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Friday, May 1, 2009

GHOST ALPHABET, by Al Maginnes

For an interview with Al, go to How A Poem Happens.

Ghost Alphabet
Authors: Al Maginnes
Genre: Poetry
Series: White Pine Press Poetry Prize (
Volume: 13

Al Maginnes was born in Massachusetts and raised in a number of states, mostly in the southeast. In 1991, he published a chapbook, Outside A Tattoo Booth with Nightshade Press. His first full-length collection, Taking Up Our Daily Tools (St. Andrews College Press, 1997), was nominated for the National Book Award and winner of the Oscar Arnold Young Award for best collection of poetry by a North Carolina poet, and The Light In Our Houses (Pleaides Press, 2000), which was the winner of the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Award. His third full length collection, Film History, appeared in 2005 from Word Tech Editions. In 2007 Pudding House Publications published single long poem, Dry Glass Blues, as a chapbook. His poems have appeared in many journals, including Poetry, Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, and Tar River Poetry and have been reproduced on the websites Poetry Daily and Verse Daily. He is on the faculty of Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh NC, where he teaches a variety of composition literature and creative writing courses and runs a reading series. In 1999, he won an Individual Artist’s Grant from the North Carolina Arts Council. He lives in Raleigh with his wife Jamie and their daughter Isabel.

$16.00 96 pages (Original Trade Paperback) ISBN: 1-893996-21-2 2008

Ghost Alphabet

Enough letters have fallen from
the theater’s marquee to make
the feature’s title unreadable.
The patrons will be little help:
some are walked from a group home
for the handicapped or bused in
from the assisted living facility
or they are teenagers stoned on X.
They are there because tickets are cheap,
because light and sound occupy them,
not because anyone cares about
the story unraveling on the screen.
The white space shining between
the remaining letters is pages unwritten,
titles and plots of films never made.
Monk said the notes not played
matter as much as the ones that are.
So the invented or guessed at titles
write themselves in a ghost alphabet,
words structured over the frame
of whatever letters remain.
The couple on the aisle, sharing
a bag of rubbery popcorn, don’t
remember that they were not married
to one another. Content with dark,
they won’t notice if a reel repeats
or plays out of sequence
as sometimes happens. As long
as there is sound and motion, there is
a story to be made from it.
When letters were too plain a task,
the monks assigned to copy documents
began embellishing their script
with drawings, animals curved
in the shapes of letters, seraphim
blessing the wide margins until
decoration began to overwhelm
the precise geometries of text
just as improvisation might
swallow melody. However imperfect
their showings, the movies always
begin on time, relieving
any audience there is of having
to make stories from the wide blank
that echoes the space between letters
and all that finds itself written there.

Firefly Gospel

Because we have made them the intermediaries
   of the stars and, by extension, the planets,

we endow them with an existence larger
  : than the glimmer of one night

or one season, their summer bloom and flicker
   one constant of our time-fogged span.

We know or believe we know how brief
   a firefly’s span, since they die

so easily once captured, but the fire hovering
   green-gold and planetary

in the emptiness between trees might be
   the same glow that cast its lamps

over a back yard in Alabama forty years ago,
   glow I ran through the dark to capture.

Each morning the bodies were shriveled and smelled
   of dead copper, but the hot, burning dimes

of stars always surfaced and were echoed by
   the weaving ballet of fireflies, more light

than anyone could capture. Now I have learned
   those lights, like human voices, are signals,

go-betweens for bodies tired of being told
   they will die, a beckoning

to the oldest orbit bodies know, but I see them
   exactly as I have always wished to see them,

small, stark missionaries descended
   to deliver night’s gospel of fire.

For Phil Terman

You could have been one of the few present that afternoon
deep in some memory crafted to separate that hour
from the blue fog of every other espresso-tarred hour
you spent deep in the haze uttered from the poisonous
black cigarettes you loved then, huddled above the endless chess battle
you fought all that year with Carlos, the two of you matched too evenly
for either one to claim victory, the matches themselves pretext for
more vigorous jousting over being and existence, over books
and the deadly politics of the day, your endless presence permission
to lean in the seen-it-all-and-so-what slouch of a regular while you gave
less than half an ear to the endless flow of bad folk singers who had begun
to replace the bad trios and quartets that had spent seasons mangling
the jazz you loved. At least the bad renditions of “Wild Mountain Thyme”
and “Tom Dula” didn’t make you swear to catch the train to Chicago next time
Miles or Dizzy was appearing there. The power hindsight offers could
let you claim that you roused yourself from the mechanics of pawn-to-queen-four
the moment the boy blew an asthmatic wheeze on his harmonica and bumped
into “Gypsy Davey” or “Man of Constant Sorrow” in a barbed-wire gargle
too old for his soft face. By now you’ve told the story
so often you can’t recall if it’s invention or memory that something, a quick stroke
on the guitar, the voice bending to meet a chord, lifted your head a moment
to see who was singing because you’d heard something old, dark, some mystery
you’d thought confined to the dust-smoothed grooves of 78’s you bought
in pawn shops for pennies, like the Skip James record your ex-wife asked you
not to play when she was around, mystery still locked in the long sentences you read
and in rooms more shadow than wall, more the notion of a coffeehouse
than a coffeehouse, that mystery the single thing in your life you did not have
to share, perhaps could not share, a pleasure that did not become dust, powder,
something spit ruefully from a mouth no longer willing to taste, the way wine, coffee, cigarettes,
even flesh can sour. If you could recall which tune he played, it might
all return in the odor of the candle guttering on the table next to yours, in the drawl
of the waitress telling the man behind the counter of the endless troubles she had
with her lover, her prairie-flat accent, the bend of a brow across the room
as someone frowned over the cigarette he was lighting, the pattern of whorl and scar
in the wood of the table where you sat, pattern endless and embellished as memory,
all might return in the recollection of that song though it would vanish within
the changing of a chord, the noise of someone’s cough, in whatever happened to remind you.
it was late afternoon, when sun made its unwelcome entrance into the room,
flattening all it touched and you were a student in philosophy, sucking the marrow
from the bones of the G.I. Bill, your wife gone to get a quick divorce on her way
to becoming a dancer or marrying a lawyer, and page nineteen of your thesis had been
rolled in the carriage of your Underwood for two weeks, frozen in the time
you came here to find, time to read the armloads of books you bought during two years
of working turns in the steel mill, closer to an earthly vision of hell than
fourteen months in Korea or three months healing in a stateside hospital,
rooms of fever and infected flesh. The short hours of class, the sprawled-out
afternoons and evenings of talk, of large ideas you knew would land you somewhere
so far had only led here, to this slow-warming afternoon, the choreography of chess,
and now the kid was offstage and Carlos was picking up his bishop like he meant
to do real damage this time. You could claim to have seen all along
that the kid had it, but you weren’t there for his next performance or the next.
You were in your tiny apartment with your books and records, swimming
in the slow-moving waves of your thesis, the troubled accumulation of each paragraph
letting you trust language a little less, so when you found yourself at a party
a few weeks later, dazed from typing all day, trying to put into words
all that has for centuries resisted being said, a little wine stunned you, and you dropped
into a chair near a circle of singers playing pass-the-guitar, and the kid
you’d heard at the coffeehouse was there, cocky, out of place, and when you stood
to get more wine, someone told you his name was Bob Dylan,
and he’d been a rock and roll piano player or a rodeo clown before ending up here,
and watching him, you knew how, a few years later, the Nashville pickers would
left their eyebrows when he arrived, these players who could lay down
two-and-a-half of the smoothest minutes that ever rolled out of a car radio
and who could do it every week, hired now by this mumbling Yankee hippie
who arrived without charts or finished songs, just a Canadian guitar player
to flash them the chords before a take. You could have been there,
but of course you were not. You were two when Bob Dylan got onstage in Dinkytown,
nine when he recorded in Nashville, and by the time you got to the party,
he’d vanished, his sly exit still on everyone’s lips, and you were watching the stage
when he came back in the side door, still possessed of the conjurer’s trick
of making your eyes move over here, then back here in time to show you
exactly what he wanted you to see, hiding, then half-showing the newly-remembered mystery,
the swamps and foggy hollows that were his to summon because the greatest mystery,
the subject of all songs, is not what we don’t remember but what we do,
and in this life you imagine for yourself, the kid is leaving the stage,
and Carlos took the bishop, and your defense is crumbling, the entire game changed by a single move.

What Maps Will Not Show

In a strange town, maps become liars.
Landmarks get left out or lie more distant
than illustrations show. Roads sprout
and bend off the memorized route
and by the time you arrive, the courthouse
is dark and locked for the night.
A woman I know gives directions
in terms of what used to be there—Turn
right on the road where Jones had the store
that burned down—assuming no distance
between her history and our own,
the way those who survive an event
are bound by it and a bit incredulous
the same mold has not shaped us all.
The lawyer stacking papers, the bailiff
locking each door he walks through,
the judge, his robe removed, pouring
the single drink he permits himself,
all remember the man awaiting sentencing
who seized an officer’s gun and swung
the barrel in a wide arc before pushing it
under his chin and pulling the trigger.
Seventeen years since then, and they never
speak of it, but if their eyes meet
in court or they pass in the hall,
they nod the casual greeting of those
who have known each other too long
for rank or ceremony. Last week,
the judge saw a man who had paid
to have the image of each internal organ
tattooed across his torso—heart, lungs,
liver. A car accident shattered him
and he lost a lung, a kidney, several yards
of intestine. His chest, road-mapped
by a maze of stitches, healed
into a scarred map of what was there
no longer. His crime was entering
the homes of women he thought he loved
and stealing small, unnecessary items.
When his sentence was given, he said nothing,
only limped from court. A woman
whose coffeepot he’d stolen studied
his movements, his silence, hoping
for some map to explain his actions.
If she sat in the judge’s chamber
to share his single shot of bourbon
or if the judge had come with her for coffee
she paid for and could not drink,
they would agree the sentence meant nothing.
It did not touch him, so it would not touch them.
The judge wouldn’t tell her
that sometimes law and justice seem like towns
miles distant and sparsely populated,
invisible on most maps. That morning
he had hung up on a reporter who wanted
to write another story about the suicide
in the courtroom. The single time
she spoke to the man, he showed her
the inked outlines of his insides and smiled
with pride so bashful, she could not keep
her fingers from touching the broken skin
to feel what fluttered underneath, the muscle
of a heart working and untouched.

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