Poetry from R.S. Mengert

Skeptic

Because you see the skull

glaring back in the mirror

like a traffic light,

you think you see

beneath surfaces.

You see yourself a visionary.

If I try to look

beyond the skull,

you think I’ve missed it.

I look out my office window

and all I see are skulls,

even in the daylight. You

wait until it’s dark,

and miss the gray redundancy 

of funerals while you squint

in the yellow haze

of your cheap electric light.

But that’s your way.

You walk into a churchyard

with your plastic sack

full of straw-men and equations

wrapped around your neck.

You smell dirt,

so you think the air

is made of dirt,

and you leave,

afraid to breathe.

Hildegard von Bingen Consoles a Skeptic

Line the decomposing days up end to end

across the velvet dusk. Burn the brickwork

of the tower, and the spiral stairs

to the finite clouds.

(Ash in the earth. Ash becomes the earth.)

Burn the sound, the air, the light that burns

within your head, that bursts the skull

apart with pain, with vision. Burn

until the smoke and ashes

red the coming dawn,

then breathe it in

so it becomes your air, your life.

(Ash in the earth. Ash becomes the earth.)

Separate dead ash

from what has died, and remember

that what burns to ash

cannot be burned again,

that what is earth was once of blood and flesh.

Flesh took form from ash

and then consumed itself with fire

of the soul within. Ash

in the earth. Ash

returns to earth.

What has burned returns, and what returns

will rise again.

Three Days After

The city gleamed on the horizon. The sky

was an impenetrable gray. You did not speak.

An angel stood between us – flaming sword,

glimmering gold armor, face concealed in fire

as we tried to face each other standing

on a charcoal-colored slab of rock in the Nevada desert.

Since your burial on Friday, I had prayed

to see you any way I could, but when I closed my eyes

and waited for a vision or a visitation, only darkness.

Now here we were, and I could barely see you past the blaze

of this imposing force, the fire and the terror,

the metallic glare of blade and armor, the blinding sheen.

I longed to touch you, but I could not move

except to tremble, tried to speak to you, to ask you, why

must it be here, like this, why can we not see each other,

why do you not say a word? but an inarticulate dry gasp

was all that left my burning throat. The angel answered

in an ageless, sexless voice as cold as lead:

From this point on, you will not see her anymore

except like this, with me, a wall of fire separating day

from darkness of the living flesh. And if you see her,

you will not recognize her as she is until it is too late

and she has vanished back into the realm of light.

At that he stepped back, pulled up his sword

so I could see you better. You looked at first

much as you always had, your black silk dress,

your shimmering gold scarf – but your face looked empty,

motionless, pale, your eyes as if stitched shut.

The angel came again between us, his fire

eclipsing you completely. He stood silent, blazing. And I

stood back against the gray,

and cursed his brightness.

The Death of Saint Joan

I.

You did not see a win. The voices blazed brighter than the fire that burned you. Then they stopped. You did not see a win, but waived your shimmering sword against the glare of sun, crown, miter. Fire. The black smoke from your burning body fouled the dimming sky before your dying eyes. You did not blink, but watched in front of you the beggar’s cross, two fastened twigs held skyward by a shaking, unseen hand. The fight was over. All the guiding voices, silenced. Men who held the keys to England’s throne and heaven’s gate had signed your writ. You could not have seen a win.

History is written by those fools, the winners. How they’d love to sanitize you, make you sane, prop you up as practical, mainline. Pragmatic farm-girl with a social worker’s sense. Civic minded. Middle-class. You and I know better. You, my beautiful and butch protectress, my warlord of the gallows and the sanitarium, with sharpened blade, with glimmering quixotic drag, screaming at the sun your stubborn creed, your visionary doom. You, who did not see a win, but leapt, soul first, into the fiery arms of darkness, waiting for an unseen light to catch you.

II.

Chain, embers, shadow. Ashes

on the ground.

Soot and bone dust on the ground.

Dried twigs and branches

singed to scattered fragments,

black and brittle on the ground.

Here the heretic of voice and metal

burned in the waning daylight

while collaborator churchmen, stunned,

watched in muffled horror flesh

reclaimed by fire to eternal void.

Now, the silence of the dusk.

A dagger of white stone

stands up out of the heap of cinder

and charred shackles.

A long dagger of breastbone

sharpened by the flames,

flanked with ash in the growing darkness.

Night. All that is left – heart

become bone, become sword.

III.

I will not see tonight. I will not raise a blade

to silence and the moon of black unseeing fire.

I will embrace the ashes. All I know

is dust that stops all speech, the choking silence

of the final flames, the heart that would not burn,

the desecrated ashes scattered in the unclean river.

My voices are the heretic, sealed

in a metal crypt beneath a sanitarium,

the shrinking daylight screamed to silence

by the burning of the keys, the beggar’s cross.

The fight is over. I do not hold a key

behind the black sky in the smoke of silence

and the burning gallows of the body.

I will embrace the ashes on the ground.

Consubstantial

I was eating one clear night on the hood of my ’83 Buick the Body and Blood of Christ. Not some bowdlerized symbol, mind you, I mean the fleshy substance of the soul in all its agonizing glory, body of unending matter, and of spirit without start or end, and of time collapsed into eternal light beneath the steely moonlight of December in Las Vegas, frozen night pierced with light that poured through stippled punctures in the fabric of the dark. I had not planned it. I only wished to drown the garish noise left from the day. I needed a drink. I drank the wine I found, and that was all. All that is seen and unseen, maker of all that is seen and unseen, burned and trickled down my throat; throat, soul, and self-transformed into the Mother of Creation’s womb as that dark penetrated me, consubstantial with the flesh and fire she bears, Buick rusting and ephemeral beneath the weight of earthbound flesh. I saw that the food was good, the wine as sweet as blood, as thick and effervescent with the heat of life.

When I got back, I found the only one awake, beyond her recent death, the dying light of her apartment burning through the pre-dawn dark, sitting up in what was once her deathbed, golden scarf around her neck, drinking brandy-and-espresso as she waved me in. I told her everything and took a drink. She told me, what you saw is what you’re drinking now, no more or less, and what I drank before your birth, before my own. The wrinkles on her face looked chiseled and eternal. You do not know what you have drunk, she said, but you will die from it with gratitude. Tell anyone you want, but it will only sound like silence of the dark. I tried to ask her what she meant, but all that came out was the shimmering dark music of eternal silence as she slipped back into her celestial night.

Alone and drunk, I stepped back out into the growing dawn and climbed into the shadow of my Buick, a symphony of darkness on my trembling lips.

I completed my MFA in poetry at Syracuse University. My poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Gargoyle, Pensive, SurVision, Maintenant, Zymbol, Poetry is Dead, ABZ, Fjords, San Pedro River Review, Four Chambers, Snail Mail Review, Enizagam, and The Café Review. I teach creative writing at Scottsdale Community College.  

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