3 Poems from Brandon Courtney

from KEEL

The past survives inside my mind:
somehow they are still alive:
all their bodies side-by-side surface,
blister sea to breathe azure.
Above, below, above their eyes
sunk below the gulf, labia sunrise
knives, refracts and yaws,
which warps the tongue-reed
and water-mouthed.
Salt and dulse drapes like hoarfrost
from their ghosts. Crowned
in riptide, labor pain, they dislocate
the strings from harps, become
the absence of song. The sea remains
the sea, no matter how much salt
the lifeless need to spin their haloes.


I see you still as gray and gone:
leech-dark waves, brine,
eons plane the ocean floor,
trundle torso to spoke
and spindle, your ivory unsealed,
glinting, silver as a stethoscope’s
bell. Once pulse, now paradise.
Your body’s just a candlewick’s
length from burial. Tomorrow,
raindrops on jade, cathedral’s
gold and billowing dome will fill
for you its pews and knave
with cavalcades of bows, bridges,
scrolls and strings all trembling
prayer, hymns of praise for heaven
to take the vapor trail below
your scalp, your skull, but leave
ulna, radius, sternum, and sap
under skin for earth to hold
and honeycomb with spoil.
Dug deep, the soil will darken.
Your grave’s plush wadding
will break against the shovel: lake
trilling from an oar. Brume will pale
earth’s green stadium
where we’ll stand surrendered,
raw-eyed and weeping in drizzle,
adding and adding the residual
and uneaten hours we covered
in earth.


Clank and chime the dog-tag
dead! Your voice I hear
descend from the moldered,
heart-sore turning
of anthrax-white clouds,
helming dust and marl,
javelins of rain, swaying
shadows in sand like the tree
from which Judas hanged.
Each morning, I drown
in the sound I wake to:
I’m hearing things: Your body
is long distance silence,
fixed pendulum, inaccurate
sundial. I pace the blown sand;
the starless, basalt harbor;
a waft unties the leaf-thread
that binds swallow to bough
as a sailboat and punt launch
from the pier’s enduring filth:
wind wrests in cloth, oars plunge
in cove where sparks of spray
float like supernova around
the blade. Both prows fallow,
list, and nod into the offing.
A clergy of swells and riffles
break white upon the rocks.
Like a distance, I’ve stared
into the aperture of my mother’s
navel and seen the curves
of an urn, where, once,
something dull as scissors
cut me from breath, and I breathed.
All I want, all I need,
is a bight for me to pillow,
a noose to sleep.


I once believed that things unseen—
A single breath’s geometry; an unformed
yolk inside its shell; unrelenting
winters and the snow that tilts
above my skull, proved that you,
a decibel below the living,
could never intervene.
Without faith to guide me on, I sink.
No act of God raised you,
the men who float at night inside
my head—the sodden dead, radiant
with salt. They gleam. Their whispers
clean the dark from sleep.
I wake once more; seascapes
from dreams stain watermarks
above my bed. Obedient I rise,
with nothing to forget. So, sleet,
beat on plats and lots; Snow,
accumulate, bank or drift, gesso
hillsides, highways, cul-da-sacs; fall,
melt on windshields, the tarmac
where I await the gift of your flag-
draped casket from the fuselage.
Winter, ice the windows shut, hide
the passengers’ stares as I salute you,
the air; white the hemispheres
so nowhere is dim. Let me sleep
as ash and coals disentangle from flues,
wasps abandon gold, umber seeps
from mid-December. Moon, whirr
and glister like a cymbal shuddered
with a drum brush. Silverdust
the axe blade, fat with marrow
firewood. I hardly believe the leaving.

Comfort for the Absent

Ben, against my will,
I’m of a world
where nothing
much has changed:
nightfall’s greatest danger
remains a burning flame.
Rain is the possibility
of snow. Trees are still
the properties of all those
mangled crows.
Me? Disquiet swells
inside of every cell: I drift
above the ceiling of myself
where an image controls
my mind: a stream’s shoreline.
A rattlesnake ribbons
between stones.
The morning, milk-warm.
Water perfumes the air.
The diamondback strikes wind
just because it blows,
which proves that even sky
is animal, that touch
is enough to get you killed.
Ben, that my teeth trenched
concentric circles into
different men should come
as no surprise. That I traced
each annulus with my forked
tongue to find their love, might.

Comfort for the Infinite

Ben, gently carve an hour
from the air—soon enough
I’ll meet you there, parting
with my tongue the air
that swells with strange empires.
Meet me where our love
first gathered, weightless
as a ring of hair spiraling
Jupiter: sugar spun and sheer,
a bandage come undone.
Ben, if everything is perfect,
then nothing is; nothing
ever ends: add another minute
to a clock, pages to a book,
another flood—another ark—
to this mural of worshipers,
another year, another year.
Ben, your loss is something
I can’t measure. The world
spins again, again: a skipping
record stutters: voices fill
an empty room with nothing
we remember. The needle
jumps because our touch is human,
because our touch is rough.
Another year is all I need.
Another year is not enough.


Brandon Courtney is a veteran of the United States Navy (OEF), and the author of The Grief Muscles (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2014) and Rooms for Rent in the Burning City (Spark Wheel Press, 2015), as well as This, Sisyphus (YesYes Books, 2019). He is also the author of the chapbooks Improvised Devices (Thrush Press, 2010) and Inadequate Grave, which won the Eric Hoffer Prize (YesYes Books, 2017) His work appears or is forthcoming in Tin House, Boston Review, Guernica, The Progressive, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing an MA in Criminology.

Photo Graph by Will Master

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