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Speaking In Tongues


An icon of cheap, brittle plastic

(the texture of a necco wafer)

was pressed into the wet sand of the road.

The pink back, sun-faded and piebald,

caught under the toe of my boot,

snagging me like the time (breaking

into an abandoned house) I misstepped and shot

a three inch nail through my sole. It emerged

through the top, gleaming wetly, with malevolence,

and I hid it from my parents for a week.

I hid it until my sister eventually noticed the smell.

If Christ was pinned to the cross

with a red-iron spike, it would have

been driven in above the ankles.

Anywhere else and the flesh would tear

like a licorice whip, unraveling

from the bone in slick, bright ropes.

Anyway, this was a different kind of icon.

When I flipped over the arched token,

paper Guanyin stared up at me, throned,

and garlanded, pointing towards her chest,

and I was back in Sacred Heart,

sneaking into the rear of the sanctuary

in the middle of the service, with my dog

and my guilty protestantism, fingering

the bakelite beads of the rosaries that dangled

in the shop, like vines, and wondering

how the fuck, exactly, they were supposed to work.

The church was in the Spanish style

(pink tiles, flat roof, a plain, peach spire)

and a garden filled with the kind of rancorous,

untamable vegetation that does well in the heat.

There was a fountain filled with chlorinated water,

bluer than the Virgin's veil, with a gray statue

of Mary standing in it with her arms spread.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me,

all the days of my life, but I never expected mercy

to show up looking like this. I slipped Guanyin

into my pocket, next to a bead,

a stone, between my keys, and my flesh,

yanked back like a dog on a chain

to something I longed for then, and long for still,

but have never been able to reach.





I'm not going to write about what I saw in the barn.

I don't owe it to anyone. I don't owe it to you.

I'll set the scene, but not the action: the cow pen

(kick bar coated with sour feces and a thin scrim of blood)

the glinting metal; milk vats, rubber hoses, rope.

I'll show you the blue-black oil on the surface

of the water in the trough. Sorghum, fermenting

in the cracks of the floor. And the shadow of a man

cast against the wall, moving ever closer,

through the cold and the dark.

You can have the thin, unignorable hum of the fluorescent lights.

You can have the cries of babies, torn from the teat,

and the feel of their toothed mouths, rubbery lips

clasped round your finger. You can take all that away,

and with my blessing, but the action's mine to keep.

And if you flinch, when the scoop of a shovel

skitters its way down a rough stone wall

you can rejoice in the torn edges of your memories,

wrapped as you are, safe and warm in the armor,

of what you'll never know.



The Horned God


A seventeen year old boy

with a scrawny, pedophile mustache,

spent every morning welding milk-cows

to mechanical mouths, suction leeching

cream from their teats. I hated that boy,

and the chaw he spat in my face —

warm and brown as the shit I scooped

with the flat-edged barn shovel.

He lived at home, at his own home,

he just worked for the orphanage,

and he drove to the barn

in his daddy's battered brown ford.

Often there was an off-season deer

in the bed of it, sharp hooves jiggling

against metal and paint at every

bump in the road — a bullet hole

puckering in at the thick base

of the neck. In late spring, flies

skittered across the rubbery

glaze of the eye. A dark wound

that would never blink or startle again.

I watched him take a hatchet to a skull,

once, jostling plates of bone loose

from the brain, his grip strong

against the base of the antlers

as though he were tearing roses up

by the roots. Sometimes the sound of it

wakes me up in the night, the wet

squelch of roots torn through thick mud.

When I wake up, the bones in my jaw

ache with the memory of the blade

of the shovel, of what all else his hands did.

I see the near-weightless feet of a fat

horsefly indenting the jelly of an eye.

We are where we've been, we are

what we've been through.

There's nothing else to it.

Bethany W Pope has won many literary awards and published several novels and collections of poetry. Nicholas Lezard, writing for The Guardian, described Bethany’s latest book as 'poetry as salvation'.....'This harrowing collection drawn from a youth spent in an orphanage delights in language as a place of private escape.' Bethany currently lives and works in China.

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