Poems By Greg Emilio
Greg Emilio is a Southern California native whose poetry and essays have appeared in Miramar, Pleiades, Spillway, and World Literature Today, among others. He’s currently pursuing his PhD in English at Georgia State University in Atlanta. He also fancies himself a decent bartender. Read our interview with Greg Emilio.
A Lesson in Hunger
For Chris Abani
He told us of his imprisonment by candlelight.
Our circle of twelve shadowed faces followed
the arc of his accent as it lilted over words like
coup, torture, Nigerian guards, tough motha-fuckas.
The tin serving tray—a kaleidoscope of stewed meats,
lentils, pureed favas, dollops of berbere and dashes of fire
powders—swiveled into stillness, and the spongy folds
of injera lay like linen under our palms.
He told us of solitary confinement,
the way a rifle barrel tunnels like a well
of water when it’s inches from your eye.
How he spent two starving weeks accepting
the death penalty so the classmates who acted
in his satire could go free. He only paused
to stir or sip his Americano, breath-spaces
like rings widening around a skipped stone.
Sometimes, I can imitate nothing
but the artifacts of communion, render nothing
worth enduring. The finer things in life echoes
like a knife-struck wine glass and I hear jazz.
He told us of the ransomed escape, the fugitive
sojourn to the UK. He published his prison
book of poems, and days later, assassins stabbed
an African neighbor. After his story we tore
at the bread soaked with pepper butter
and filled our mouths with the immediacy of feasting—
our only response to devour the food
he treated us to, to turn our somber faces
toward each other by degrees, each of us sent
like the tray in orbit of a stewed center.
In the afterlife, if there is a just God,
I will repay each meal
I ate without hunger.
Variations of Communion
The tomato plants are skeletal now.
Autumn, and I have given up on them.
A green water pot fills with spider webs
under the avocado tree, while the oblong fruit,
hard as baseballs, weighs down the branches.
* * *
I have seen wild brook trout
writhe out of half-frozen lakes
in the Sierras, their bodies
like slivers of aurora borealis.
I look into their eyes as the blade
filets them open, and their blood
returns from my hands to the water.
A magenta sac of roe often
unfurls from their bellies
in the thinning light,
emptying out posterity.
One night, a brown bear groaned
on the far shore while I fried my fish.
Stars froze upon the lake as the pan hissed,
and the scent of flaking white flesh
lifted into the air like so many moths.
I tried to stay up all night,
fingers curled around the knife,
but this time too, I gave up.
The bear must have eaten.
* * *
I can count my dead family
on just two hands. But I’ve never
cried for them, even beside the open casket,
touching the bluish marble of their hands.
Even now, I want to only remember the smooth,
firm skin of the season’s last tomatoes,
the oil that anointed them,
and the thick flakes of salt
I flecked them with.
Even now, there are too many
bodies to count, and my hands
can only break more bread.
Then the stone fruits came.
Saved us by their iron pits,
their firm water-flesh.
And the barbecue huffed.
Lights squirreled the slender
queen palms like bracelets.
Then the salad saved us.
Don’t laugh. Maytag
blue cheese, nectarines.
Maybe we were falling
from love: fruit overripe,
the branches swooning.
Shop for salvation:
the cross, the blood
of macerated plums.
And the charcoal grill
tattooed chicken skin.
Each word has purpose.
Like young Lou Reed
sex and summer supper.
Like capsaicin passing
from split chilies to hands,
to hips, back to the lips.
All these passing things
minor poets love to praise,
two-stepping in socks.
Some nights, communion
does what Christ cannot.
Let’s fall in love again.
Let us eat, drink, amen.
We clung to the table, to the porch where we’d open our throats to starlight and wander through endless tunnels of wine. It was a simple time, spring through summer. Passersby would gawk on the sidewalk, reigning in their children and the leashes of their Retrievers. Dinner was served after we were a little drunk on dry Rose or homemade cocktails: muddled peaches and bourbon; gin, jalapenos & mint. We worshipped the grill, gave thanks for the way the briquettes moldered—may they always rise to greet the meat!—as we shared our cigarettes, one at a time. We grilled bread, avocadoes, radicchio. Iceberg lettuce, lemons wedges. We grilled the backs of our fingers on the grate. We were separated, but undivided by these nights. Like a foreign friend used to say: the same but different. She hit me in the jaw with a closed fist one night. Painted a portrait of me as a pot bellied pig on another. She kept it by her side of the bed. It was a simple time. We clung to each other, our shared knowledge of fine wines, food, and Bev. No one else in the world knew as much as we did. Once or twice she cried and asked me Why, after all these years? Holier than seraphim, we rode the winds that blew in westerly from the sea. We asked for nothing. A little time, oh Love, a little light, / a little hour for ease before the night. Once I quoted Swineburne and she said, “Love-poetry, yes, but LOVE—you don’t know.” Afternoons, before the long drive to her place, I’d wonder why we persisted, knowing it was over, irrevocable as the cigarette I dropped into her lap, the ruined white blouse. Then again, no one forgets to breathe. Spring through summer, warm nights, palm trees strung golden with white lights and all the time in the world ‘til sunrise when we’d resume our solitary paths. Go back to being halved. We clung to the dinners then to the porch and then, under the bare bulb of the ceiling fan, we’d make love like first lovers, headboard crashing against the wall in waves, waking her roommate. Beautiful, yes. We’d grill everything then eat in the grass then walk to the liquor store. We would. Believe it. Those nights. Even here, as I stare through the present like the smudged window of a hot oven, I want to lie back on the black & white tiled floor, belly distended in satisfaction (lamb, charred baguette), ease expensive Bordeaux down my throat, and chase it with a hunk of her flesh, with smoke.
Nostos + Algos
Though you’re exiled from Athens,
you come again to the Electra Palace Hotel.
A man wearing the mask of your young face
waits with Aphrodite on the balcony, in relief
against the detritus, ruined theater of the Acropolis.
In his hand, a bottle of ouzo smiles
where he broke it upon the banister,
sending limpid teeth to fall five stories.
Aphrodite pretends she doesn’t remember you.
Her tan skin ripples with sweat, her cigarette
ravishes the slack-dead air like a nimbus.
Down below, the city burns riotous.
A pagan populace orgies in the Agora,
reclaiming the keeled pillars as backstops
to rub their shoulders ragged
as the edges of the Aegean.
They offer the burnt cadavers
of politicians to gods whose names
they’ve forgotten, whose eroded faces
watch in awe from the tops of columns.
You remember so much about these two
beacons of ebullient flesh on the balcony.
You’re straddling the doorframe
as they banter about the heat,
pausing to casually lick or palm
the taut plots, their burnished husks.
Remember the jagged bottle: they knew
you’d come back. Aphrodite whispers
to your twin, blows smoke in your direction.
He whispers back. They laugh.
She bends over the banister,
shoulders sunlit over the precipice.
They let you, and you watch.
A minor god bracing the proscenium,
ruined by heat, the ache of memory.
The Apocryphal Callous On My Fingertip
A moth hurls itself into a candle’s flame,
here, on the back porch steps in spring.
The wings catch first, a burst almost
the color of the red glass candelabra.
His body thrashes in a mire of wax.
* * *
In the smoke of childhood, a night
when I burned my forefinger’s tip
on a filigreed candle just like this.
God depended upon a snake
lying under every apple tree.
Eve had filed for divorce.
I bawled at the restaurant,
fist cinched within a water glass,
then into my mother’s blouse
as her cotton carried me
darkly back to our house.
* * *
Half a lifetime later, pacing the porch
like Cain over crushed poppy stalks,
among the blooms of a brother’s blood,
I see why Sufis praise moth, perfect lover:
to self-annihilate for this luminous second.
* * *
Inside, I will remove the shades
from all the bulbs, the housing
from each fixture, try to sleep
with the lights bone-white,
buried by their burning resolve.
Still. I won’t understand love.