats of spirit? It’s Spring again
And the spinning

Dandelions take to the air, leaving

Behind. Soaring, almost like

They rise so fast. So high. 
Could heaven

Be a brighter blue? Lost in the blur,
Can we ever,

Ever see the seraphim, their eyes ablaze,

Diaphanous glitter on the wind?

The Hands of Ché Guevara

Are severed and pale under glass,
His enemies having made
A final statement
About classless societies.
A museum of symbols.
Pictures of gallows,
Corpses swinging days from a gate.
But hands are a mystery
Until an old story comes back—
How Booth lay dying by a barn,
Spent like a cause.
How he asked the Federals
To raise his arms
And found an actor’s hands
Given whole to their fate.
His fingers were mangled and broken,
Hanging limply in the wind.
How he shook his head—
“Useless, useless” was all he said.


— for my father 
Fifty years and strings still attached. 
It’s like looking through a window 
At a boy getting lessons about knots.
That elegant method of showing 
The best way to weave things together.
A father’s infallible hands. Other lessons too. 
Learning the ropes.

A death-knot and he’s gone. So is the boy.
But older, you learned to tangle and untangle.
How to keep everything steady and work out
The hitches. Your grip’s in the hold of autumn 
Now, rust moving round the skin. Your hands 
Shake, unraveled by wear. But ties still bind.
Old threads holding. The warp and weft of years. 


Remainders, some old images, 
Etchings in memory’s

Wax. Something back there,

In the midst of fog, erasure. 
Everything scattered

In the dark. We were there once.
The semaphore of eyes,

The soft satin of your touch. But
Memories are tracings 

In mist. Sometimes a reminder.
Your faint smile,

Like the moon’s clouded coin. Ghostly.
Never quite gone, 

Never there. 


And round perdition’s flames . . . 

Ivory-tipped and bound
By midnight mist,

By spirit-spout and moonlit

The sea gives. A heart of the

Unfathomed. What lives
Purer than 

Revenge?  What cuts cleaner?
A reason

To burn. But hatred pays 
A bounty

Of the bone. Somewhere, lost
In the 

Maelstrom, he drifts, washed
By wind, by rain,

By seething. The sea swells,
At last 

Taking everything away.

Shelley Dying

Thrashing in that storm’s sudden
Of roiling wind and ink-black
Everything scattered and torn.
Poets cannot be
By lines of beauty. 
But o how they wept,
As his ashes spoke to the
And Mary kept him closer than love,
His heart at hand
Still beating in hers until 
Dark clouds and the sea 
Shadowing her at last. 

Crazy Horse

— 1876 

Imagine how he came howling
Like the wind in a sudden storm,

Sweeping through the air like a dust devil 
Or the lightning bolt of perdition.

How frightening the roar of righteousness,
The stunning pillar of fire.

What were soldiers to do? Who could
Argue with the whirlwind? Keep the

Curl of lies from straightening into truth?
The ground rumbled.

Spirits swirled and gathered into judgment. 
He lit his life and burned

As the smoke spread its skein, and the sun,
High and wild,
Glared its angry eye.


This will change your world. A sentence delivered
Like a promise overdue. Spoken flat, almost casually
In the chaos of clarity. You sensed it coming.
The voice of cells, that voice, the secret self.
Greeks call it agon. Noble opposition, struggle.
The measure of a life. No virtue in the weakest 
Opponent. And so, like Daniel, like Jacob, against
Beast or angel, you felt bones and blood stirring.
Something risen. Senses on fire, you were never
So eager, so ready to wrestle with darkness. 
The fuse lit. The burn. Breath stoking embers. 
The face of a man, finally there, finally free. 


I open a vial of gunfire. 
                   — Lynn Emanuel

You were the poster boy
For machine gun red and smoky
Nights and the snub-nosed bark
Of drop-dead blue eyes. The bright
Blur of light was wild as tracer
Rounds you lit like Roman candles.
Concierge of the carnival. Raconteur
Of flash and pop, scattergun swirler
Of pastels, the bang and bluster
Of flesh-tone fury. Big guns then.
Kaleidoscopic blast of greens and
Pinks and lacquered yellow. Explosions,
Wild staccato clattering palette, ricochet
Of sparks. Pistol-crack upon the walls,
Now that smoke has cleared and all
The lights are out.

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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