Taking the Vapors (WTC)

A Handful of Thunder from Rattapallax #6>

Editors' Note: WTC
We anticipated a wave of work related to September 11, but with few exceptions, what we have received thus far is a wash of words. Author Joan Didion (A Book of Common Prayer, Miami, etc.) once asserted, "Anybody can write description." Perhaps there can be too much showing--and telling which is mere exhortation becomes propaganda. This issue offers percolations, alongside a single cascade. We have borrowed Twain's ironic "War Prayer" from 'Only the Dead', the June issue on the Vietnam War (see Archive).

~ . ~ . ~

Mark Twain
War Prayer

Jay Chollick
Of City Birds

Maureen Holm

Vicki Hudspith
Heavier Than Mercury

Sharon Olinka
It Must Not Happen

Michael O'McCarthy
An American Apocalypse (excerpt)

Elaine Schwager
Living in the Falling Apart

~ . ~

War Prayer
Mark Twain (1912)

O Lord our Father,
our young patriots,
idols of our hearts,
go forth to battle --
be Thou near them!
With them, in spirit,
we also go forth
from the sweet peace
of our beloved firesides
to smite the foe.
O Lord our God
help us
to tear their soldiers
to bloody shreds
with our shells;
help us
to cover their smiling fields
with the pale forms
of their patriot dead;
help us
to drown the thunder
of the guns
with the shrieks
of their wounded,
writhing in pain;
help us
to lay waste
their humble homes
with a hurricane of fire;
help us
to wring the hearts
of their unoffending widows
with unavailing grief;
help us
to turn them out roofless
with their little children
to wander unfriended
the wastes
of their desolated land
in rags and hunger
and thirst,
sports of the sun flames
of summer
and the icy winds
of winter
broken in spirit,
worn with travail,
imploring Thee
for the refuge of the grave
and denied it --
for our sakes
who adore Thee, Lord,
blast their hopes,
blight their lives,
protract their bitter pilgrimage,
make heavy their steps,
water their way with their tears,
stain the white snow
with the blood
of their wounded feet!
We ask it,
in the spirit of love,
of Him Who is the Source of Love,
and Who is the ever-faithful
refuge and friend
of all that are sore beset
and seek His aid
with humble and contrite hearts.

I have told the whole truth in that [poem], and only dead men can tell the
truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead. --
Mark Twain

~ . ~

Of City Birds
Jay Chollick

No city, thinned
and murderous can hop and be
the lightbone bird
whose wings drag with them,
not the sole equipment
for their flight but with it
other things birds take
with them-
their treetops
and the dying roofs:
they take hard laughter
emptying from scarlet rooms
and books
the rainbow genius of the mind
all fly with them,
the birds,
and disappear along with
flung with all their
winking lights
to touch puff puff the
dazzled clouds,
that are for birds
and cities dragging up
with them
a refuge hope; there,
burrowed into emptiness, they
undream earth, though
menace with its silent arm
drifts camouflaged

(Jay Chollick has work appearing on the Big City, Little (NY) section and elsewhere on the magazine. This piece pre-dates 9/11/01.)

~ . ~

Maureen Holm


Owatonna: Dad dominates at trap.
Joel, 14, on the 10-meter platform:
toes, little tremor through the knees.
Pull! He jack-knifes into the quarry.
No splash to speak of.
No trophy, but proud.


Atlanta: Six Flags.
Seated on a plank with niece Jennifer, 7,
a swing with a back that is none
a one-inch chain linking our laps
an auntie arm across her chest
as the wind as we ascend five storeys, ten and more
teetering, tilting until, 35,
I withdraw it, slowly, and cling, a child,
to the cable on my side,
unable to look over, to my shame
a thrall to the pull of headlong down.
'The parachute will open just in time,' she says.
'I know. I--.' Separately, we fall.


Moravia: Day-trip picnic to reservoir,
bridge a 60-foot leap for three as we others gape...
Poised there before I miss him,
Jim in space, lake, classroom chair,
reading the poem, the hardest part,
he smiles, trying to gauge the wind,
stay rigid, guide, not flap, flip, spin,
was the water, chipped his tooth.

Ride the funicular up Petrin Hill for a terrace meal,
three walls dug in, the fourth proscenium to Vlta-
va green eyes, his. I see/saw, don't/didn't believe it
until I lick the point of impact he'll never let them fix.


Chicago: Rubbish on the roof,
songwriters on removal crew:
Steve to Kevin to elevator car
heap to hand to heap, repeat
until full, then pulley to truck,
back up and down and up and--
suddenly he's so much debris,
pulse, then heartbeat,
on crutches and guitar.


Medusa: Sumac tree, saw, creek.
Flat rock, pointed rock, hard
from thirteen feet;
as many weeks to mend
left eye, right wrist-fifth of July.
No jumping off bridge.
My stumps line the bank.


October: Five o'clock, top of the Empire State,
Ivo fingered the lacy wire fence
meant to deter the would-be dead.
'I could live here,' he said.

Height changes people.

Dinner uptown, the last before he left.
I secretly wrapped the flutes in napkins,
the champagne in a favorite towel.
We drove the cabbie. At ten to twelve,
no toast allowed on the observation deck.

By 9/11, oh,
all the John Doe's I'd met
--and 'heelots' who wept,
for Coop and Stanwyck,
a ledge, and falling snow.


The physics of balloons are as simple as love: Lighter than air, you are buoyant. Archimedes figured that out. Air weighs about 28 grams per cubic foot (heaviest at ground level where it must support the weight of all above). Heat it to 100 degrees F. and you reduce the weight by 25%. (Consider the multiple: Balloons have to be huge to achieve lift-off in 7-gram increments.) Flame: Equalize the inner and outer pressure, while reducing inner molecular density, and you belong to the wind, not in it, but of it; no gust rushing about the face, no breeze through the hair, perfectly calm.


Fallen Rocket Zone.
Earth, water, air, flame.
Heat changes all but one.
Terrace open during summer season only.
In case of emergency, break glass.
In case of fire, use parachute.

~ . ~

Heavier Than Mercury
Vicki Hudspith

Like the artwork of uninhabited wealth
Or the quiet status of barricaded streets
In the expectant air of
When something is wrong in the room
And you walk in
When there's a point being made
And every night the streets are sprayed
With fresh water
To hold down
Filled with ash
The weight of laughter is heavier than mercury
Like trucks lined up and going single file
To unload trouble
One at a time
I cannot remember the skyline anymore
Though I try and force my eyes to see
It almost goes without saying
That I also cannot remember when trouble
Didn't follow me
Or when the lights went out
I was so willing to wait
To believe you'd come for me
But love is self preservationist
And down the hallway of dead ends
Are afternoons full of coffee
And myths of good weather
As god's benevolent eyebrow
Lifts in wonder at this world
How could I be
So crude
How could I think
I was helping you
When I was standing on your toe
It was nighttime in the tunnel
And I couldn't allow as how anyone
Would ever again
Draw an unsuspicious breath
In the time zone of winter
With lungs of snow
You may travel
You may even come and go
But collecting souvenirs has lost its edge
Have you given up yet?
Have you had to let go?
Are you tough enough yet?
Have you said, "No sugar"
"No alcohol", "No blow"?
Are you sweet enough yet?
If you had to test your stamina
Could you
If you had to
The collective unconscious
Brims with uncollected love
And restless sirens
Letting everyone know
That what you will drink
Is a custom shot of espresso
Two beeps in the wilderness of microwave jitters
A drink to be careful with
To carry and hold
We mopped the streets with heroes
Wading in where we can't go
My duty is to inhale
To breathe an air simmering in sin
We can cover our noses
But we've been washed in the same atmosphere
Desperate for poets, painters and musicians
To fill us with oxygen again
And hold the head of our unconscious
Like a fragile thing
Like a heart that's burst
This angle of
This rumor that
We're the warlords of tribal hearts
Taking false chieftains in the dark
And on the next awful sunny day
Smoke will wrap you in tendrils
Then pull you up till your eyes smart
Anaerobic comfort
A head lying against a chest
A soft light burning
That can't be taken
And can't be heard
In the unclouded afternoon
Where love and desperation
Make a pact in the road
The brown and black caterpillar
Seen only once
In the infinite grace of autumn
But fond in your memory
Of insects
In a luxurious fur coat on its way to cocoon
Before becoming a drab persistent moth
Bashing light bulbs
Lungs wet with summer
And this new air
Where dawn burns rapidly
Returning my idea
That it would be enough
To be good

(Vicki Hudspith's work first appeared in the magazine in the Jul '01 issue. See Archive.)

~ . ~

It Must Not Happen
Sharon Olinka

My days like water. I clip the toenails
of the Great One. Follow strict orders to obey
him. Blurred hours of rinsing rice, endless fight
against dust. Bleat of goats outside. Drawn
to my husband's computer, not permitted
to touch it. Re-named "Nafira." I was
Stephanie, lived in Los Angeles. They call me
one of the Saved Ones, but every night I dream
of car keys, music, lipstick, movies, laughter and palm
trees. My new husband is patient with me. He knows I saw
buildings crumble, how thick smoke
nearly claimed me. I thought, this must
not happen. At times I feel
fire burn through me. It's when I walk
quietly towards the vegetable market,
with my chaperone. Or when I remember
my mother's shredding skin, don't understand
why my husband lies beside me.
What this has to do with God.
But I knew when I brought
the Great One soup, I could not kill him.
I saw the Towers in his eyes.
How silver cell phones, crumpled paper
fell from windows. My shoes.
My red dress. My cabinet
of denials. My innocence.
Where I once lived
there were so many prayer vigils.
I believed them.
I saw the Great One's purple robe,
his feet. I looked down, as instructed.
Not at his face.
I have become water.
Everything has burned away.
And even if I still believe
I'll wake up
tomorrow in my own bed,
in Los Angeles,
as I might, as you
still might, wherever
you are, know only this:
the bad dream
has entered us. We cannot
lose ourselves, go to meet it.
No more mass burials
by a harbor.
Not another Smyrna.
Not another Holocaust.
It must not happen.

(Sharon Olinka's poetry is in the new anthology from Random House, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam. Her work has also appeared recently in Long Shot, Poetry Wales, Luna, and ONTHEBUS. This is her first appearance in the magazine.)

~ . ~

[Mid-October on a flight from Paris to New York, first-class section: A business-suited Black approaches a man he presumes to be Arab and says, "So, how does it feel to be the new [Negro] in America?" Eds.]

An American Apocalypse
(Excerpt: Lines 73-108 of 475)
Michael O'McCarthy

. . . out of the corporate video box came the picture
Of National mourning as the governing body gathered in prayer and angst
And a radio in Blazin' Bill's redneck Bar BQ restaurant broadcast
A twangy white siren song of salvation found in Amazing Grace
That snaked its way around the rocker of this democratic cradle.

Against that background came the clicking of multi-millioned
Khaki-panted, denim shirt and tie corporate keyboard clones rewriting this past
Even as the bulldozers uncovered the broken and dismembered dead.

The sound entwined with backhoes gouging out deep burial holes for those of
Us who dissent as the Right White Christian Soldiers Go Marching As To
War gathering at the corners of Main Street and Broad where I can see
The fluttering of Old Glory from automobiles go by...

But the Stars are gone and white crosses lean with the weight
Of a new strange fruit as the Battle Hymn of the Republic
Continues sung in national ceremony and the pickups pull in and out of daily
Jobs, FedEx runs its routes and Joe and Joan earn their next Yankee dollar ...

As an ad for an all-new, all-white cleansing cream interrupts in which
Ms. America promises it will do what Ellis Island failed to do
As we are segued to the returning Network news:

"We now go to Connie or Ted or Pat or Bill or Raoul or Mei-Ling at
'Ground Zero' or, "Back to you Dan," who has lost his youth and his memories of
Being beaten down to Daley's Floor in Chicago and in the park across the street
And in the rice paddies of Indochina and just down the street in the courtroom
Where freedom was bound, gagged and found guilty ...

As in solemn hymn America continues to twirl in a dance of death begun in a
Plaza in Dallas, on a bloody floor in LA, on a balcony in Memphis, a ballroom in
Harlem, and in murders in offices of black protest in every city in the nation
For which no gavel ever rang.

In loss I remember another fiery burning exploding death,
"Oh the humanity!" the human reporter cried,
Anguished as any person could be,
As the fire burst into death in the Hindenburg.

And I realize that the new squeaky clean astringent
Is being used to clean more than our complexions,
And the new strange fruit hanging from the alabaster
Crosses will be us.

(Michael O'McCarthy, a poet, essayist and journalist, was political editor of The LA Free Press, an antiwar organizer during the war in Southeast Asia, and a militant human rights organizer in the U.S. He currently resides (far too clo se, he says, to Bob Jones Univ.) in Greenville, South Carolina. This is his first appearance in the magazine.)

~ . ~

Living in the Falling Apart
Elaine Schwager

Death is nearby, breathing where life doesn't,
sure in the dark downturn, the rush of no control. Life is
stripped of wanting us. We are suddenly
undesirable, fattened with poor man's

faith and rich man's sweets, ignored by
what we believed in. Suddenly, we only want to be
caressed in the way we caress by other than what we think
to be a thought in a silence we wander into

thoughtless. We, the outside, like night is
outside a star's two-faced profile, watching
old light twinkle, a reminder
that universes have their life spans too.

There could be an end to the desire to find
a metaphor to describe something horrifying beautifully.
Then beauty and horror would end.
And there'd be nothing stopping anything,

just we outside like night is outside
a star's two-faced profile
believing this is an interesting place
to find oneself, this end

that is wider
than whatever was
out there till now.

(Elaine Schwager has previously contributed poetry, articles, and essays to the magazine. A review of her collection, I Want Your Chair, and an interview appear in the Jan '01 issue. See Archive.)

~ . ~ . ~

A Handful of Thunder from Rattapallax #6

Editor's Note

The poems reprinted from this issue of Rattapallax are the ones I cannot put aside. They stay with me. I cannot resist the train ride in Michael T. Young's "Directions," nor Christine Delea's sardonic "The Odds of Winning at Love Are Not in Your Favor." "Then the darknesses/ behind him and before him met" (Glenn Shea) takes me to a place beyond simple poetic closure. Nothing need be said about "Ash" (Eamon Grennan) except to 'hear' it when you read it: Voice, image, sound -- all in its pitch. I cannot forget Thom Ward's imagistically powerful, "we drink on the chance/of orchards in the throat." And if the faithful need something more, they should ask for it, like the speaker in Robert Minhinnick's poem:

Ah lover,
Bend slowly over:
Look for religion down on your hands and knees.

That's what you get here. These poems, like the others in this issue, take you somewhere, usually somewhere unexpected, and give you something to take away with you.

--Nicholas Johnson, Senior Poetry Editor

~ . ~

Robert Minhinnick
Upstairs at The Beast Within Tattoo Studio,
Porthcawl, Wales

Thom Ward
A Brief Epistle to Those Who Worked
These Fields and Are Now Long Dead

Eamon Grennan

Glenn Shea
A Phrase from Homer

Christine Delea
The Odds of Winning at Love
Aren't in Your Favor

Michael T. Young

Contributors Notes (reprinted from #6)

~ . ~ . ~

Upstairs at The Beast Within Tattoo Studio,
Porthcawl, Wales
Robert Minhinnick

Ah lover,
Bend slowly over:
Look for religion down on your hands and knees;

And feel a mazarine blue butterfly,
Extinct in this country for one hundred years,
alight on your right buttock.

Over your shoulder
A dolphin will bare
Its knuckleduster teeth:

And sir,
Your torso
Could be more so.
Across those plated pectorals
I'll commence my Book of Kells.

Who dares
To the scriptorium
Where Leonardo consults the hexagrams, Celtic DNA?

This needleworker
Never slurs a word.
Feel my hypodermic
Sip like a hummingbird.

Around town
Your children will sport my biographia.
Out of the storybooks will step your young
Like little blue dragons following their dam.

(From: Minhinnick, The Body in Question)

~ . ~

A Brief Epistle to Those Who Worked
These Fields and Are Now Long Dead
Thom Ward

                                   You would recognize this:
how the zigzag wind snaps each suspended leaf
into gorgeous violence. From the threshold
of wicker chairs we let those tremulous parts
of ourselves shimmer and float, dusk the complexion
of my lost sister's face. Know ten things but tell
only nine, the Taoists like to say. Because they must
our labs push the wet-triangles of their snouts
through a snarl of vetch. Sudden charity, the calculated
strike -- if pressed I would argue against the idea
of deciding what we trusted, even though it failed us,
is altogether wrong. To the north a hawk circles
and uncircles. Feed corn awaits the next thunderburst.
Like you, we're mostly exhausted, somnambulists
without legs. Hours slump and fall away. Pressed apples
won't preserve a lake yet we drink on the chance
of orchards in the throat. Another leaf, another
scent the faithful can pursue. Across the road
and over the hill come the muffled shouts
of parents, their cleated daughters. What follows
is something like the rapture of aloneness,
so many alabaster begging bowls held out to the sun.

~ . ~

Eamon Grennan

Silence, the grave neat and tidy for once. Later,
a glass of Powers in the bar, sitting with absence.

Blue aster, he says, yellow rattle, thyme, trefoil, sea strife --
to fill the gap. Hearing the unleashed whistle of an oystercatcher,
ears a funnel for whispers and claspings, salt rumors,
depth-charges to where light has winged the skin
of her wrist: Deep breath now, she says, now go under.

Resting on a bench beside the dead boy's willow,
he hears the ice crack -- thump of a heart turning on itself
and stopping. Under her tongue he imagines taking
the temperature of the soul -- where it lurks in some
honeycomb corner, tiny and final as a full stop.

But to live in exile from that breath, all those
rowdy instruments of joy dumbed at once: two faces
fleeing from the mirrorglass.

Birdshaped -- the colour of turquoise and smoky topaz
and grainy with burial abrasions -- this
miniature bottle blown to hold Roman perfume
had to be broken for use, perishable and everlasting.

And only this morning her words
were after-images on the ghost of ash, as near to nothing
as you could imagine -- till a light gust out of nowhere
ruffled suddenly the remains of what remained
of them, and blew every last trace, maybe, away.

~ . ~

A Phrase from Homer
Glenn Shea

And at the end, before he died,
what struck him, last
of his mortal thoughts, was the phrase
he'd read in Homer, the warrior
with his throat pierced
by a spear: "And his eyes then
filled with darkness." The tide
of black, the old poet precise
about even that. Then the darknesses
behind him and before him met,
and he was gone.

~ . ~

The Odds of Winning at Love
Aren't in Your Favor
Christine Delea

Lots of things in life are easy, like getting hit by a train.
The boys of my youth did it all the time. Too much beer or grass,

too much bravado or dare, and the commuter trains rushing by
every twenty minutes. No need, even, for luck.

Or birds singing. We hear them and easily add metaphors,
personify the high-pitched tones they instinctively make

to communicate our own desires. These days, even getting rich
is simple. And staying alive? A snap. Things that routinely

used to kill people in the past are now routinely dispatched.
We have become efficient, but I can tell you what is difficult.

Leaving the shower when the water is just right, when the steam
has become so heavy on the wall tiles that it drips

into puddles on the floor and the mat. The stall has become crowded
with every ex-lover, not touching you, barely breathing,

just hanging onto the faucets and soap shelves, watching you,
wondering what you'll do next -- which shampoo you'll choose,

which song you'll sing, and when you will decide to leave the water
and face your current life, the one they aren't a part of.

~ . ~

Michael T. Young

Beside me on the train a man is reading in Chinese.
He turns the pages from left to right,
skimming characters from right to left, and top to bottom.
I read in the opposite direction, in English,
observing how our contrary motions
mirror each other's gestures of comprehension.
Our heads tilt in a slow nod or shake;
our eyes cross figures in the air
writing a tenuous language that seems to say
there is no backward or forward,
no behind or ahead, only movement
from character to character, from stop to stop,
in books, on trains, in memory -- a turn, a switch,
a pattern like the recollection of the wind
quilting the water of a lake, a remembered place
where this grand gesture of air
sweeps over the surface, and reaching the shore,
without pause, passes on, losing itself
in the maple trees at the foot of the mountain,
only the smell of spring leaves lingering.

~ . ~ . ~

Contributors Notes
(reprinted from Rattapallax #6)

Robert Minhinnick's Selected Poems was published by Carcanet in 1999. Seren published his second collection of essays, Badlands, in 1996. In 1984 he founded Friends of the Earth Cymru (Wales). He is the editor of Poetry Wales.

Thom Ward is editor of BOA Editions. His poetry collection Small Boat with Oars of Different Size was published by Carnegie Mellon. Tumblekid, a chapbook, was issued in 2000 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Eamon Grennan teaches at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y., dividing his time between there and his native Ireland. His most recent books are Relations: New & Selected Poems (Graywolf, 1998) and Facing the Music: Irish Poetry in the 20th Century (Creighton University Press, 2000).

Glenn Shea was born, raised, educated in Connecticut. He is the author of Find a Place That Could Pass for Home (Islandia Press, 1994). He has read his work in venues ranging from Harvard Divinity School to Shakespeare & Co. in Paris.

Christine Delea, who lives in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, was born on Long Island, N.Y., and has a doctorate in English from the University of North Dakota. A chapbook, Ordinary Days in Ordinary Places, was published earlier this year by Pudding House Press. Her poems have appeared or will appear in A Gathering of Tribes, Heliotope, Petroglyph, Raintown Review, and Washington Square. Two of her poems have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and one won an Academy of American Poets University award.

Michael T. Young's collection, Transcriptions of Daylight, was published last year by Rattapallax Press; a chapbook, Because the Wind Has Questions, was published in 1997 by Somers Rocks Press. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in many journals. He lives in Jersey City.