Elise Hempel

Martin Scott

The Stroke

       [Reprinted from Poetry, August 2000]

On a grabbed
notepad we scribbled

messages to your face,
forced your eyes

open, waited for
a nod, a squeeze,

scribbled more,
torn between letting

you sleep, making
you see our words

not sure we'd said
enough through the years,

scrawling, tearing
sheet after sheet.

• •

The Guard
        [Reprinted from Bottomfish, Spring 1998]

At woods' end we hear
the grind and roar. See
toothed shovels forcing
soft green into chunked
brown rubble, three
bulldozers shoving
field into mall.

But this egret still
standing in its pond,
unruffled by the rumbling wheels,
staring into blue air,
locked there
in its thin white uniform.

• •

At the Pediatrician

When I ask about her height,
he points along the graph,
says, She'll be … continuing at this rate …
about … five three and a half

I laugh, because that's exactly
how tall I am, because she's got
my chin and hair already,
a mole on her face where mine's at.

While he shines his penlight, I see
myself inside her, imagine
the graph we share for melancholy,
a fixed, straight line.

• •

T w i n

Today as you talked
miles away on the phone
I heard my own
voice coming back,

remembered our trick
as kids, switching beds,
my giggles Mom and Dad
thought were yours in the dark,

then what Mom said,
that even the doctor
with his stethescope examining her
was fooled

listening forty years ago
to our hearts in the womb,
certain we were one
and an echo.

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• •



Three Views on the Crucifixion

  [Reprinted from Gulf Coast]

Jesus said, “ Woe to the flesh that hangs from a soul.  Woe to the soul that hangs from flesh.”

                        The Gospel of Thomas



Dear Meat: you have a problem we can’t fix.

            You can’t be saved, since you’re not spiritual.

You may as well just suck that crucifix,


Curl like a dog that licks an injured paw

            Over and over, just making everything worse.

Your new disease is what you are: your crawl,


Your tricks, your spells, the quoted Bible verse—

            This day you shall be with me in Paradise—

Are proofs the soul will kill to get a divorce.


Red rib cage burst to mouth, and mouth to vise

            Too clear for teeth, and teeth too sharp for lips,

Lips too cut for anything that’s wise . . .


You sit at the bar while little girls with hips

            Fight over you, or what they think you are.

One is angry, and would love to cash your chips


With a nail in either wrist, a nail to star

            The ankle’s nebula together loud.

I could have called an angel legion here


Or disappeared into the milling crowd,

            Laughing as they crucified my double.

I don’t belong here!  We say this when in doubt,


Or when it’s clear we can’t seduce our trouble.


The demons of mercy came to me, and they

Weren’t wearing much, as if to tempt the flesh

Of blinded soul turned into skinless, moaning

Meat.  I wanted them inside me, like bone

Beneath a wound, bruised and aching to poke

Bloody air.  I wanted them to take

Control and whip me into whatever shape

You need to take the nails right up the wrists.


The demons of mercy licked my skin, my nipples,

I felt as pretty as Jesus on the Cross,

His perfect body, mostly nude, and cut

Like vinegar, not wine.  Oh, Christ is hot

For you, he wants the part you keep inside

Your mouth, the pearl that only tongues of flame

Stiff up to tongue.  And when you speak in foreign

Languages, your lips produce new blood.


And don’t forget the crown of thorns. I want

Mine forged of white titanium and wrapped

Like a bustier around my waist, as tight

As flesh bites down on soul, and won’t let go.

Oh, little girl, the world is coming to an end,

You may as well just let the boys come pull

Your hair, the way I let them suck my side—

The only thing they draw is holy water.


Dear Gas: the orthodox are not so sure

            The soul arises without heavenly flesh.

And anyway, who’d want to be so pure


You’d lack the eyes to see with, skin to touch

            Those sexy angels, and their diaphanous gowns

So clear you can see colors through, like fish


In lacey nets, the ruby pinks and browns

            They like to rub against your spirit back

As if by accident.  Like lascivious nouns,


I know the flesh can take you off the track

            And dump you in some barroom all alone

With country music and a mood so black


You’d blow your brains out if you had a gun.

            That’s why everyone I know won’t arm

Themselves.  Depressed, we’d suck the bullet home


In hopes it hit the burrow of the worm

            That coils around Pleasure.  So crucified,

It would be worth the flat and useful burn,


Meat free of consciousness, free to decide

            If tongue and skin, exploring space, should frisk

Each other, blood and muscle, or retract


            False teeth, that candy-ass spear of a leafy kiss.

  • •



Cemetery by the Deer Blind
           [Reprinted from The Missouri Review]


So this is the cemetery, the sunken graves

And limestone from the nineteenth century.

Mesquite outlines the reach of skeleton,

Dead pioneers, who’ve nothing to do with me


Or you, except this walk through cactus groves

And cattle walls that no one minds anymore.

Huge spider webs, like old relationships,

Were promises through which we blindly tore


Right to the line, the barb and wire, the dead.

Right here, their chests collapsed beneath the dirt

As if the heart and history, too weak,

Could not support the burden, or the work.


Oh, Evelyn, for every change we make,

We make a grave.  The past does not slide on

Like shoulders over twisted wire.  You shrug

The skin off, diamond back, then snap the turn


The way trails take you back where you’d begun.

These ranchers ended up in this mosquito

Grove.  It could be worse; this park surrounds

Their enterprise, the traces of water holes


And wagon wheels, wild birds, and rabbits built

To tear across the jack, the mesquite brush,

Persistent, armadillo-like, and slow.

Oh, Evelyn, for every skin you touch,


You risk the leprosy. I let you cut

The deltoid into target and the sign

Of alligator pigs gone wild, the feral

Byzantine, mosaic without design.


The dead are kicks inside the pricks, the tale

More interesting than ours, unreason in

The formula.  Grasshoppers on the shirt.

Fat spiders over the only trail that seems


To take us out, if out is anywhere.



But we’re the lucky ones, the damaged ones,

The shallow sky, the clay of orange fire,

Deer shit like liver, the play of cactus tongue.


Eye peeling like the mesquite does its bark,

I know we’re in here somewhere, like that turtle,

Getting a little air, but just enough—

A mouthful bites off all the change that matters.

  • •



Richard Mather Aboard the James, 1635

          [Reprinted from The Missouri Review]

Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth.

                                                                                    Romans 9:18

                                                                                    Geneva Bible



Gray water, fortress waves: we feared God’s wrath,

But found the way most smooth, with porpoises

And dolphins sporting ‘round the bowsprit’s haze

Escorting us like angels to the New

Jerusalem, the colonies, the Church

Where sheep are shepherded away from goats

By ministers distinct from wolves.  The flock,

The Church Invisible, are dolphins arcing

Out of the profane, then back into the brine

Of gravity and flesh, the NO to grace

That drags saints to the city beneath the sea.

Jonah’s our curse: we preach to souls we hate.

The sea rises up as if to swallow us,

As if the boat, tossed like a false confession,

Spells driftwood, the lamb that wanders away: my soul . . .


I preach, but I don’t know if I am saved . . .

Some days, the sun burning especially bright

And true, the crew sharpens a small harpoon,

Takes a porpoise that frolics close to the bow.

Once opened upon the deck, the entrails spill,

The liver, lights, the heart and guts, the spirit

Of the thing, for all the world a swine,

As if we were back in sweet muddy Norwich,

The kingdom of the Beast.  The countryside

We stumbled through, here present on the sea—

The Savior gutted out for us, a fish

Filleted and butchered like an English hog.

The stench of the Divine: the carnal mind

Like a squeamish vegetarian.  We eat

The stuff of God, afraid justification


Attacks our sanctity, the gizzard walk

Of prayer and fasting, the frolicking of flesh.

These dolphins live their baptism, they arc

Into the rollers, glowing red and green,

They take their bitter diving like a grace,

A grace that breaks them down for sacrifice,

Then butchery, blood, and the wake of vicious God.

The Kingdom is a song you almost hear

Out of a sea confused with tearing fins

And rudders pointing nowhere.  Salvation pokes

Like fingers slicing up to take a piece

Of what drains through the painful fist: the World,

The Flesh, The Devil.  Heaven’s Ephemeral.

These dolphins prove that grace is subject to

The knife of lust, the history of kitchen.


These fallen angels point the way to Hell,

The Belly of the Beast, the Hogs of Earth,

The Porpoises of Gehenna.  I took a knife

A crewman sharpened on his whetting stone

And I myself opened the chattering chest.

Like a heifer, red and perfect, it suffered God—

At sea!  High priest of the Covenant Renewed,

I felt nothing.  My congregation felt

Nothing but the sharpening of steel on stone,

The fear of promises forgotten, lost.

I’m afraid God’s changing his great Mind again.

And the blade’s held up to Isaac’s chest, and nothing

Arcs into the scene to tell me NO,

God’s razor shaving history right off

The farm while the Kingdom folds and turns away.



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