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Joseph Kenyon

Hell With the Lid Off


[Pittsburgh, as described by

Boston writer James Parton

in 1868.]


That a place of water and rock

could be so formed by fire,

that untameable, unsatiated blaze,

the captured dragon unsubdued:

its cauldron head descending,

steel pouring, sparks spitting,

slicking cement floors with wavering

molten lines between

process and incineration.

Even the sky paid for proximity;

thirty miles away the horizon

glowed orange as if flames

were licking the paint off the night.


The men filed out: singly, sooty,

shift-light, shirts simultaneously

soaked and dried, a line of St. Georges

with the tongue of the devil

and a thirst for an Imp and an Iron.

In the half-darkness of the bars,

they debated kids and cars,

sports and exploits, the flames

reflected in set faces, sidelong

glances, a blackened finger

subtely raised for another round.


They went home eventually,

ate the stews, the roasts, the pies

baked by wives who had stopped

dreaming of clean curtains.

They made love in grinding fashion,

in mini-molten desires, the roar

and the hiss of arc furnaces

in every kiss. The women

set their faces against the black

snow, the midnight afternoons,

making light where none existed.


Until none existed. Almost overnight,

one by one, the mills decayed

into carcasses, the fires snuffed.

The men spent their time in lines,

a once-assured life now erased

from the inside out, their loss

cold-rolled on their souls.


From sagging porches and bars

with staid signs and hard memories,

they watched sons and grandsons

navigate the same twisting streets,

children of different seed

who saw one hill from another,

who raised tall buildings in clear air,

who stood on iron roots yet were

weatherers of gentler storms,

sifters of a softer clay.


Violinist Playing the 1812 Overture 


In winter,

with the French troops falling

and the bow and the snow

swirling through the hall

how could Napoleon miss

the weather in the open white lights?

Perhaps he was distracted

by the fifth chair second violin

her hair and wood turning to gold

both instrument and player

so femininely shaped,

so un-Marie Louise.

And that cruelty of snow

falling in photons that

each chord thickens

changing the landscape

of baton and string,

ambition and loss.


Every sound goes slack in snow.

Cold winds blow mutely

along downshifting fingers

when even the cannons muffle

their roars, accept the inevitable.

What follows is a soft retreat

out of a hard place, a dying

across the fields of the hall.

Her bow hand slides away

like a sword dropped in slush

which was once lush,

verdant grass.



Standard Operating Procedure


[An American bomber crew caught in a sudden

severe storm over Italy in 1944 followed SOP

by releasing its ordinance into what the maps

showed as an empty field in case they crashed.

They didn’t, but the field was part of a rural

orphange, and 26 children were killed]


Thunderheads snafu a plane,

its wheels weaving

in drunken cursive above fields

more full than they appear.


Standard Operating Procedure

Is plain-spoken.

No article-slash-paragraph

offers regs for soul-searching.


Children look up

a man looks down:

curious eye

crosshair eye.


In such a suspended moment

survival goes to those

who have the least to lose and

life measures less than an inch:

finger tip, button head,

the area of depressed space,

typed name—last comma first.


So much of death is unintended.

dispersed amidst the rain,

falling from an empty sky

on the hands of an empty field.


Joseph Kenyon’s fiction and poetry revolve around the role that history and myth continue to play in modern life. He recently completed a quasi-historical novel and his most recent poems appeared in Eternal Haunted Summer and an anthology dedicated to Freya. When not writing, Kenyon teaches at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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