The Guard of Sipán
In 1987 in Perú, an archaeologist found the unplundered tomb of a god-king known today as the Lord of Sipán. The tomb contained priceless treasures and large food stores, both of which the king would need on his journey to the afterlife. Also found were the remains of several men and women, a child, a dog, and two llamas, all apparently buried alive. One of the men had had his feet removed prior to being interred, presumably in keeping with the tradition of dismembering royal guards to prevent them from fleeing the king’s side in the afterlife.
Night has passed, I think, though these squalid airs
still hold no heat. Darkness sounds like thunder
here every heartbeat, every hour we heirs
of glorified empire abide deep under
soft hills mined to sand, green hills grazed to dust.
We wait while their wars take our young red sons,
mock seas in fierceness, the cruelty in rust.
Boys sing secretly for he who outruns
the lord’s men. A strong man, though, knows his arms
are not his own—knows others know his body best.
Still, my hours reek of bleak, blaring alarms—
like now: one woman’s woken from rest:
in stillness she shudders as llamas bleat,
and knows I must kill her if she tries to eat.
Blind Willie Johnson
Around 1905, seven-year-old Willie Johnson was permanently blinded when his step-mother, angered at his father’s infidelity, threw lye in the boy’s face. As an adult, he embarked on a career in music, spent on the street corners and in the Baptist churches of Beaumont, Texas. A recording session in Dallas produced some of the most popular religious music of the era due to the appeal of Johnson’s vigorous pocketknife slide guitar style, his gravelly false bass, and a penchant for making the holy sound secular, for using the blues idiom to convey the Word. Around 1945, Johnson survived his house’s catching fire, yet he slept on wet bedding and contracted pneumonia. As his illness progressed, he sought treatment at the hospital in Beaumont, but was denied admission. He died shortly afterwards.
Sheep, sheep, can you find your way home, through briar-
gored fields, searching blind with no eyes to see hell,
with no breath to speak God, where men belch sin-fire
to whiskey-minded women? Didn’t I lead you well?
Outside Saint James Infirmary with night’s clientele—
whoresmen and hustlers who’ve sinned and defiled,
done wrong all their lives—I sang as the Jezebel,
the Cain, the Judas rebuked Jesus’ mercy mild.
Though I know: Sunday’s wind pricks like a fretting hand
while the dark strums him raw, even for one who’s reviled
Saturday’s gin every day he’s breathed. And farmland
loved and nurtured like the Lord’s own Child,
can bring forth rock for a lifetime haul.
How the Lord sometimes makes a Job of us all!
Syrian Hadji Ali arrived at Indianola, Texas, in 1856 with thirty-three camels, purchased for the Army’s new U.S. Camel Corps. The camels were brought to support supply routes in the Southwest, and Ali, whose name was soon anglicized to “Hi Jolly,” had been hired to teach soldiers how to use them. Despite the camels’ demonstrated usefulness, the soldiers hated them, and by the eve of the Civil War, they had all been sold or released. Years later, in 1903, a 75-year-old Ali sat in a saloon in Quartzite, Arizona, when a prospector rushed in, talking of an enormous camel just outside town. Ali stood and left. Several weeks afterward, his body was found in the desert, his arms wrapped around the neck of what may have been the last camel in the Southwest.
Were not my throat a knotted cord of drizzled glass
or my legs twigs of ant-gnawed wood, waiting to betray!
Ah, then I might gain that distant, doomful bray
and pray with another sad brute that quickly life may pass
into human leather spanning Shinbone Crevasse.
But the prints upon which jagged buzzard-shadows play
fade in this light, and toothy mouths seek untroublesome prey
as sand-scarred and thorny things punish my bold trespass.
Only just over that peak—though my feet split like burst wineskins—
must lie my serai among date palms and emerald oases.
Before full dark, I’ll have slipped there like a sparrow past trammels
to hold opulent feasts with fellow caliphs and sultans.
There I’ll eat roasted lamb and lick honey from backs of bees.
I’ll rest in the arms of Allah, then ride to heaven, carried by camels.
J. Todd Hawkins strives to explore the power of juxtaposition in his writing: the union of prose and verse, the narrative and the lyric, the familiar and the unexpected. A graduate of the University of Texas and Texas Tech University, he has had work published in American Literary Review, Concho River Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Antietam Review, and several other journals. Recently, he presented a series of historical poems at the University of Mississippi’s Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference.