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Oct 2018 · 763
Whippoorwill Ekphrastic
Jonathan Witte Oct 2018
(after Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening)

The light is everything;
it makes a godly sound

spilling through
the locust grove,

washing over
uncut grass,

negating
shadows,

baptizing husband
and wife in oblivion.

Melancholy blinks
like the black eye
of a whippoorwill.

Who catches the
notes of its song?

Only the dog.

Dusk, patient
as a chrysalis.

They can’t hear
the transmutation
yet, but they will.
Here's a link to the painting, in case you want to check it out: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/cape-cod-evening/ewFLmeFJKhHIWg?hl=en
Oct 2018 · 2.3k
Solo Voyage
Jonathan Witte Oct 2018
Evening docks
like a desolate ship,
indigo and monolithic,

its umbral sails
swelling above
the distant hips of
a titanic continent.

Sleep tastes like a mossy anchor;
it lurches, shifts, and slips into gear—
the sound of stars grinding on stars.

I sail across an ocean of teeth.

I acquiesce. I drown

in the velvet
whirlpool of
your absence.
Oct 2018 · 590
Origami
Jonathan Witte Oct 2018
What am I supposed to tell
the children when they bring
their deformed beasts to me?

I teach them the word menagerie as
they clear the project table and sweep
up cuttings from the kitchen floor.

We gather without you for another
slow parade of meticulously made
animals, and I’m embarrassed to
mistake their swans for butterflies.

The sky aligns edge to edge,
a yellow sheet of cellophane,
the afternoon cut and creased
and folded like fractal creature:
a crane inside
a crane inside
a crane.
Sep 2018 · 4.7k
Escape Artist Sketches
Jonathan Witte Sep 2018
I
I stole my brother’s car and drove to Phoenix in the dark. Bluegreen glow of dashboard gauges, the faint scent of roadkill and desert marigolds. Tap. Tap. Tap. Insects slapping the windshield like rain. How many miles does it take to turn yourself around, to rise up from ashes? Keep driving. Drive until the sun blooms.

II
Some days were more dire than others. CCTV footage confirms I pawned a shotgun, a Gibson guitar, and my wife’s engagement ring at the pawnshop next to Fatty’s Tattoo parlor. The typographically accurate Declaration of Independence inscribed on my back also confirms this.

III
I ran the tilt-a-whirl at the Ashtabula county fair, fattening up on fried Oreos and elephant ears, flirting behind tent ***** with the cute contortionist with strawberry-blonde hair.

IV
I derailed in a dive bar.

V
I disappeared in a city lit by lavender streetlights, where buildings blotted out the stars and the traffic signals kept perfect time.
I picked through trash bins. I paid for love with drugstore wine.

VI
I closed my eyes on a mountain road. The sheriff extracted me from a ****** snowbank.

VII
I holed up for weeks in an oceanfront motel, dazed by the roar of the breakers. Each morning I drew back the curtains and lost myself in the crisscrossing patterns of whitecaps, the synchronous flight of sanderlings above the dunes. I dreamed of dead horseshoe ***** rolling in with the tide.

VIII
The moon over my shoulder tightened into focus like a prison spotlight. One night the barking dogs undid me. Goodnight, children. Goodbye, my love. I capitulated to the candor of a naked mattress. I grew my beard, an insomniac in a jail cell clinging to bars the color of a morning dove.

IV
I coveted the house keys of strangers.

X
I opened and closed many doors. I sang into the stoic mouths of storm drains. I stepped out of many rooms only to find myself in the room I just left. Despite all my leaving, I remained.
Jan 2018 · 1.9k
Permafrost
Jonathan Witte Jan 2018
I should have known
the time would come.

The kitchen window frames
a broken braid of winter birds—
feathered flecks above the trees,
flat against an anvil of sky.

We have until morning
to finish it all: the jigsaw
puzzle on the coffee table,
the dishes soaking in the sink,
the bottle half-drunk between us.

We could tiptoe
to our daughter’s
room and watch
the moonlight glide
from wall to wall
in geologic time.

But a column of snow is filling
the hole in the roof of the barn,

and the lantern in the sleeping
porch is almost out of fuel.

I would take your hand,
but every path leads
to the black willow
at edge of the river,
uprooted and
draped in ice.

I could take your hand,
but I know the ground
outside is too hard
to dig, and we have
so much left to bury.
Dec 2017 · 1.2k
Quarry House Christmas
Jonathan Witte Dec 2017
We don’t dance here anymore.

We balance on wobbly stools
and order PBRs with whiskey backs,
sidestepping the looks we tend to give
each other in the mirror behind the bar.

Tonight is Christmas Eve again.
Again, tonight is Christmas Eve.

Reflected in a frosted window
framed by multicolored lights,
our waitress wears a miniskirt
and candy cane-striped tights.

Her laugh rings like the silver
bell of tomorrow’s hangover.

We are not the ones racking
another game of eight-ball
or feeding the jukebox or
tossing darts at the wall.

That’s not us, the hipster couple
exchanging sardonic repartee,
clever tattoos comingling as
they trade kisses in the corner.

Could that ever have been us?

Here is where we *****
it up and tamp it down.

Here is where we wait
for our future to finish
its careful unwrapping.

Here is where we say
thank you and drown,

tangled together in
ribbons of twilight.
Nov 2017 · 2.6k
Truce
Jonathan Witte Nov 2017
Burnt toast and
a spot of blood.

Father dresses for work
and leaves with a wave,
his gabardine suit
the exact same shade
as the storm cloud blooming
on the back of his left hand.

After breakfast, mother pins
his undershirts to the wash line,
clothespins clenched
between broken teeth.

From my upstairs window,
I watch his shirts stiffening
in the flinty December air,
a chorus of white flags,
obsequious and clean.

Mother recovers in the laundry room,
where the floor is dusted with feeble
grains of spilled detergent.

I spend the afternoon
preparing for the sound
of tires crunching on gravel,
for the sweep of headlights
across the lawn.

There are plans
and maneuvers
to arrange.

Counterattacks.

Even now, the snow
on the side of the road

has turned to the color
of my childhood.
Nov 2017 · 5.4k
First Aid
Jonathan Witte Nov 2017
We are watching the clouds
bandage an incarnadine sky,

we are practicing our best knots,
weaving an army of tourniquets,

we are slow-dancing
barefoot on the edge
of a razor.

We are watching
a demolition derby
in the driving rain,

the smell of motor oil
mixing with gasoline,

the hard melancholy
of dying machines.

We are waltzing from room to room,
smearing our names on the floor,

we are keeping time to slow music,
bleeding out behind closed doors.
Sep 2017 · 1.2k
Isolation Proof
Jonathan Witte Sep 2017
She left me with nothing but math.

Bedroom walls miscalculated
to the color of a bruised plum.

Moonwhite sheets tangled
into isolated geometries.

Her pillow, the sum
of broken equations.

Moonlight proves
distance by degrees:

light slanting
in the hallway,

the acute angles
of an open door.
Aug 2017 · 1.7k
Catastrophic
Jonathan Witte Aug 2017
Mothers crawl home on all fours
and fathers crack their hammers
into the temples of the moon.

The dogs are long gone.

The children of catastrophe
flick their knives at the sun,

shuffling from ruin to ruin
in their parents’ heavy boots,

stepping over the skeletons
of buildings and hummingbirds.

The children of catastrophe whet
their blades on the skulls of childhood.

They shave their heads
and argue about the history
of chandeliers and ballrooms.

The frogs at the water’s edge
expand into dumb balloons.

Hunted by an army of hollow men,
we race toward the sound of a dog
barking at the edge of the world.

We sleep in shifts,
cursing moonlight.

In our dreams,
the horizon binds us
with a blinding flash—

your hand in mine,
our cells married
and incandescent:

each to each,
ash to ash.
Jul 2017 · 1.3k
Working Copy
Jonathan Witte Jul 2017
A close read
reveals that
I am nothing
but a rough draft
riddled with
misspellings—

a work in progress
watered down by
superfluous adjectives,
non sequiturs, and
smothered verbs.

Love is an editor.

She courts me
with a pocket of
sharpened pencils,
blue and red.

She marks me
up meticulously—
dele, stet
dele, stet.

Decades punctuated
by intermittent edits.

Sunlight slanting
through an hourglass.

Her hair as white
as the final page.

When the end comes,
will she love me enough
to give me another pass?
Jul 2017 · 1.3k
Curtains
Jonathan Witte Jul 2017
The weather only makes it worse.
Cicadas sounding off at dusk.
The flowers blooming in reverse.

Your hand in mine.
Pour yourself another drink:
bourbon, *******.
Her hand in mine.

Our backyard has gone black,
the summer’s vestigial fireflies
devoured by limbs and leaves.

Lie on your back
and listen to me,
decode the blades
of grass that tickle
your ears and neck.

Love or silence.
Which is worse?

We pull at words
like dark threads,
composing curtains
for the windows
of a waiting hearse.
Jun 2017 · 2.9k
Liminal Domestic
Jonathan Witte Jun 2017
His wife is as
assiduous as
a mother bird.

She keeps
the windows
clean with rags
and buckets
of vinegar and
steaming water.

What happens here.

He sweeps
the ceiling
and ponders
the meaning
of the word
perspicacity.

There are
mornings
spent fussing
over underused
demitasse sets.

What happens here.

There are
afternoons
side-by-side
on the front
porch glider,

watching clouds
attenuate across
a porcelain sky.

What happens here.

The smallest
sounds never
fail to surprise
them.

How sparrows fold
like feathered paper
below rectangles
of polished air.

*What happens here,
happens over there.
Jun 2017 · 1.9k
Found
Jonathan Witte Jun 2017
I lost my first
wedding ring
that summer

we floated
on inner tubes
coupled together,
drinking ice-cold
beer in the sun.

A flash of gold
and it was gone.

I lost the boots
my father wore
in Vietnam.

I lost the first
pocketknife
I ever owned.

I lost my mother.

I lost my way
in college once,
watching heavy snow
smother the foothills
and switchbacks,
watching mountain
birds turn wide circles
above rough canyons.

I lost track of time but
found my father’s gun.

Winter will always
sound like the whir
of a cylinder spun in
an unfurnished room.
May 2017 · 947
How to Build a Bonfire
Jonathan Witte May 2017
You have to start
by finding things
to burn.

Turn the island
into a tinderbox.

Fill your truck with driftwood
and detritus hustled up from
derelict construction sites.

Scavenge plywood scraps
and lengths of two-by-fours.

Find a spot beneath the dunes
and dig into the still-warm sand,
your rusted shovel syncopating

with the rhythm of the waves,
crunching into the cool dark
hollow of a deepening pit.

By dusk, the hole will be capable
of containing everything you want
to burn.

Set the shovel down.

When the darkness
finds you all alone,
take the lighter fluid
in one hand
and a match
in the other.

Wait for the
wind to die.

If you do it right,
the orange embers
will crack and rise,
truant children
ushered home
by pacing stars.

If you do it right,
the smell of salt and smoke
will stay with you for days.

If you do it right,
the bonfire will
bloom like a flower
and consume itself
all night long.

In the morning,
your work will
have healed, doctored
by persistent currents
and the extinguishing
sweep of high tide.
May 2017 · 955
Revolutions
Jonathan Witte May 2017
Tonight the ceiling fan
clicks with every turn.

The bedside clock ticks
and tocks in moonglow.

I close my eyes
and one by one
the light bulbs in
the house explode.

The darkness
becomes me,
I think.

I wear it silky black,
a spider-tailored suit
imponderous as ether.

I focus on the anesthetic sound
of a future breathing inside me.

Memory folds like
an obsolete map—

a distant archipelago
of diminishing stars.

Years ago, I’m sure,
we married in a copse
blue with wild hyacinth.

Tonight the satellites
cut like diamond tips,

lugubrious orbits etching
across a bedroom window.

Dawn always blooms with
the sound of breaking glass.
May 2017 · 3.3k
Camera Obscura
Jonathan Witte May 2017
Our house is a black box.
We drape every window

but one, a pinhole
to capture the sun.

At night our eyes go dark as ink.
Our memories marbleize at
the edge of the bedroom.

Come morning,
we are nothing

but inverted images
fed by shared light.

You tell me to smile
and I braid your hair.

Upstairs, the children
develop like ghosts.

I put on another record
and the dark disc spins,

its needle lulled
into grooves the way
you are lulled into me.

We could almost dance together,
but the couple at the window

will not move until
we come into focus.
Apr 2017 · 2.2k
Another Forecast
Jonathan Witte Apr 2017
The girl in the black
bathing suit swims
through my dreams;

her orange eyes warn
me that summer
is coming.

An inescapable
swelter of air
threads itself
through the slats
of picket fences,

crisping insects
and terrifying
an army of black birds
bivouacked in the trees.

I hear the soft explosion
of hibiscus, red petals as
bright as belly wounds,

and the heartbeat
of the dog panting,
stupefied by the heat
of a relentless star.

Up and down the street,
abandoned children call
out from the bottom of
empty swimming pools.

I slouch in an aluminum chair,
trying to get black-out drunk
on warm gin and tonics.

The tidy rectangle
of grass around me
ignites in a legion
of slender flames.

I remember the dark room
and my father’s deathbed,
his whispered, final words:
dying is thirsty work.

I strip to my underwear
and fantasize about ice.
I pray for the neighborhood
sprinklers to spring to life.
Jonathan Witte Apr 2017
Begin with
something
broken—

a bone,
a heart,
a home—

collect
the pieces
carefully

and work
them over

over time

tumble and polish
tumble and polish

make the pain shine.
Apr 2017 · 1.5k
Come Back
Jonathan Witte Apr 2017
Once you’ve gone
what more is there
to say about leaving

or, for that matter,
the impermanence
of measured words.

All I can do is stand
alone in the backyard
and listen to the wind.

A late frost killed
the magnolia buds

and the forsythia
never materialized.

And so I wait for the worms
to begin their earthy work.

I wait for the pink moon
to rise above the rooftops.

I wait for the smell of mock orange
and the blue of a broken robin’s egg.

But most of all
I wait for your
words to bloom,

to tell me, finally,
that spring is here—

that the gardens we tend to
have something more to say.
Apr 2017 · 1.7k
Plankton
Jonathan Witte Apr 2017
The prison bus
passes this way

every now and then,
surfacing without

warning—a leviathan
of metal, grease, and glass

its dark windows secured
by squares of rusted wire

its diesel engine heart
spewing exhaust that

turns morning rain
the color of seawater.

The prison bus
does not stop
for stop signs;

red lights are nothing
but violent memories
strung in an overcast sky.

When the bus strikes
something in its path

the prisoners bounce
slightly in their seats,

lifted into
impartial air

liberated
momentarily

by the familiar
co-conspirators
of blood and laughter.

In his dreams,
the guard who
drives the prison bus
circumnavigates the globe,
plowing through clouds
of insects that shimmer
like fuel above the road.
Mar 2017 · 2.6k
Fish
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
My younger brother still fishes
when he can, when the weather
is agreeable, when he can afford
some tackle and beer for the cooler.

He sits alone on the river bank
and smokes and drinks and waits
in the shifting shade of cottonwoods
for the unmistakable pull on the line.

He fishes whether
the fish are biting
or not. He is intimate with
psychology and the placid
deceit of undisturbed water.

My brother is an angry man.

As kids, we fished
together on the dock
and killed them
with our hands.

Careful not to kneel
on scattered hooks,
we baited the lines
on our knees a foot
above brackish water.

We dropped fish heads
off the edge of the dock
and watched them float
down, almost out of sight,
settling into final stillness
only to snap back to life
(or the false throes of death)
by the white claws of *****
picking them into oblivion—
goodbye eyes,
goodbye gills,
goodbye teeth,
goodbye scales.

Brother, I don’t remember anymore:
was it triumph or merely shame
that left us shivering in the sun?
Mar 2017 · 847
One City After Another
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
We never cracked the mysteries of Pittsburgh,
and Baltimore bled out inconveniently before

our eyes, another nervous snitch knifed outside
the corner convenience store in broad daylight.

Salt Lake City was too pure, too white,
theocracy carved into a wafer of snow.

We grew tired of watching Los Angeles
pleasure itself in the sun like a **** star,
interminably tan and vacuous.

And Chicago was too ******* cold.

So we settled here, where streets turn
the soles of our shoes to palimpsests

where every apartment elevator
offers a wall of infinite buttons

where grocery stores stock their shelves
with bottles and bottles of octopus ink

where neighbors open their curtains
and stand shimmering in moonlight

where weather mixes with nostalgia,
creating immutable, poetic forecasts

where water tastes like redemption
and the skyline rises like a chorus,

so much taller than the cities
we inhabited when we were

alive.
Mar 2017 · 2.3k
Magnolia
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
Come springtime, when the magnolia
tree exploded in bloom in the backyard
I’d grab the bolt-action .22 from the closet
and call out to my sister to tell her
that after a long winter, it was time.

There were hundreds of them, and for hours
I’d knock those blossoms down while she
darted below the canopy catching every one—
stunned pink birds nesting in her hands.

We never missed, either of us, and when
the bullets and blossoms were gone,
she would laugh and shake the petals
from her hair and brush them from her
bare arms and neck like pastel feathers,
the soft relics of an unexpected snow.
Mar 2017 · 1.3k
The Docent
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
In her dreams, the docent
maneuvers schoolchildren

down museum corridors,
shepherding their bodies

into evacuated galleries
where nothing changes

except the patterns
of nails hammered
into plaster walls.

She speaks pedantic
falsehoods until one

by one the children
disengage and find

themselves a constellation
of nails upon which to hang.

A renaissance takes time, but
not as much as you might think.

Come midnight,
the museum is full
of masterpieces.

And though the works
of art make her weep,

the docent is inspired
to study each small frame
for a brushstroke

that might signify
the break of dawn.
Mar 2017 · 967
Las Vegas Rain
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
It took Vegas two days
to teach me that winning
is the taste of salmon roulade,
green lip mussels and
pineapple glazed ham.

Losing is the smell
of shoe-worn carpet,
warm poker chips and
air recycled through the lungs
of a thousand desperate strangers.

I walked the Strip
an educated man.

I swallowed the lights
like squares of Starburst
candy melting to neon
in my shining mouth.

I found the desert in pitch
blackness and placed bets
on the stars with my eyes

until they fell from the sky
in a shower of silver coins.
Mar 2017 · 8.3k
Expiration Date
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
Nine years and still
we cradle our grief
carefully close,
like groceries
in paper bags.

Eventually the milk
will make its way
into the refrigerator;
the canned goods
will find their home
on pantry shelves.

Most things find
their proper place.

Eventually the hummingbirds
will ricochet against scorched air,
their delicate beaks stabbing
like needles into the feeder filled
with red nectar on the back porch.

Eventually our child
will make her way
back to us. Perhaps.

But I’ve heard
that shooting
****** feels
like being
buried under
an avalanche
of cotton *****.

For now it’s another
week, another month,
another trip to Safeway.

We drive home and wonder
why it is always snowing.
Behind a curtain of snow,
brake lights pulse, turning
the color of cotton candy,
dissolving into ghosts.

And with each turn,
the groceries shift
in the seat behind us.
From the spot where
our daughter used to sit,
there is a rustling sound—

a murmur of words
crossed off yet another list,
a language we’ve budgeted
for but cannot afford to hear.
Mar 2017 · 726
Road Crew
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
Stalled in afternoon traffic
by the crack of a jackhammer
and the smell of hot asphalt,
what else is there to do but wait
for the sun-kissed woman
in muddy work boots and
orange vest to acknowledge me.

She has a tattoo of an AR-15
on her left forearm and more
ink (an octopus?) under her eye.

She is in total control.

Her unclasped safety
vest ***** in the wind.
The smoke from her
Marlboro Red snakes
down the line of cars
and wafts into my open
window with a smell
so strong she should
be riding shotgun.

She alone will deliver me.

As the jackhammer
fires on full auto,
I wait like a child
for my turn to go.

Her eyes squint and the octopus
squirms and my afternoon restarts
with another twist of her gloved hand,
the sign revolving from Stop to Slow.
Mar 2017 · 1.2k
Widower
Jonathan Witte Mar 2017
The air is warmer
at the river’s edge.

The insects cloud
around your head,

and the white cottage,
the one your wife’s
father built by hand,

seems to be burning
in the afternoon sun.

The hammock strung
between two dogwood
trees twists in the wind.

There should be no shame
in recollecting the songs
she sang when the children

were young and unpredictable,
how they splashed in shallow
water, catching minnows.

Why not close your eyes
and imagine you hear her
calling from the other side?

The slap of a fish jumping
is like a palm to your cheek.

Out there, in the middle of it all,
silver scales flash in clear water—

a contorted shadow swims below,
hooked to impossible brightness.
Feb 2017 · 1.3k
Valentine
Jonathan Witte Feb 2017
You already have my heart.
And though I’m not dapper

enough to wear one, my body
is yours at the drop of a hat.

My mind, too, belongs to you:
before you even read them,

these lines are yours to open.
Slide a finger beneath the seam;

undo me with a concupiscent flick.
Spill me onto the bed. Take me in.

You’ve read me before.
Tonight, read me closer.
Feb 2017 · 1.4k
Another Ruin
Jonathan Witte Feb 2017
We gathered our water
and packs at daybreak
to hike hand in hand
toward the distant ruin—
a tall stone chimney planted
on otherwise empty acreage,
a kudzu-covered tower,
the ghost of a farmhouse
now a home to field mice,
black beetles and bats,
with bricks the color
of weathered blood,
vertebrae stacked
a century and a half ago
by a stonemason’s craft,
still solid and bonded
despite the slow decay
of arthritic mortar.

How long have we
walked together?

The morning
is all we have
left to ponder.
We walk for hours;
the chimney grows
larger at our approach.
I want to ask you
a question about
the night we met,
what you said
just before I held
you for the first time,
but then I catch sight
of my hand and realize
I am walking alone,
moving inexorably
toward a ruination
of my own making.
How could I have been
so careless? Unable
to stop, every step
strips something away:
my hair thins and falls,
as white and weak
as sickled wiregrass;
another step and my
body atomizes into
the stuff of stars,
pollen scattered
on a rising wind.

So this is what it
feels like to decay.

By the time I reach
the ruin I am mostly
cinder and ash,
a sorry vestige
sown in a quiet field,
a forgotten landmark
that strangers will visit,
if only to contemplate
how the evening fog
spindles like smoke
along the enduring
column of my spine.
Feb 2017 · 972
Clarity
Jonathan Witte Feb 2017
Don’t confuse the hypnotic
hum of highway traffic
with the anesthetic lull
of your dreams deflating.

Don’t confuse the murmuration
of small black flies above the bowl
of rotting fruit with the devastation
you feel in the hard pit of your soul.

Don’t confuse the blinding eyes
of white vapor streetlights
with the coruscating promise
of an unmolested path home.

Don’t confuse the empty auto lot
at the edge of town with an orchard:

tonight the gravel of crushed bones
blossoms in a shower of moonlight,
the interminable hush of a hard rain.
Feb 2017 · 503
Leaving
Jonathan Witte Feb 2017
She left on a winter afternoon,
leaving her cup of chamomile

tea cooling on the kitchen table.
A cough of car exhaust and she

was gone.

She left behind only certain things:

a thin procession of dresses
hung in the bedroom closet,

a strand of costume pearls
curled in an unworn shoe,

a tube of coral lipstick abandoned
on the bureau beside her hairbrush.

Today the crocuses began to bloom.
I can bear the things she left behind,

but the warble of the robin’s song
is the sound of love as it unwinds.
Jonathan Witte Jan 2017
I
Among ten thousand trees,
the transformation begins
with the blink of a snowbird.

II
Snowbirds live.
Snowbirds die.
Wing tips span
the seam between
egg and bone.

III
I baked my snowbird
in a pie; the oven wanted
something beautiful to eat.

IV
A nest is a clever home.
At night, house windows
shine like yellow puzzles
for the snowbird to solve.

V
I steal the notes
of the snowbird’s song,
shackle myself to the silence
that blooms between the notes.

VI
Abandoned women
in thrift store robes,
abandoned houses
warmed by bedroom fires—
the snowbird understands.

VII
The mouth of a snowbird
is small but mellifluous.

VIII
Children with dusty fingers
color sidewalks with chalk.
Snowbirds alight there and dip
their wings into an apocalyptic sun.

IX
When the snowbird departs,
the branches of the juniper
languish like bitter crescents of lime,
ice cubes melting in a glass of gin.

X
To decipher snowy syntax,
etch lines on a sheet of ice;
get on all fours and trace
snowbird tracks in snow.

XI
Rain is turning to sleet.
The snowbird is awake.

XII
She crosses her legs
on the velvet settee,
exhaling cigarette smoke
in rings across the room.
The ashtray is a crystal grave
of severed snowbird beaks.

XIII
It was winter all afternoon. Across the city,
chimneys are spilling snow into the sky.
A snowbird shivers in the fireplace.
I close my eyes and gather kindling.
With apologies to Wallace Stevens.
Jan 2017 · 772
Tunnel Vision
Jonathan Witte Jan 2017
In the late night light
of the bedroom lamp

you watch me watch you
undo your favorite dress;

you don’t stop until
the garnet necklace

around your neck
is the only thing

left in the world for me
to touch that is not you.
Jan 2017 · 948
Yard Kill
Jonathan Witte Jan 2017
Here I am in the yard again,
shovel in one hand, plastic
bag in the other, trudging
toward the fence in my slippers,
determined to not feel squeamish.

The dog has been scolded
and brought into the house;
she whimpers at the back
window, watching my progress
across a quarter-acre of dormant
grass dusted with morning snow.

Up close, fixed by death,
the squirrel bares its teeth,
white and sharp, its eyes
the size of juniper berries.

I tilt it into the bag,
blood smearing
the rusted shovel,
and turn back, surprised
by the heft of lifelessness,
how dead weight pulls
a broken body down.

Gravity, it occurs to me,
is a relentless undertaker.

I walk and the bag swings
like a soft pendulum
banging against my leg,
counting out my steps,
confounding the dog.

You see, our yards are
nothing but undug graves.

If gravity is our undertaker,
then physics has pocketed
the stars, wearing a funeral
suit blacker than outer space.
Jan 2017 · 771
Somniloquy
Jonathan Witte Jan 2017
The spiders of sleep
are weaving words
in the back of her throat.

I listen to the sibilant
murmur of her dreams

unfurling.

She recites non sequiturs
to darkened walls, her bed

a stage draped in velvet
curtains of disassociation.

Incessant spinners,
spiders embroider

forsaken moonlight
into feathery pillow talk.

I am an audience of one.

When her monologue
is done, I blanket the bed sheets
with bouquets of bloodless roses.

Ashamed, I wait for more.

Her dreams scratch
at the face of the moon,
inscribing an encore.
Jan 2017 · 767
Snowscape
Jonathan Witte Jan 2017
Transmogrified
by winter squalls,
the branches of the sycamore
have ossified into a cathedral
of snow.

A red cardinal alights
there—a spot of blood,
a feathered clot of sin.

Hush. Listen to the limbs
where he has perched:

the nascent cracking
of winter’s church.
Dec 2016 · 859
Modern Necropolis
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
The bodies are buried
in boiler rooms below
precipitous buildings.

Tipped with gargoyles,
scabbed with windows,
the superstructures rise
on cords of carbon steel.

Inside miraculous husks,
the elevators lift and fall,

interminably.

Antiquated carriages
click like scarabs
on ropes and pulleys.

With interiors lit
by faint buttons,
the listless coffins

circulate our remains
behind gypsum walls.

When the elevator doors glide open,
an emerald chime sings your name.
Dec 2016 · 745
Cold
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
when the cold comes
when blinking hurts
when the wind chisels
through storm windows
and cleaves the rafters
when your breath cracks
when the ground is too
hard to dig another grave

it’s time

to grab your bag of tools
picks and saws and chippers

it’s time

to find yourself
a canyon of ice

to carve yourself
a bitter monument
Dec 2016 · 858
After After
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
Sometimes I conjure
the after after the end:

our plaster cities bent and broken,
entire skylines scythed as flowers,

skyscrapers rent into oblivion,
lofty hotels and office towers

leveled to dark flatline—
the monotone of a final

wind barreling down,
inexorable, with no one

to hear its elegiac howl.

I picture myself ensconced
in an underground parking

garage scrounging to survive,
dismantling abandoned cars

piece by piece to pass the time, or
curled on an improbable mattress

remembering how I once watched
two birds quarreling over a piece

of pizza crust on the sidewalk
as I walked home from work

and thought to myself
as they startled into air

this is not the end.

Sometimes I conjure
the after as it ends:

when in an instant

every last bird rises
into the sky as one—

a cloud of feathers and bone
devoured by a heartless sun.
Dec 2016 · 1.4k
Unsafe at Any Speed
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
Before kids we drove
a blue Chevy Corvair.
No seat belts (of course),

so you could slide next
to me in the bench seat.
We rolled the windows

down to escape the gas fumes
and the staggering smell of oil.
But oh the sound of the engine

roaring behind us in the trunk
as we accelerated close together,
the streetlights all turning green.

We leaned into loose curves,
navigating to the straightaway
where we would open up and fly

like lovers from some Springsteen
song until the road became nothing
and the car disappeared and it was

just you and me hurtling to this place,
suspended by our own combustion,
carried by time, married by velocity.
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
So the Violets lived
in the long shadow
of a slaughterhouse,

separated from death
by cyclone fencing
and a scrabbly yard.

In summer, family time
meant sitting on the porch
drinking cans of Budweiser.

It took about a six pack
each to mask the smell
of cow and diesel fuel,

but the rumble of semis
and the relentless lowing
of cattle were inescapable.

In winter, woodsmoke
filled the small rooms,
slowly turning the walls

the color of ***** snow.
Icicles hung from gutters,
lengthening like knives.

The youngest Violet daughter
grew up, moved to Louisville,
and became a painter of vivid

abstracts.

I have one of her paintings
hanging on a wide white wall.
I like to pour myself a Scotch

and watch the mangled colors—
brilliant viscera sullying
a slaughterhouse stall—

the smell of peat and smoke;
the taste of earth’s undoing.
Dec 2016 · 409
The Hanging
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
When it is done
you will be dead
so let me tell you
what comes next:

The executioner,
a connoisseur of
wine and dread,
returns to his hole
behind the gallows
and uncorks a bottle
of Châteauneuf-du-Pape,
forgetting all about
his heavy black hood,
which he removes
with a hollow laugh
and leaves hanging
by the unlocked door.

He drinks the bottle down
until all that remains
is a another red stain
on the wooden table,
a circle interlocking
other circles—
Venn diagrams
with nothing
but nothing
in common.

Come morning
he’ll cut your body
loose and listen
to your future:
the sound of wind
threading an
empty noose.
Dec 2016 · 677
December
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
At last the autumn
wind has stripped
the branches bare.
Even insubordinate
trees now stretch

their naked limbs
along a leaf of sky;

timber ledger lines
compose a staff
where birds rest
as quarter notes,
the nested chimes
of winter’s song.

You and I unlace
our leather boots.

We wait for snow,
white and absolute,
to change the score,
to blanket measured
roots, a silent chorus.
Dec 2016 · 1.1k
Radio Tower Two
Jonathan Witte Dec 2016
When I was seventeen
I did a dangerous thing:

Rung by rung, I rose
into forbidden space,
climbing as an insect
would along a slender
blade of wiregrass.

At the top of the tower
I settled into thin stratus.

I took in my home town,
insignificant and benign:
car headlights sliding
on roads to park below
neon drugstore signs,
yellow house windows
and amber streetlights—
whole neighborhoods
stretched out like fields
lit by electric flowers.

I’m sure I saw the glowing
orange tip of the cigarette
my girlfriend was smoking,
rocking herself away from me
on her metal front porch swing.

While I cowered
there in that aerie,
the air reeked of rain,
smoke, and despair.
I remember my heart,
syncopated and suffering;
how it pulsed beneath
a scaffolding of bones—
a buried, burning flare.
Nov 2016 · 1.0k
Radio Tower One
Jonathan Witte Nov 2016
Some nights it
is alarmingly
imperceptible:
an exoskeleton ascends
on iron rivets and steel;
unseen scaffolding tapers
to a steady pulsing point
of phosphorescence—
a mechanical heart
circulating red light
into leaden clouds.

Some nights the air thickens
with cordite, grief, and snow.

Tonight with winter here
we can see the tower’s
beacon blinking through
a tangled scrim of trees
half a mile across town,
and yet even with our
bodies squeezed together
like radio dials in the dark
we are unable to tune it in—
the signal that would calibrate
our estranged transistor hearts.
Nov 2016 · 488
The Tramp
Jonathan Witte Nov 2016
Laugh if you want;
lately my dreams
are all the same:

black and white and silent,
a montage of mute scenes
in which he quietly appears,

a funny little man beset
by brute absurdities, framed
by a toothbrush mustache,

bowler hat, and vagabond suit—
dressed for hapless caricature,
a disheveled angel in disguise.

He forever waddles away from me
down a lane of denuded trees,
jauntily twirling his bamboo cane,

his gray pocket watch stopped—
a cheap prop at the end of a chain.
Watch how the last scene transpires:

I stay in my cushioned seat
expecting house lights to rise.
Alone in the dead theater,

I wait for the live orchestra
to offer an accompaniment,
to set the silver screen on fire.
Nov 2016 · 737
Sickroom
Jonathan Witte Nov 2016
Two days
from now
you won’t remember
how I laid you down
delirious,
my six-year-old
daughter
swooning

spoonfuls
of purple
medicine
sickly sweet

your body burning
up beneath
pink sheets
you kicked
to the foot
of the bed

I swear
you were
dreaming
of mermaids
saddled on pink dolphins
like bejeweled rodeo stars
mermaids
swimming closer
mermaids
with long yellow hair
bucking waves—
sea girls with
one hand raised
in salty air,
orbiting
in circles
overhead,
wee galaxies
of ocean mist,
droplets
of sweat
on your lips.

At dawn
your fever
broke with
the sweetness
of candy glass
mason jars;
fireflies
escaping
as embers,
a dimming
delirium
of stars.

Two days
from now
you won’t remember
how I came to you
in the middle
of the night
when you cried
out for me,
your voice
unfamiliar—
a song sung
by a small girl
burning up
beneath
the sea.
Nov 2016 · 529
Shadowboxing
Jonathan Witte Nov 2016
My grandfather was not a boxer
but he loved to fight, throwing
punches at the faces of hard men,
left and right hooks, uppercuts
in barroom brawls and alleyways,
with hands the size of iron trivets,
forearms cut with ropes of muscle.

Eventually, after decades of stitches
and bruised knuckles, after his hair
turned white and his eyes clouded,
he would shadowbox in the garden
behind the dilapidated potting shed,
swinging slower, less light on his feet,
but safe in that manicured square
ringed by boxwoods and evergreens,
the bees in spring buzzing applause.

My grandmother would watch
him from the kitchen window,
in a sweater she always wore
regardless of the weather,
and wonder what he was fighting
against, or, perhaps, fighting for.

And that’s how my grandfather died:
throwing a final right cross in the air
before dropping to his knees at last,
knocked out on a mat of green grass,
washed by an unexpected downpour,
water collecting in opened red tulips,
loving cups in full bloom, the first
ten drops of rain counting him out.

Standing in that garden decades later,
I know I am no fighter.
Approaching old age, hands in pockets,
I watch for signs of unexpected weather,
worry about things beyond my control:
car crashes, cancer, electromagnetic pulses,
the minutiae of a thousand apocalypses.

Is the future drawing back
a left hook I will never see
coming? Will a haymaker
hit me like a hammer,
unmaking my family
before the final bell?

And suddenly I realize:
maybe I should have
learned to throw
a ******* punch.
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