poems in the march shredness tradition: josh bell

While Josh Sleeps, Vince Neil Recites His "Love Song for Flight Attendant on Continental Express 1147, to Austin, Texas"

(reprinted from Alamo Theory [Copper Canyon Press])

I am a system of oppression
and you’re a Scorpio, with Austin
coasting toward us as the shark, though all
we can really see from here
is a polar sheet of clouds, the world not round at all
like we’ve suspected, nor in possession
of the manufactured edge, but flat alone
and going on forever, nothing up here
to walk across or screw a headboard to,
and I fear we won’t be able
to maintain this level of honesty
with each other. People are listening. Depression
is the normal body, just the giant thing
strapped to G-forces, so hard
to lift one’s head, and in the final analysis
I hate a cup of tea: it always tastes
like roots to me, and roots
are so proud, headed for the hidden sources
like scholarly experts, moving always further
away from what they feed. You know
I didn’t want, along with the earthward
mermaids, to honor my way
onto the beach, pectoral fins evolving
toward the better flag
of hands. Rather than that earth,
if we should break into it, I’d like to fall into the sea
from here, grow tails with you, return
to where fish robs fish
and the big snails move
ponderously, alone as automobiles
and far from grace, as we were told,
the word salvation not invented yet
nor the forfeiture of sound. I don’t know
what I mean. Microbe and harness,
the ocean will not invent us, and 1) as I have said, honesty
is important; 2) in stature, yes, you are a very
tiny person, and yet, 3) you know how it is
with some sharks: younger
in testament, emergent conditions
in the water park, but never
leave a tooth behind. And so it is
I fantasize that I’m a smaller person
on airplanes, though history teaches us
that bodily confinements—
the tray stand, the void—sometimes lead to thought
and vision. Josh will tell you
if you ask him it was William Blake
who walked outside one day
and saw a tree, teeming with angels, and I think
Blake may have even thought
they were a pretty sight. I wouldn’t have been so sure: hard
to tell an angel from a ghost:
both of them repositioning chains
in high branches, both extremely dedicated
to craft, both with the heavenly light
streaming out of their mouths, both utterly
and horribly dead. In truth I don’t like flying at all
but not for the usual reasons: I think they should make flight
a more terrifying experience, the employment
of glass bottomed planes, or pilots
reciting the Lord’s Prayer, other bits
of inspirational verse, flight attendants
who pretend to hear me say
I have a bomb, come and live with me
inside this bomb
. But mostly I feel so vulnerable
with all these strangers looking
at the back of my head. I wish I had eyes
back there, but also a living nose, and a mouthful
of working teeth, though this of course
makes me wonder how it would feel
to kiss two women at once,
on both sides of my head, with the regular mouth
and the back-up. You would be
such a conduit, the women sending messages
to each other through your skull, and since
you were the implement, you would never know
if they were telling lies about you
or just speaking intimately, like sisters,
who dig their tunnels through a hill
from both directions, meet in the middle
where they hold hands and collect grubs
and earthworms in a Holly Hobby lunch-box.
But I like it best, with the single mouth,
when the woman misjudges the spacing a bit,
then cracks into your teeth
with her teeth, like a shark hitting the cage, and this all well before
the underpants and the nicotine patches
hit the floor, you and your partner the known center
of the named tradition, the body’s mystery unanswerable
(sweet, sweet lunch-box)
yet completely exhaustible, the male
still the taller of the species, and not a different
kind of animal. There’s an honesty, at least,
in these collisions, maybe just because
you get reminded of your skeleton, there beautiful
but hidden, so no one ever gets to see it
in the light, at least not during the parley
of affectionate conditions, its vision only sanctioned
by the body through a windshield
and later in the weird
flirtation of the trauma ward.  When you
were just a kid, I rocked Austin
on back into Mexico, afterwards walked the strip
without bodyguard, my tongue like a sheet of sand paper
working the roof of my mouth
into a vaulted proscenium, the angelic orders
inscribed into the fishscale patterns
of the hard palate, and I wished
to be small enough to stand
on the stage of my own tongue,
ping a couple of high notes off the new
acoustics, as it seemed sometimes—
like in the myth about the maiden changed to stone—
that my voice would never end,
and the man stamping hands outside
the club I wound up in (Austin), did he not hold my hand
a little longer than necessary? then look
into my eyes? He smelled like
a copy machine, the void rolling off of him
8 x 11, and in that way—and I mean this
as a compliment—you kind of remind me
of him. So when you finally take yourself away
to the other passengers, I’m going to hit
the call button, and you’ll come walking back to me
down the narrow aisle, and then we’ll head off
to the bathroom together, leave the occupied sign
unlit, so one by one the passengers
will have to look upon us, unawares,
but be forced to hold their disapproval in abeyance
since we will just be standing in there, clothed
and deciding where we’re going to stay
on our honeymoon, joking over how
we forced an entire wedding party
into wearing white, how down the aisle the best man wheeled
your ring to you on a tiny cart (thanks
Tommy), and all the cows sleeping below us
in the pastures as we fly over them, they will lay themselves down
and finally sleep like normal people, without fear
of the rubric of the wolf or the gallows
of their own untenable weight. The earth
is funny that way, not always the receptacle
of monoliths. In the mean time,
though, I’ll have a couple of aspirin
and whatever it was that William Blake
was having, and then I’d like to ask the pilot now
if I could be returned to this bit
of airspace again, this one, right there,
it’s gone now, so sad: it had that anonymous,
rectangular feeling to it, like a hotel room
or the top of a pool table, and for a just a couple
seconds there—remember?—right before we started dropping
through a bank of clouds topping off Austin
like a barrister’s wig, we were happy in it.

Vince Neil’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, As Transcribed by Josh, in a Crowded Hotel Bar One Afternoon, Being a Poem Spoken in the Future, During the Upcoming AWP Conference of 2014, in Seattle, Washington


(reprinted from Alamo Theory [Copper Canyon Press])


Of the latter heroes I was most
supine, handed out
warnings to women who were pregnant
or were likely to become pregnant,
hope tucked bloodless
into saddlebag, neither hunter
nor borrower, sometimes
referred to myself as It — 
as in charity is
its bird machine
 — a strap-on fashioned
out of bits of the foregone cross
coming at me from the future
in the tiniest and the most
lineal of dreams, my preferred
haruspex pondering
her retirement and my new
address as quickly
dirty as the last, in times of war
immune to alarum,
at least fifteen minutes away
from sword and armor, the valves of my heart
opening and closing slowly
like the wings of a new butterfly
at rest upon the battlements
of overweening Troy, and all
the maidens and immortals



and the handful of princes who,
in those days, took time away
from their own troubled narratives
to stop and save me from myself or from
the ancient boy-scout Death
are now themselves long dead
by natural and/or
mythological causes. Don’t mention it
they seemed to say with their great
careful bodies
as they turned them from me in departure.
Don’t mention it and drifted leonine
and smooth toward the assault
on their promised
constellations and perhaps
the foreign-funded rebellions
of their homicidal children,
got upon or beneath majestic animals
and graduate students, ears crisp
but not always white
as snow. And where was I — year
of the jellyfish, cossacked,
bowing feastless
before capital — when they
in their turn required me



and I heard them cry out for me
from the dust that their fallen bodies made
in the dust, even better
and taller destroyers looking down
upon them, their lives an end-note
of snuffed out goat-bone, free-range
angels slumped out
on conveyor belts, felled
by slotting bolt in a rusty hank
of factory-light, and by the transitive property
and a million miles away
a flower of blood popping
from the dashboard
of my Camaro? No, you haven’t



heard all of this before,
dirtlings. Moreover
there’s something not quite real
about sex dolls. They can’t
be strangled to death



and the conditions for such
an act, the aura of its chance, like
gravity, makes the minimalism
of the vestibule
a possibility. If you don’t like
the vestibule, then what about
the service elevator, where tonight we’ll strangle
down so easily? Also, the zombie prostitutes
and hustlers, who have laid up
like sandwiches
for hours beneath heat lamps
in order to trick me, with their customized
temperature, that they are living beings to kiss
when they arrive at my hotel door
is one of those bad dreams
spoken of, above. In those days
of the dream, and of the various
kingdoms of conscience, I was set on taking
only baths, as in the shower
it was too easy to cry
over the specifications, and kept track
of war and politics
as one does the deeds
of distant cousins. Who’s the blond
is what I said to myself, then, when I saw
my picture, for the first time
in the record store, wearing my stage-clothes
and the wig of Viking sex-goddess



on the cover of the first album
and winking back up
into my face. It was the me
before, it was the me
pictured, and then it was the me
confused and aching for me
after realizing I was me, that it
was me, that charity was
its bird machine, that its soul
had been lifted from out of its body
as if borne up between
the teeth of a giant
black wolf. Like a lot of goddesses
I spent much of my youth
avoiding rape. It wasn’t a soul, really,
but how else, like a penitent, to talk
about the way the wolf
was eating it? I don’t think it’s true
that you owe a debt to those
who’ve saved your life, that your life is theirs
until the favor is returned. The chance
at favor rarely comes
unless you’re in the movie
of favor, and no matter, as once
someone saves you
they can no longer exist
truly for you, you a check
in the win column, it is like they are suddenly



a whale now, shooting between
exoplanets, it is like making out
with a galleon, it’s a problem to have
a decent conversation or a lunch
with those who have
delivered you. If you’re not into
the vestibule, then what do you think
about the Holy Roman Empire? And when
the witches say be you full of Jove
then be you full of Jove. Don’t make me repeat myself
in front of the poets. Who wouldn’t want to stay



the same size forever
and in successive contexts, so much better
the love object dead
than alive and unable to speak to me normally
in the manner of things
that marry with the other things
and without debit. I can’t go on, Josh,
unless I’m told if that bartender
is a woman or what? And this is also why
I will refuse to save the rest of you,
you Richards and you Kimberleys, notebooks
holstered, chipping like you said
at the lexicon. But also I would
like to focus on another you, that’s right



you with the feather in your teeth out there, you
breathing in the dark beyond
the mis en page, future you, first-person-
limited-omniscient, maybe living
in the lunar colonies, where you weigh
the pros and cons of making war
against the empire
of the planet Earth. You don’t
want to pay your taxes either,
and you are fortunate
to be reading this, thumbing it open in front
of your face, holding inside your chest
and hidden far from my eyes
the vulnerable power-core
of your secret wished-fors, time’s
quilted darling, why are you so strong
out there at the edge of minutes



looking back at me
so dead? You vivid
and gazing out of the bright, blue windows
of Castle Fuck-Me, you considering all of this distraction
like it is wrist-watches
or the faces of the swept-
of-fish-free-seas of your former
home the Earth. You are all
that can be thought of, like a wedding reception
after the bride and groom
have retired for the night, so dangerous
and explicit. It’s not paranoia. The entire universe
is out to get you pregnant. Ramona, Ramona,



why is it me
pretending to be Josh
this time around? Josh, writing up
his inaugural poem. Josh



in the kitchen
with usura. I can feel it, the blood he donated
to me, yesterday, in the blood-
mobile, that blood skipping new
like a little colt inside me. Some people believe
that the name we give
to the planet Earth
is too plain, but the plain-ness of the title
makes the planet easier to miss. Another strategy
is to wear the same clothes, like
a uniform, day after day, so that those days
seem like one day
which will never end. You won’t believe it,
but I used to be alive
outside of books, in a life which crossed
between two centuries:
in the first century, some things happened
which were too far away
and in the second, some things happened
which were too close. And once in there,
when I was young, more hungry
than patient, I thought I bit into
a carrot stick, but instead
and growling bit into my finger, both predator
and prey. Shame is a big part
of being eaten alive, and because of it
I have been dining at home now
for 1001 nights, not mature enough,
conceptually, to have
any dealings with the true
human body. Now I think you’re getting a better sense
of what my being is. Yes officer, I was angry.
All life not within my immediate survey
was a lie. Little horse, little horses,



I swear the Earth
was still breathing when I left it.

Josh Bell is the author of No Planets Strike and is Briggs Copeland Lecturer on English at Harvard University.

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