by Jeanne Wagner

Tinnitus | Pilgrimage | My Parachute | Ghosts


A distant buzz is telling my brain to turn off the gas, 
take the kettle off the stove,
stop the tuning fork of time from vibrating 
inside my head.
The tiny hairs in my cochlea, scraped flat as memory,
are lying down in their aural maze 
like the minotaur, 
the echoes driving him slowly mad, yet soothing him too
with their labyrinthine sounds.
It’s what Karl Jansky heard in 1932 when searching 
for what caused the static in radio waves,
then discovering it’s the sound of our own galaxy, 
electrons rushing outward
from the center of the Milky Way.
Once I was asked, as a pick-up line, if I knew the macrocosm 
was running down—and I did. 
I knew stars were red shifting to the outer edges of space. 
But then what?		           	
You can hear it now online, the faint hissing 
of the sidereal sky,				
a soft roar like a seashell cupped over God’s ear.		        				

It’s the manic hum we hear in the spring
when the bees swarm out of their hive.
Sometimes I think of the minotaur.
Maybe he’s still there, unslain, at the center of our galactic spiral, 
waiting to be saved,
the way I kept waiting in school to be “saved by the bell,”
as the Sisters of Mercy used to say,
those years when I sat by the window waiting 
for my life to begin,
hearing the Doppler shift of cars speeding past the school,
the last dry leaves rasping their palms 
against the bark.
“You’re not listening,” the nuns would say,
but I am, I’m listening now, 
stars like bees swarming the sky.


“Don’t you hate the long drive to see him?” my friend asks, 
and I say No, because I’m turning myself into motion, 
invoking the space-time continuum, 
unlike my poor father, sitting 
rigid in his chair.
I tell her I love the sight of gray tarmac 
raveling beneath my wheels, 
wipers, like hands, waving the weather away.
The way houses behind their sound barriers
look lonely in the rain.
It’s the sort of ride where I relish my speed, 
my radio, the warmth of the heater
gushing across my lap.	
I’ll be clutching the wheel like a lifeline, 
ticking off the landmarks,
waiting for the place where the hill rises up
then flattens as I approach.  
“It’s an optical illusion,” my father would say
every time we drove over the pass.
He never said whether the hill was the illusion, 
or the leveling out, 
as we climbed the crest on those long 
rides back to the city, 
when I was a child, and he was the driver 
of everything. 		

My Parachute

From infancy on, we are all spies.
            — John Updike
I always go to bed with a parachute packed close to my spine.
No one comments on its awkward bulge, 
least of all lovers 

who stroke its mound with the quiet devotion of fathers-to-be.
Before I go to bed, 
I watch old war movies where spies line up 

in the belly of a plane, 
its open door daring them to leap into the void 
feet first, 

the way bridge jumpers do.
You can see the flare of their chutes as they bloom into 
evening sky, 

that jounce when the freefall ends, like those spasms 
that jolt us out of our dreams.
Landing makes me think bones, memory the impact 
when the earth rises up
to meet the frightened calves, the buckled knees.			
Once on the ground, jumpers rush to smother 				

their chute’s buoyancy, 
beat the bulk from its stubborn flounces of air,				
because every downed parachute is prey: 

a dropped kimono of moon, 
pale chanterelle, snowshoe hare on dark summer loam.				
That’s why spies need to fill-out false identity forms, 

imagine a bare attic to hide in, 			
interrogations they’ll barely survive. 
Scar like a bookmark.	
How many times have I awakened to find myself 
dropped behind enemy lines,					
reborn as interloper, trespasser, spy?	
But I know the daily drill now, slip into my camouflage suit, 
avoid the main road, 								
keeping to the shadows, like any refugee of the night.


for Jim 
We search for their trace elements everywhere: 
in the blur of a lens, 
the white sediment of bottles left too long unstoppered,  
in the plainsong of wind soughing over the empty schoolyard
where hopscotch men lay down like asphalt runes  
drawn by a child. 

Step on a crack, break my mother’s back we sang.
Back then we knew that ghosts shared our beds, 
wept over stubble fields, 

over the milky remnants of clouds.
We spotted them in the shoe store fluoroscopes.
No one told us it was light that leaked

and could be deadly.
We gazed down at the little candelabra of our toes, 
luminous as lit wax,

the black spaces between our bones, opaque 			
as night in fairy tales.
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick.

Remember those family albums before Kodachrome,
the overexposed snapshots of us standing 				
on the back lawn?						

The white sheets, the white lies, the white lines 
we inhaled to forget.
And the day we finally saw the X-rays
you wouldn’t talk about, 			
two small ghosts fledging inside your lungs. 
Fly away Jack, fly away Jill.

Jeanne Wagner is the author of four chapbooks and three full-length collections: The Zen Piano Mover, winner of the NFSPS Poetry Prize, In the Body of Our Lives, Sixteen Rivers Press, and Everything Turns Into Something Else, published in 2020 as runner-up for the Grayson Books Prize. Her work has appeared in Alaska Review, Cincinnati Review, North American Review, Florida Review, and The Southern Review. 

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