Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Kyle Thompson : Distinguished Entry, 2005

Of The Snails

Novena: From A Young Mystic's Handbook (for the 21st Century)

Ghost Ode: For Ramon Gomez de la Serna

Of The Snails


1542 B.C., The Year of the Snail. It was then
they began waking everywhere       like eyes.
From the very beginning they swore the earth

was round, and from slow observatories
studied the bruised breast of the moon. Later
resting on cabbage leaves, they considered

the stars. "Like barnacles attaching themselves
to the hull of night," they said, and with little else
to say, moved on.      That year Zen snails

reached their peak of eloquence, uncovering
tankas beneath pebbles and fallen leaves.
With bellied brushstrokes they spelled the most

delicate poems of grieving, which, of course,
the local peasants dismissed      as scribbles.
It's true: haiku flourished two thousand years

before Basho, and in memory of his dead daughter
Issa wrote, "The world of snails/ Is the world
of snails./ And yet.../ And yet..."


Fast forward: ash-storms, Progress, Industrial
Revolution, quiet eyes clinging to factory windows
and looking in: men and women and children

undone, contorted by looms. In seasons
of labor what say do snails have, their protests too tiny
to be heard? Look: in nowhere republics they crouch

behind the ears of generals sleeping off the stink
of rum, singing lullabies, nursery rhymes only mollusks
know, though mere singing cannot pacify such men.

Mass graves, plagues multiplying their harsh fish and loaves,
the world's fingers drawn into a fist only the smallest
singings can slip from-what joy can it possibly

bring them, the vulnerable ones, that they were
never held in true fear, and were spared?


They who walk painful on grains of salt
and pucker on windshields, believe in them
for they carry the swirl of gospel on their backs.

Maprooms of hurricanes, word of the tidal floor,
tiny shells wandering for years, like knuckles
in search of their fist-and when they find it, and assemble,

who says their knocking won't announce some great door
all men look for and stand before       always?
Yes, and only snails understand hopelessness, only they

are allowed to enter the loneliest rooms, only they
unbutton the shirts of suicides and rest a while
on the right breast listening      to the heart's slurring down,

pulse dimming to nothing, and then      silence.


Listen: even now there are coils glowing, bare bulbs
swinging in the poorly furnished rooms of the dead.
Someone's grandmother is waking there, sitting up

in bed, her hair insatiable and gray and growing.
It wraps around bedposts, doorknobs, threads
the keyhole; it climbs the walls before taking root

in the ceiling. All night hair will be growing, hair
dead as starlight, while the living turn to each other
and exchange      deep living kisses. And where then

do you think the snails will be? Blessing errant blades
of grass? No. Dreaming the boot that will crush them?
No. No.      Passing over the lips of the crucified:

wetting them.


-- Published originally as "Fable Of The Snails" in Agni

Novena: From A Young Mystic's Handbook (for the 21st Century)

                       1. hairshirt

We practice      reverse      transubstantiation
turn blood       into wine, flesh       into bread
so we might eat our fill of one another       freely

and without guilt      We trace our lifelines
like snail tracks      on broad mock-leaves       of eternity
spit       into each other's mouths

sin      against the visible       take one another's names
in vain       In apartments       hotel rooms
in kitchens florescent with midnight

we pamper the little man       made of Always and Is
sit him upright      and pull the string:
listen: the voices of loved ones       alive again

with plagues and virgin births
with corpses changing course       to break bread
with the living


                       4. advanced studies

If you wish to break bread      with the living
sound the depths       of the one true shrug      Live behind
your wife's face      Wear many disguises      be it

husband, best friend       or father
When alone      throw all touch      from your fingertips
like feathers from shook pillows      Walk off the world's edge

with eyes closed      calmly fall      a full thousand years
Breathe deep       for the misers of breath are nothing
Know seeing is a subtle       bed      that must be made sincerely

each morning      Tuck the edges in tight      smooth the wrinkles
otherwise it will be anyone's       to sleep on       (the misers themselves
perhaps       measuring yawns, renting rooms       in your pillow)

To break bread      sift the old noise around you
the one that's always there       off
in some dark corner       the finite delivering

devastating head-butts       to the infinite      cursing loud
and spitting blood       But who, you ask
holds the cup       such blood       spits into


                       10. history lesson

2003 A.D., Anno Domini;
                                   Adam's Dust, Anger-Dunced;
All Deaf, All Dumb, All Desiring.
Awe-Driven, Angel-Drunk,
All-Diminished Ashen Duration.

Agnus Dei, Ascetic Daydream.

Agnostic Dollhouse, Abstract Distance
and Animal Diplomacy.

After Doubt. After Dismemberment.
After Death:

Abundant Disrobing.


                       14. the origin of names

One day there was a name for God      The next day
there were two      And so it went
until there were nations of names      like so many leaves

waiting to fall      from their tree      Such is the history
of the underlife      dusted for fingerprints
our faces like covered mirrors       wrapped

in bedsheets       or old newspapers
sexless reflection      peering out      drinking in
the full floodgates of some       other world

One day       there was a name for God       The next day
there were two       until one morning
you wake and look around you      and wonder

how it is      men and women toil       in the belly
of a miracle, utterly devout       to the hard cycles
their hair       turning white      their teeth

shivering and crawling over themselves       like bees


                       18. consumerism

In the supermarket, wear a suit      of ears
for the oranges       for the trees swaying       within them
Throw open       lush lit windows inside apples      Note

the sunsets treasure-chested       in watermelons       Bartlett pears
musical with hands       hands that flew up from Mexico
to pick them      Hear cattle breathing       in the meat, Wyoming

opening up a slow-motion      ocean of hills      In the cereal aisle
take down a box, any box      hold it close to your ear
and hear       people there       dressed in regulation

gloves and shower caps       time-clocked, sterilized for the line
Minneapolis maybe or      Detroit       hundreds of them
buried alive       in cereal boxes      only to be shaken

months later      and listened to


                       22. daily bread

Know you contain      multitudes      that somewhere
in your ascendant brain      quiet millions sit
chained to tables      sewing machines       skulls

filling bright       with fireflies       Know it is their business
to stitch questions       into the slightest gestures
into metaphors spontaneously combusting       Is the body

a struck match burning slowly      towards the fingers
that hold it       Is all anguish an understudy       to awe
Answer us       How many are out tonight       blowing

sharp squeals on the grass harp      of your name
Feel them lean closer       a million needles      crisscrossing
through you      stinging       stitching for an answer


                       26. the new realism

Monday morning, all of Chicago      riding in the belly
of the inchworm      Dozens around you      radiate sleep
their jobs already strapped       to their faces like feedbags

It has been your habit       for months now       the struggle
to see them      clearly and not      figuratively, those even rows
the backs of their heads      like locked doors

Because there is this need       to wring radiance
from each moment       try hard       to imagine
each cell they are made of       like a wafer

raised before some unseen       tongue
The Damen stop comes, goes       the rails angle downward
and it's then      the subtle changes       take place

the woman at her window seat      changing shape
paralegally       a young man's legs      uncrossing to reveal
a waiter or accountant      some fresh strain

of Anyone, stunned      shaking its head within him


                       29. cross-examination of the angel

"What comes after       there is no 'after'
to speak of?" "A room       stark white, where we will
take off our faces." "And where, then, by your account

will we lay them?" "On luminous      trays, so they
might be pressed       onto the faces of others." "And who
are these others?"   "The unborn."    "You're lying."   "Perhaps."

"And what else have you lied about?"   "That the heads
of so many will be kissed      before they're swept into their dustpan
and forgotten."   "Horrible. And what else?" "That what lives

behind the eyes      wanders freely
everywhere." "But that       is common knowledge." "Fine.
Then this: heaven       is a slug salted with stars, shrinking,

shriveling down       to us, and only us." "But this
is merely       a rewording of the last one." "So be it. Amen."
"No. All men:       all times and places and beasts

and sorrows..."


                       33. equation

Will it sing back into the mouth      that sings you
Will it take off its barbed gloves       touch skin
and discern your face with its fingertips      Has it ever

collected visions from the desert      and repotted them
here on your windowsill      or dug towards
those sad hives beneath the earth      where stones, like eggs

are born whole from the mouths       of the dead
Does it match       its teeth to bitemarks
enlanguage subtle awe       does it breastfeed the griefs

of its enemy      Throwing bricks       lovingly
at that glass ceiling no mind      can ascend through
does it acquire      a taste for shrugging, knowing full well

one can't live      on shrugs alone      Does it raise
real children, does it say      Hold fast; tear out
your old eyes       and with refreshed blindness      behold

everything: the kindling, the fire      O the many ashes
grown cold in their flight


                       35. on memory

Could it be       we are the bees       of the lost
Could it be we carelessly      collect the honey
of loss, and store it      in the great gutted hive

of wholeness      For years you've gathered them
the way a house gathers dust      digesting the real
into bloodless       whisper-hung      abstraction

Strangers, strangers      co-workers       friends
wraithed and reliquaried       a colony of mneumonic
lepers within, whose limbs      rot and split fat

with forgetting, that odd disease       we all
will one day die from, native       to the human
and contagious, communicable       by touch, by

kiss and talk      and listening


                       37. i and thou

Proverb number 89      from the Bright Louisville Sutras
Every right action is a raising      of the dead
every wrong one      a living burial      Burial

exhumation, burial      exhumation      between
god-digging      and graverobbing, Young Fool
you make your dead      and undo them   
    This sentiment

you will later find       reaffirmed in proverb
145, which states       Judging the All in oneself       is like
weighing fire       Better to let burn      what needs burning

Translation: What is a man      but a nursery
of every hard thing he has seen      Translation: memory
is apotropaic, and useful       Whenever you see loss out

in the world       all past losses wake       up and come
to the window      Yet how soon       they grow bored
having seen it all before       and leave you

friendless in the loneliness      of beholding


                       39. sermon under the mount

Blessed are the ones who unpack their tongues
each morning, who separate      the words that fit
from those words      grown too small to fit them

Sad but blessed      are the meth addicts
outside Madisonville, conjugating themselves to smoke
They burrow deep into their brains       but for reasons

Dead tired but blessed       is the woman in the back
of the bus, slumped over, with headphones on       The whole city
fogs with her breath      Blessed are the humble, for they walk

beyond the worst delusion       Blessed are the clumsy
for they shall know grace when they see it
What else? The       knuckle and its knock, and the

door that dreams them       The tender, who shall never
shovel coal       into the mouths of loved ones
The mindful      who manna the world with their listening

Blessed is the day when all names      will be struck blind
by what they signify       May it come soon
Blessed are they      who behold the left hand slapping

what the right hand caresses      A few more: blessed
are the pure of heart       for they shall see God
and blessed are the somewhat pure       for they shall see

themselves taking shape in the mirror      Blessed
is the dung beetle, who rolls       shit into the pure form
according to some old itch inside him       Watch him

he is the most earnest       of creatures


                       45. evening prayer

It has been years now
since your dream of unity
                        into fragmentation, since you beheld
your father's God
sitting on a rooftop hacking off
His right hand, just so He might watch it
grow back again. Yet, be truthful,
hasn't it moved you
ever since--that spent pile of right hands
in the back yard among deck furniture and holly bushes,

each crawling over itself, sniffing blindly
towards the wrist of its maker?


50. young mystic's elegy

the hours

his stones.
And who was it

that cast
the first

that called forth
so much?
His mother,

yes, stoning
him into
this world.


Ghost Ode: For Ramon Gomez de la Serna


Here in the cheap hotel of the right hand,
in a small room in the third knuckle you sit
on an aphid-sized bed, wondering how you made it

here, to a place so strange no amount of language
could touch it. North Louisville, middle of winter, snow
photosynthesizing a brilliance into anything

burdened with eyes. In the next room, one knuckle over,
you hear loud singing, detonations of red wine
into laughter, Neruda and his many selves

throwing a party for yet another day lived, and relinquished.
And in the knuckle beyond that: Vallejo, terminally somber,
curtains drawn, his room darkening into some eternal

Thursday all deaths must bend to. Visitors arrive,
knock, slip folded odes under their doors, but nothing
under yours. Now you're in bed. Now you're bored

beyond sadness, practicing your signature       on the ceiling.


It's official: today      another one      was forgotten.
Every sentence he ever wrote was handed its street clothes
and set free.      He should be relieved

by this, that he's no longer the world's chew toy,
its pet bone found in Madrid, and buried in backyard
Argentina.      Goodbye       to all that...

To mark the occasion he packs his pipe with nonsense
one last time, lights it, draws      a long puff.
Soon the peacocks in the courtyard      will splay wide

their fans, so night might dance      behind them.
What is this life, this body      but a holding cell
between two nowheres? What is any metaphor

but a magnification      and distortion of the hand
that feeds it: a shadow-thing      leaping from hand
to wall       to graze there?


Buenos Aires, then,       is a metaphor engorged
and you are the thing itself.       That's why, come nightfall,
streetlights sizzle      with the masochistic

ambitions      of moths: the metaphor's way
of coughing up the greater confusions      of the man.
You stand at the hotel window, hunt for some sign

of yourself       (Isn't this the very beginning
of creation, the voyeurism      of spying one's images
undressing      and bedding each other, and doing so

from a safe distance      behind the curtains?)       You notice
a boy and girl in the doorway      of the Palace Armand,
her hand in his coat      pocket. This means your      books

must still love you. But wait      both their collars
are turned up, and they shiver      from a cold you don't quite
notice. This you take      as a warning: cirrhosis, cancer,

you don't have long; so that when, at last, they kiss
it's almost too late      for their mouths to meet
and release you.


Tonight someone holds his hand before a lamp
to cast and knead its shadow      on the wall.
Only minutes ago it copied aphorisms in a notebook,

yawned alone by the stapler. Now, to pass the time,
it reaches into the belly      of its shadow, to make you
speak again. It's an image worthy      of your own mind:

The Author As Puppet,       his whole life spent
with a hand inside the world, making it speak; and then
death, and to his great embarrassment      the discovery

that an even subtler hand had been inside him
all along, doling out the eloquence-hand within hand within hand,
each writing his thoughts,

each clawing towards the light      to be free of him.