ditch,

the poetry that matters

Chris Siteman

Chris Siteman was born in Boston where he grew up in a blue collar Irish-Catholic family. He’s traveled widely in the US, Europe and Cuba, and worked extensively in the trades. In 2007 Chris received his MFA from Emerson College. Since August of 2010 he’s been pursuing his JD at Suffolk Law. He has taught in Boston University’s undergraduate writing program, Lesley University’s Humanities department, and currently teaches in Suffolk University’s English department. While some of the poems included here, in whole or in part, were previously published in Fringe Magazine, Salamander, White Whale Review and Consequence Magazine, his work has most recently appeared in Poetry Quarterly, The Monarch Review and BlazeVOX.

The Father of All Lies


1.
the murder


My father ghosts onto the trail, moon-lit sand—

                                                                                              Darkness the distance he hears them yell,
but he glides, burns in moon fire, & her old woman eyes open wide, shrink at the same time;
her tracheal cartilage fractures the air.

After he drinks so he cannot feel her last breath against his cheek, his grip
on her boney neck, can’t hear her gurgle.

Taut as strings on a lyre, he sees our mother’s silhouette in green
alarmclock light. Arm’s distance, she gasps—

She walks where the moon woman died. He’s a young man, her throat under his hand.



2.
complicity


I remember a black trunk at the foot of my parents’ bed, five stacks of letters tied with red
string, black & white photographs scattered in the removable drawer
where a short sword, flat across the toes of his boots, shone.

How the glint of steel caught my eye—

Running a finger along the edge, I sensed that blade deep in my marrow.
I heard steps on the stairs, but burned with the image of a young man standing like a cross,
smiling, head dangling from each hair-clenched fist—

Their two faces looked asleep forever.


 
3.
childhood


A seven-year-old I saw a hero in my father, though I didn’t know his name, & my father bound
his life to lies, a story-line, ideas how that hero’s name should sound—

Home, a mother who didn’t send him to a workfarm at eight, a life where he escaped sentencing,
where he never hung on the corner of Somerville Ave. in Winter Hill, never—

He attended Saint Mary’s for boys run by Jesuits & nuns who measured Christ’s love
with yardstick & ruler edges, & Father Mike’s marred knuckles
dealt penance enough.



4.
his whole life


At dances, my father kissed girls in plaid skirts until the Holy Ghost gave way to canned beer
fistfights with public school boys from Cambridge.

His father lay dying as they held hands in a disinfected hospital room.

He played guard for his high school’s basketball team, before that book binder’s job
to support his mother, before friends died for God & Country,

rather than having skulls caved in with a sixty-five pound barbell in the yard mid-day
over smokes, a fuck, skin color, a look—



5.
elegy for a fallen comrade


He died there, same as we all did. His dying just showed more, killed him faster.
Sure as I speak now, saying this: in a field of fear & steel, fists clenched in mud,
writhing through stench, through mortar-churned graves, more bullets than bees
in spring, poppies everywhere, larks sang for sunset—

His body lies under grass, while brambles of razor-wire, forgotten toe poppers & I persist,
unholy love poems to those who died for reasons of which they spoke
no knowledge.

 

6.
inertia


A cold lung of air strikes me how close one never gets to a man whose shadow stands that tall;
there’s a black & white photograph from which my father grimaces.

When I was a child at the kitchen table we laughed together over funnies,
his steel bones softened & he turned his face away from his stone face—
Sometimes I see his crook-tooth smile, still hear him laugh,

                                                                                                 but then a memory— Him breaking
a boy’s knee with a bat in front of our house; the boy crawls, blubbers; father whispers
before each blow: Time to pay the piper, kid. Time to pay.



7.
the long stare


My father told lies to soften his stare, to frighten me less & help me remember—
A black trunk of war memorabilia & other lies I wanted to be true.

He never told the shape of his loneliness:

Hatcheting heads from geese under January’s granite skies, hanging their little corpses on hooks
to bleed out, tenderness named the ache in the old farmer’s bones on the bitterest of days,

and the streets of Winter Hill before he killed.










Night Also Called My Name

1.

Mother conjured us into prophets & saints out of her simmering
Sunday dinner pot, alchemy of lamb,

breads & wines, garlic, tomatoes, Romano, until the air dizzied,
until the table rose to the ceiling

with grace:
Destined by The Lord God Almighty for the greatness
in the blood pounding through your veins
,

ever lifting us, or crushing us where we sat, mouths hanging
open with the weight we had to shoulder

after Christ pulled his big finale— How to follow a suicide? To prove
willing to be called? So much stirring under our skin,

and if we failed to believe, there was always the bottle, as if hell
wasn’t enough, the price we set for a lack of faith.

2.

Most mornings I could be counted among the saved, ready
to bare my soul to the parish priest in hopes that somewhere
there lived miracles in daily slices of bread, in saying grace,
in a glass of wine at evening meal, blood red, intoxicating.
I spent years believing in the pious smiles on their faces,

my neighbors who sat in the pews at mass, the incantations,
frankincense & myrrh working upon my mind, preparing
the way for the spirit with the holy word. Though, at times
I felt like Christ finding the temple turned into a market,
and each time wanted to tip the altar over, pointing my finger:

Hypocrites! Every one of you, & if I see your blemish, think
of His eyes, think what He sees—

3.

Other mornings, I trace the veins in my wrist
with the point of a utility razor, imagine flesh
opens like an unsealed envelope, a flap.
How easy I should find letting all this go,

the breathing aching bones of every day
waking to find I’m still here, still on my back
in the early morning gray— The terrible
memory weight rushes in, a troubling sack

of thoughts. I rise before dawn diffuses
gravity’s curtain, more my bones these days, a farce
played out between myself & the eye watching
from inside, who takes this so very seriously.

4.

The priest’s eyes glaring, burning for me to believe so he could believe,

stale wafers, Christ’s body sticking to roof & tongue, wine turned blood,

my altar boy robe covering everything but sneakers, hands & head,

being shown the proper way to carry the icon before the procession,

a brass chain, swinging the censer, tracing the Stations of the Cross in smoke,

the virgin’s powder blue robes, the sadness in her skyward eyes,

a crucifix suspended above the tabernacle, spikes through ankles & wrists,

the gash under His ribs, the image of the Roman Centurion with his spear,

the word love, a pronouncement we all must suffer with Him, through Him,

His thorn crown, the heady thoughts, the urge to cry aloud: Father, save us,

believing there was no way out, that I was bound for hell before birth,

kneeling & asking forgiveness for being me, for being so weak.

5.

Tell the truth, my best times were stolen Sundays
I lied to my parents & walked the woods to smoke,
listen to crows & November wind in the trees.

Low clouds crawling across the pond’s surface,
sweet decay of leaves, I skipped flat stones
smooth across the sky until each rock

turned ether before reaching the water’s other edge.
I listened to the distance between the world
where I stood & the far off highway

carried to my ear like the voice of mother calling me
home before my eyes could adjust to the darkness
quickening where night also called my names.










7 for Ajax

Look at this swirling tide of grief
And the storm of blood behind it
—Sophocles, Ajax      


1.


The warden sees the warrior’s name tattooed on the boy’s arm,
and burns to show the little shit his place.
He grabs him by the neck, drags him out of line & kicks him.

Time to teach you what your father never did.

Devout practitioner of Roman Dictums, in front of murderers serving steel & concrete,
he yanks the boy’s drawers down, whips him with a belt until he cries—
A lash for each layer, that terrible shield weight.

Count aloud with me, boy.
One... Two... Three... Four... Five... Six... Seven—


2.


In this game smashmouth rules apply—
Shirts versus skins. Whoever scores takes out. Blood draws blood.

Twenty ALL STARS stamp the half-court; each ping keeps clock.
Then a forward guard breaks inside—

Watchtowers, walls & razor-wire disintegrate
to knuckles, knees, elbows, a dog crap lawn, rust rim & backboard
nailed to a warped garage.

Almost a backyard where metal reverberates any hand that drives ball to net,
where a human tooth glistens on tar.


3.


The boy sees her intact eye stare across a hardwood floor as she dies—
He paces, rings the shadow judges
who sentenced him to suffer cinderblocks, a hole, his mind.

                                                                    He earns cuts, scrapes & breaks
with both hands, piston punches until he escapes his knuckles
split to bone, cracking on cold concrete—


4.


Lies awake & voices fill his mind:
There’s no life outside these walls.
Screwed down tight as a lid on a sealed fuckin’ jar—
Blood never washes off.

He remembers chicken-glass & razor-wire; a man’s iridescent orange jumpsuit
shivers like leaves in snow.

Nearby stands a silhouette, dumbbell raised high, death’s colossus
holding sixty-five pounds universal, iron so cold black burns—

The first swing crushes cheekbone, freezes him, an ant
praying to the sole of an icy shoe.


5.


The shank weighs as much as sunshine in his hand, & glides soft
as a breeze between that colossal neck

                                                                          and skull. The blade snaps,
turns the man just so— And that million mile stare as he lies
in the shit brown dirt to die.

Fourteen club strokes ghost across his back— His eyes darken & turn
to one long night unconscious in the hole.

***

He never escapes his cage, but stares between the bars of a fire
escape, feels a word gather at the tip—


6.


Like unextracted bullets, nightmares migrate, will not hold. Her dead eye
wraps his arms & legs in ice-blue sheets. A cat creeps from behind the cellar door.
At 3:47 a.m. his bones recoil a buckshot memory—

Heartbeats & breathing collapse: in the silence that follows, nothing.

Cigarette smoke in nightglow green; two eggshells, blood-specks,
yolks & all on a terra cotta floor.

He whispers words that twist his bones until he shivers:
Never let you go—Never.


7.


The television light answers his eyes, armchair, robe, slippers. Gray chest hairs
and skin show through terrycloth folds: The flame still flickers cold,
blank as all time
all at once,
a blank mind,
one must spend a blank mind.

Knuckles flatter than dimes,

brow lines like stitches in concrete, but that voice
laps the walls, an echo through water—

Take all this away,
the lifelong betrayal of form to function,
function to form, the ache to kill
& fuck. Here I bleed the ram & roast
fat in a fire.

Come to me sleep, silence of dirt.
Come to me.










A Crown for the Kingdom of the Dead

Only the ghost of Great Ajax, Son of Telamon,
kept his distance, blazing with anger at me still
—Homer, The Odyssey



1.


In the 7th circle, a carpenter with ten thumbs worth of knotted knuckles scrapes his face across
blackened brimstone as he crawls forth to earn a working wage. Awoken from a dream of seven
poems he cannot remember, but words bite his tongue, gold alligator clips wired to a car battery:
every day lasts an eternity building stanzas of fire for Minos to edit full of the dead. Yet who
stands there forcing his fingers inside the gash in his chest, trying to speak with crow-pecked
eyes? One of the underworld’s spiteful suicides—

 
 
2.


A child, Ajax, in premonitory visions, foresaw his suicide & remembered former lives. Not only
the Greek warrior, he lived keeper as well as kept. Here he destroyed, there sold insurance:
Marlowe, not Shakespeare; Oppenheimer, not Einstein; Teddy, not JFK. Whispering Achilles,
hearing Odysseus’ laughter in the dark, Ajax never escapes Athena’s wrath. Plagued by an eight-
armed god of self-strangulation, he tears at his own throat. His shame resounds off the world,
a funeral march tuned mute dirge, turned ghost.
 
 

3.


Ajax chose first to sacrifice what matters most. He foresaw his cleft heart & lungs, laughed
aloud thinking of death, but as his body slid down to the hilt, the madness wiped clear away
by purifying pain— As he lay dying, Ajax understood the cost of his vision, understood life’s
end: blackness upon sight. Journeying nowhere at once, he entered the underworld, a shadow
of foreboding in a shadow world of fearful wraiths. And when he stood before the mangled
carcasses heaped in that smoldering anteroom, he tore at his chest & turned his torso inside-out.

 
 
4.


Even in death words haunt me. I trace his name, a fire in the dust, while the blind prophet speaks
a wolf in my ears:
Beware the Greek bearing gifts. Hector’s wicked bronze unzips mind & spirit
in the end. Beware shifting Trojan sands. Look— Beneath your feet you will pry open a door to
the kingdom of the dead.
The stink of shit & blood wavers off a herd of sheep strung & stretched
from my tent poles, wet hides, intestines & viscera. Atop fourteen spears, lips peel back exposing
yellow teeth, blacked gums. Heads like cantaloupes fuzzed white with mold, their pomegranate
eyes stare from bitter darkness.
 
 

5.


Never again can I walk or strive among men, Tecmessa. They know what I’ve done. I hold caged
in my chest shadows I cannot speak. Kings will sail to enslave you, but even they gain no honor
by our shame. And you, my son, what defense does your name offer me against myself? Take up
your father’s bronze when he turns sightless. Toss shield & all into the deep. Ward death’s crows
off my corpse & place a gold coin for the boatman under my tongue to keep me from wandering
naked along that terrible riverbank, a year for every nightmare

 
 

6.


An old initiate in torture games, Ajax knows the man strapped to the chair will give his fathers’
mothers’ names to end the pain. For in hell’s final tiled room shame disappears, washing down
a steel trough in the floor. Cut seven digits from his knucklebones with rust-dulled pruners. Rip
out both eyes. Squeeze optic nerves with needle-nose pliers— The dead man’s confession
wrenches forward as before. Then he, well-schooled in unholy rituals, tears out the fourteenth
trinket for Minos’ necklace of tongues. With a forefinger, Ajax writes the last word on his white
rubber apron in blood.
 
 

7.


Razor-wire uncoils, slithers across walls bearing slogans that lie, but never expire: ARBEIT
chiseled in concrete above a steel door that swings wide on the mind’s prison floor. A seven
inmate chorus sings complaints in the fire, life’s squanderers, suicides flailing their scored
wrongs, sweating blood for someone else’s sins: MACHT. Their anger ignites gasoline mirrors.
Hubris divides their souls. But Ajax, FREI, knows who bears the blame for the heat’s terrible
reflection of his shame. Two caves once eyes stare fierce & mute into Odysseus’ face, the only
branding iron in that place.









Lake Fire Road

          .  .  .  for the homicides and those
Who strike out wrongfully:
       —Dante Alighieri, The Inferno


1.


Father’s two-seventy on my back as though riding a giant’s shoulders out of hell
to keep his feet above ground until we reach the finish line,
digging heels to spur me: Faster

Our sinking weight reminds me of the fable about the frog & the scorpion: a scorpion sees a frog
by the riverbank, asks for a ride to the other side. The frog doesn’t trust the scorpion,
but gives in to reason: Why would I sting you? If I did, we’d both drown.

                                                                                                   Mid-river, the scorpion stings the frog— 
Why?
Now we both will die.
Because, says the scorpion, stinging is my nature.





2.


My brother’s legs snap ground the way strings trail balloons that float away, & his breath
scrapes inside me until I swing my shovel against that boy’s head.

I remember cold as glass on skin, blue sky as steel.

And still the touch of a coal shovel makes me shudder, still I wince memory’s green schoolbags
when leaves scatter like yellow paper across snow, a thought of pencil lines, long division
and a boy’s face sleeping as blood spreads over ice—


 
 

3.


The meal I’ll eat cold for years starts with Judas Iscariot & a dash of Doubting Thomas.
Whisk John into boiling oil. Sauté Simon’s zealotry. Combine
Peter’s inverse crucifixion with Nathanael flayed & thinly sliced—

Light the burner. Spice to taste: Matthew, Mark, Luke—

Each bite tastes more acid: remember how father punched mother’s face, how we huddled
and closed our eyes, stuffing our mouths with prayers that we be beaten,
broken in turn—

Twelve blows in all, & her bruises bore apostles’ names, but we called them plums, mushrooms,
raspberries, lilacs, apples, eggplants, love taps.





4.


We moved off Lake Fire Road after that night— Mother’s laughter tinkles like chimes,
then the old Ford explodes outside our bedroom window in the drive,
where a burning rag holds dominion

                                                                  over my dreams of gasoline fumes wavering—
Fire spreads from a gloved hand, but I don’t see whose. A thunderclap rattles my teeth;
walls shimmer orange, red & black; blueboard & studs tremble to tear away.

Through smoke & flames I see my father’s wild horse eyes—

He scoops us from bed, flees into cold & darkness wrapped in white sheets,
a trinity in pools of light where shadows dance.




5.


My brother calls at five a.m.:
Hello?

                                                                          
You need to accept our father. You think one day
he’s suddenly going to fuckin’ molt his exoskeleton? You can’t change him any further.
And you’ll regret not reconciling your differences. When he’s gone, you’re knocking
at a bolted door behind which no one lives. Dead gone— History’s exiled son.

Silence hangs between us like a torrent.

But for me, it’s time to stop giving the scorpion a ride.





6.


Even now father stares, stone gathering behind his eyes, & I hear him
promise: Anyone hurts you, I’ll kill them.
But you grow a long foot
I’ll break both in half.


I thought his anger had to do with toes forcing through sneakers
before he could afford another pair, a threat to break
me into smaller, less expensive shoes.





7.


After fourteen years our house on Lake Fire Road stands abandoned, windows boarded. Inside,
dust, linoleum peeling. A framed mirror hangs askew in the front hall, reflects slatted walls
we cut open to search:

             Father, where are we going?                   The land of seven lies & seven endings.


            Will there be monsters?                              Only the ones we bring with us.


            Will you protect me?                                   Nobody can.

I sit in my underwear crying against a wall. Porchlight through lace curtains falls
across my feet on the hardwood—

To this day, I cannot remember my way home. I wander streets in small towns
looking for the right sign.

 

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                                                                                                                                           August 2011