ISSUE FOUR
August 1998

Mark Wunderlich

Mark Wunderlich In addition to Chelsea and The Paris Review, Mark Wunderlich's work has been published in the Yale Review, Poetry, Southwest Review, Agni, Boston Review, Harvard Review, and other journals, and in several recent anthologies. The following poems are part of his manuscript, The Anchorage, which has just been accepted for publication by the University of Massachusetts Press.
This Heat, These Human Forms Read Along with the Author


Two years ago, while crossing the street, a group of boys came toward me. One grabbed me around the neck from behind, another punched me, twice, quickly in the face. I felt embarrassed. A third blow hit me squarely in the eye, and rage climbed on me like an animal. I twisted by the elbow the boy who held me, forced him to the ground, pinned him with my knees before breaking his jaw with my fist. He did not get up. The others helped him up.


The stars shone down, while the moon rose up out of the bay.
 And there was your face, come to me from the dead.


The summer I turned sixteen I rode a school bus two hundred miles to an abandoned medical school on the edge of a small state college. Badger Boys State—mock government. I endured the compulsory sports, the scooping chain-link bunks, patriotic music blaring at lunch time. The state coroner came to show us slides—a cautionary tale—of the worst deaths he'd witnessed—men twisted into the power take-offs of tractors, a whole family overtaken by silo gas and fallen to their deaths while attempting rescue. And then the man who, bereft, locked himself in his bathroom with cases of beer and drank until it took him down so far he'd never cross back.


  I imagine the shapes your feet would make in wet sand
  your hand cold at the back of my neck.


She spent her childhood in a Cuban institution, this psychic. It was hoped that through a strict schedule and medications, the visions she saw twisting through the world could be quelled. Seated in the doorway of a coat closet in a Vietnamese restaurant, the woman looked small, feeble. Above me she saw two hovering spirits, one of an infant, pink, aborted, the other an old man watching from my left shoulder. They were there to help, I was told. She warned me about liquor, a black car, the diseases of the throat, and finally rubbed her hands with oil and set them ablaze, pressed the flames into my upturned palm, extinguishing them there.


  A day will come when I will walk, alone, down a city street, and not think of you, the breathy shops gleaming, hurrying toward some unknown occasion.


During high school my friend moved newly to the area. Her mother had re-married, and this new man beat my friend. A night came when she ran, barefoot and in a nightgown, down a rural highway. A year later she placed a full gas tank in the trunk of her car and on a flat stretch of road, drove into an oncoming truck. Hours went by before she was identified, so severe was the fire.


 No portentous birds today, no letter I could not manage to open.
 Only a sky swept clean of what's been troubling me for weeks.


At the street fair, four men stand on the yellow line dividing the street and crack their blacksnake bull whips. They wear black leather—chaps, chest harnesses, steel toed boots. One wears rings and a chain from enlarged and distended nipples. They circle the whips overhead and crack them as a coachman might, with pleasure and seriousness for their vocation. They are positioned along the line so that the length of each cracking whip barely touches the man on either side.


 There is little of you left inside of me. What remains
 is a knife blade, a tool both sharp and exacting.


The knitting machines are sensitive, so the workers remove their ear plugs to better hear the mechanism unspool, to avoid malfunction. My job is to roll out the bolts of acrylic knit, trace the uniform pattern—arm hole, bodice, sleeve, waistband— and cut the shapes with the spinning cutter's wheel, its finger-guard unscrewed for greater sensitivity and speed. At noon we sit on upturned pails at the loading dock, smoke exactly three cigarettes, speak loudly over the ringing in our ears.


 I remember with gratitude the sight of your hand on the steering wheel
 the weight of the other resting lightly on my knee.


At fourteen, I bought a horse—the most beautiful animal I'd ever seen. Her gaits were so smooth she could be ridden bareback, at trot or gallop and never compromise the rider. Every day I would ride her through the paddock to a neighbor's pasture where the cedars opened onto a creek bed and meadow. I'd knot my hands in her mane and let her run, unhindered, the snaffle in her mouth unchecked.


 Love, please. Don't.
 It is difficult enough without your body in the world.

 

 

Predictions About a Black Car     Read Along with the Author


Four boys have been arrested for killing geese. This is how it happened: The first pinned back the white-pinioned wings. The second stretched the neck, held shut the damaged and rubbery bill. The third bit through feather and esophagus, his mouth filled with its blood. The last boy kept the other geese herded in the corner, watched. I do not know what will become of them, though the town hopes for something extravagant.

By now I know you've heard of my accident—the black car stopped in front of me, my dramatic spin to the ditch. You were there when the psychic warned me about such a car, before she rubbed her hands with alcohol and set her palms ablaze. At the hospital they x-rayed my wrist, its club and piston flaring into the hand's calcium branch, the flesh translucent and ashy, an undersea picture.

I've been reading a book about a storm, folded into thirds, twisting its way north with a tropical fury. In it, the fishing boat, a moveable target, is pitched against the waves until its light is finally doused, hull pulled apart, another story with property at its center.

There was a morning this spring when the sky was washed of any choler. I could hear the ocean from my small yard, breathing in and out. Two gulls cried from their perch near the chimney. You weren't here, and I'm sorry for that; my heart was quiet, in need of no other.

 

 

Mark Wunderlich: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FourThe Cortland Review