PSALM [WASHED IN THE MORNING’S FROST AND ANTIFREEZE, LORD]
Washed in the morning’s frost and antifreeze, Lord,
a valley of gravel and slow leaks,
my old truck a story I keep putting back together
like a game of Operation, only the metaphor
of a motor sometimes makes me pause
and then tremble and hope. There’s a scar
that runs down the middle of my body
like a road that takes a drastic turn
around the navel and then straightens itself,
and in the side mirrors I see myself split
and doubled, a life on either side
of the knife. The wrench freezes in my hand,
the exhaust smokes, I’ve spent the week
looking at vehicles online and driving through lots
with my wife where the automatic lights
turn on like the cars themselves are waking up
in an orphanage of newness.
Yesterday we talked about all the children
without homes, Lord, wondering
about how much love we might have to give
outside of our daughter and Sunday mornings
and diagnoses and time.
A crow caws in the tree outside. What once
terrified me now just seems
like the other side of a blanket, cold
only in the beginning but then
something else. Death, motors, children, love,
scars. The sun hits the frost and it smolders.
Have you always been so pessimistic
about the plan? When the executioner,
with his long finger, pointed and said
One of you, did your own heart
look in on itself and feel, it must be me, then?
Faith, friend, I was standing beside you
in the produce section picking up onions
and putting them down, then looking into
the long list of ingredients on a cereal box
and thinking that’s not it at all, only wanting,
really, to weep on the velvet and adorned
shoulder of Captain Crunch as he held me
in a great wash of blue and gold until I was
nowhere at all, or in the ocean, looking back
at the shore as god flew by the horizon
like a zipper closing some softly-bound book
that began with a shopping basket
and ended with a cashier wearing crosses
for earrings and on her necklace, blessing
our hearts, the piles of things we put down
separated by little plastic bars
moving toward the scanner where they would be
valued and put away. You were right there, too,
looking at a magazine and wishing
to dump the weight of your world
into some vaulted and windowed living room
looking out to another shore from the fireside;
we were nowhere again and poor and the draft
from the doors kept us cold and distant,
but it was dinner and then not today
someone said, and in the evening light
you pulled the milk out of your cart,
some box picturing a wooden spoon
dripping with honey and promise.
PSALM [THE FEBRUARY SUN SHINES INTO MY MUG]
The February sun shines into my mug
and the tea leaves have all sunk
to the bottom, Lord. How to read this?
There’s a note in my phone
about an idea for a one-act play
called “The Man Upstairs.” I write this
now so that it exists in the library of time
and I can be done with it. I’m surrounded
by cookbooks and the unknown,
the aforementioned mug which reads:
My Mom is the Best! There’s an easy joke here
but I’m all sincerity and heart this morning,
trying, Lord, to understand a second chance
at life and the blessing of watching steam
rise through natural light. Selah.
Every morning I go searching for peace
and it’s a struggle to breathe some days
let alone breathe deeply. With each footstep
I repeat in my mind the word: flower.
And somewhere along the journey I fear
I’m crushing everything underfoot,
but remember Twain who said that “forgiveness
is the fragrance that the violet sheds
on the heel that has crushed it,” or at least
that’s how I have it written down.
PHILOSOPHY, LIKE TRAGEDY
Maybe the word sorry was wrong. Broken,
sure. Lost in a field of light
and the dancing shadow of a tree
on the floor, an empty pie dish and the wound
of the washer in the background.
Derrida on the pharmakon: the poison
is the cure. And I don’t want to talk about theory
this morning, but I’m feeling
ripped in two and sorry…no,
sad, maybe, split, sort of, sort of stoned
on the shadows now crawling up the wall
and the whole idea of morning, anyway—
needing something to pull it all back
together, but the Greek does not suffice.
Maybe words are what’s wrong:
quiche and heart and time and think and love,
hallelujah, the light is just putting on a show now,
or it’s the darkness, the difference,
the wind and leaf and sun, the everlasting
drama of the everlasting etc. … I don’t know
how to end this without it becoming
a real bummer. Something something hope.
Something something something better.
PSALM [I SPEND MY EVENINGS, LORD, PLAYING]
I spend my evenings, Lord, playing
the ukulele to a Betta fish my daughter
named Fish. In the interim I live
between port flushes and CT scans
almost like everything is going to be
okay. Or else it will just be. Okay?
Okay. Breathe. I try each day to say amen.
Goldfinches sing in the sunflowers
outside my bedroom window;
men bury cable in the front yard;
the world persists and the fig tree
did not bear fruit this year.
It’s hard not to read too far into things—
the crow gurgling in the tree out back
with some knocking rock
stuck in his throat, or else he was fighting
for some new way to speak.
From the window of my computer screen
it looks like the world is on fire.
And I’m just sitting here waiting
for memos from the Holy Ghost, wondering
if this is a second chance.
Letters from the Field
Lottery. Longshots. Life. Luck. I’ve leaned into the language of odds and oddities over the past year. In May of 2019, my appendix burst. A week after my appendectomy and a newfound appreciation for the muggy Kentucky air, the doc mouthed those words at the follow-up: appendix cancer.
I’d never heard of it, but consider myself somewhat of an expert now, on the other side of a CRS/Hipec surgery, the other side of FOLFOX chemo treatments, the other side of a few CT scans that offer some hope I’ll be here with you a bit longer (I am glad you’re here, by the way).
Cancer, in many ways, is still as abstract as it ever was for me. I found ways to approach it through the lens of poetry, though, the rich etymology of the word “appendix,” the one-in-a-million diagnosis (though it’s growing more common). God, too, was a figure that had been just as abstract for me as well. Both (Cancer and God) were star stuff—twinkling in the moments distantly and far away, other times so bright I felt I could feel them against my whiskers.
While they remain here and there, over the past year I’ve come to know them both, in moments, more intimately. I have cursed them both. I have thanked them both. I have come to see the blessing of breath, breathed into words, blown on to another. I have struggled to speak through Psalm.
These poems have been a conversation—with God, cancer, you, the future, the page that always promises to listen. I realized through all of this what a gift listening is. And the poem, and cancer, and God, and you, grew less material but also less abstract; it was a thing to do—speak some words of hope into the void.
Clay Matthews has published poetry in journals such as the American Poetry Review, Blackbird, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. His books are Superfecta (Ghost Road Press), RUNOFF (BlazeVox), Pretty, Rooster, and Shore (both from Cooper Dillon). His next book, Four-Way Lug Wrench, is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Books. He currently lives in Elizabethtown, KY and teaches at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College.