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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
Five Poems
by Holly Pettit
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Watery Pemba

Coast of West Africa, 1996

When Shell found the barque offshore
(unsure they'd found anything
worth sending their own people for, yet
wary of trusting anyone here
among the fragmenting government, warring
gangs, tribes, the Church,)
they called on the Jesuit school -- order's refuge --
and the school sent a boy running
with a letter to me.
I made my first dive for them
on the first day of autumn, with borrowed tanks,
a waterproof pad on which to sketch diagrams,
and a plastic camera.
Fourteen miles out
thirty meters down I found what the Oil Men sought
shouldering her way out of a rift --
a flat-bottomed junk of heartwood timber
broken open. Spilling, still.
Porcelain cups and bowls -- unboxed by rot
and pocked with crustaceans yet translucent as teeth,
glowing as I brushed at clumps of algae.
Suddenly that week Wife
began waking early, frying
big breakfasts. All my education
finally brought her some good! No longer married to the bookish idiot
she donned a different self, talked about the pay money
as she flattened dough in her palms,
laid patties down in grease as she invested in me market gossip
and funny things that happened yesterday.
But our brief Eden ended.
The very next Monday morning
I carried the tanks, brought a lunch tied in a plastic bag
around my waist, but the catwalk was chained.
A blonde intern paid me on the dock
and sent me home.
University men had arrived from England, it seemed, began
making the dives as I,
unable to stop myself,
slunk every noon down to the water,
joined my chattering neighbors in front of the fence
to watch.
The English told us Stand back, don't get so close
We could fall in, delay the operation
with a call for rescue -- natives can't swim
they've been told, it's for our own good
so Stand Back.
The neighbors complained, but I worried:
What did these English see
with their inner eyes?
Could they see the bonfires
on these narrow beaches, treasure-laden embassies
to a red-walled city?
Chinese approached this coast a thousand years ago,
entreated a King
to trade with their square-sailed ships

of no keel and no pitch, joined only by rope
and water the wood took on
that swelled the seams tight
so that each vessel took within itself
and sailed for a time
upon the agent of its own destruction.
Even now when I go home to lie down
I cannot sleep
without sinking again
meter upon meter unto
the sandy floor, to pull at algae
with my hands, sketch
on a stranger's rubberized pad
the primitive dimensions
of my wreckage.

Dana's Boy

She named him Wilder, not for a war hero,
grandfather, but for a movie, after a director,
to lay for the boy a straight road west
out of the tight Yankee Saltbox of their inherited name.
Every word has a topography though, and she
couldn't hear it -- that high fence "Wile,"
the gully "Dur," both stretched across internal
marshes, dividing sky and land with sanded
washes, barbed wire and rotted wood
unseen in her imagination or from the air.

Wilderness came home the way he came out,
the way all Covington babies come out --
angry crimson one side, wizened gray the other --
a demarcation line down the forehead extending
the length of the torso (if the shirt is lifted
it can be shown) and in the skull
the division can be found with the fingertips, a rift
beneath the skin in the bone. His folks
had the name before he came out,
before they saw,
before the old people made it clear
that the forgotten could still make itself known,
could not be shaken free of --
Wilderness had been made
a marker. His body touched
by the Recording Angel in passing and he,
newest born throwback of a wild, tribal folk,
would soon recite history,
symbol tree bark, pattern new walls
with newsprint, soot, and stone, dance
the clatter of rattlesnake bones. Even
in infant slumber he was a vision of battlefields,
the walking of woods, of hiding places and burial mounds,
the kenning of where not to step, what was owned,
where boundaries had been broken,
and the fingerprint of the blood god who
accompanied the break.


Thinking on it again
he knew if he ever seriously
thought about it as possible --
that peculiar shape of mouth
she had, such an improbable little purse --
he would be lost. The weight
would shift across his shoulders,
bring load and bearer over
and down the craggy
face of a well-mapped,
unclimbed mountain.

Private Perry's Last Day in Russian
Defense Language School, Monterey, California

His long, chessboard plucking-up-pieces fingers dangle,
clutching chalk and stirring dusty
air. The sun breaks through, lights the floorboards,
glinting off grit, steaming.
Dubrakoff begins again. The paragraph is
complex, many reflexives, subjunctives, and the future
pluperfect. Ramirez's tongue is a languid Chicago
Latina, translates Gogol into an English that sets
the whole room reeling on a noontime drunk.
Dubrakoff coughs, rubs a hand across the back of his collar
where his hair gaps. Taller than any of his little
soldiers, sailors, his gaze falls across the one pale blue
morning-sick Airman, Lori Scarpetta, hiding
in the back left corner. She'll never make it, never.
She manages
an auction house "no."
-- he says, presses forefinger to lip --
Step back, and take in the sentence
as a whole, like a painting, not
an equation, not a rule you look up
but a lyric. You remember the words.
Pluperfect! --
he swings
and points, Private Perry! -- yes,
you know this!

Private Perry!
The guns are leveled at you now.
"She would have died. She had died? She was dying?"

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