February 1999

John McKernan


Henry Taylor

Mark Bibbins
  Sharon Cumberland
  Philip Dacey
  Daniela Gioseffi
  Brent Goodman
  Mark Halperin
  Ben Howard
  Stellasue Lee
  Linda Lerner
John McKernan
  DeWayne Rail
  David Rigsbee
  Peter Robinson
  Terry Savoie
  Joseph Stanton
  Mary Winters

David Grayson

Lloyd Schwartz

Rosa Shand
  Daniela Gioseffi

John McKernan John McKernan teaches at Marshall University, West Virginia. His forthcoming book, Postcard from Dublin won the 1997 Dead Metaphor Press Chapbook Contest.  He has appeared  in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Field, Antaeus, New England Quarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
Except   Except You Are A Woman    Read Along with the Author

You remind me exact   Of my Brother Tom
Of his fearless suicide warpath

Especially his industrial-strength hatred
Your hippie-style long blonde hair
Thin bones   Radiant light-complected skin

Your bright blue-gray eyes   Quick  Quick
Except   He never kerosene torched
His father's historical register
Antique log cabin  Office & Print Shop  

Or loosened precisely every lug nut
Of his mother's mint-condition
Interstate-bound '90 Jaguar convertible
Listen   Keep your hatred lean & direct
Don't ever switch the target to yourself



Phone Sex    Read Along with the Author

Of course you are dead     What makes you think
That curtain on your retina is a clot
Of orange light?   And those herbs stuffed in each
Nostril    As if perfumes were a form of praise
And not a warning or a jinx  or a lie    Besides
There is something now inside your body
Besides your body    Like the skeleton
Of a shadow or the spine of a flame
Come here   If you can    You still have a name
Rising in brass    Chiseled deep in granite
With breath it will precede you down the new
Corridors of the world    Summer's green ribbons
Winter's bright white wrapping paper    Behold
The chair    In which you sat just yesterday
Bearing your absence as calmly as your weight



Waiting For The Freight Train To Pass    Read Along with the Author

Huntington    A sound track for King Lear
Rifle fire sound track for Bambi

When she was four    My daughter Katie
Knew what was going to happen to Bambi's mother
We left the theater into Boston twilight

She didn't want
To go back  
For her Milk Duds & pop corn
I did but didn't

I was afraid too    Years ago
At Tim Harrington's birthday party
Trip to the Orpheum Theater in Omaha
The Day the Earth Stood Still
I peered over the back row seat

At the hypodermic Washington Monument
At the vast rotating pancake pods
Sprouting their Siberian glaciers
On the lawn of the White House
I didn't even have to open my eyes
To see the freight train darkness   Still don't



Words At The Edge Of The Woods    Read Along with the Author

I've not seen you in some time

"Not since I became a wall    Lying here on the

The herbs need to be coaxed from their stalks

"If you think these fingers will dig there again
you have fewer brains than a mint leaf
or too many skulls in your brain"

Perhaps this knife might yield a new alphabet
of desire

"It's only a slice of metal"

But it has a will of its own

"Then you are . . . . "




The Future Of An Idea    Read Along with the Author

Yet another heroin overdose

True Lethe this time

Pool of black water but stir in some more
powdered charcoal

The siren off    Another one of those
chromey FORD Diesels with a thick
powder-baby-blue wrap-around
stripe slides through the hospital gate

They always have a light on in the back

I think they're drinking coffee talking
Nebraska football

Maybe it was your joke but that snow then
tasted like powdered dog shit
Dirty white    Like your Mother's poodle

Numb   Like chewing ice for — oh — three hours

Sex definitely must have no meaning
any longer

Your girlfriend is so beautiful she makes
Sharon Stone look ugly

"No   I am not a guardian"

The eyes of a dozen — No   Five dozen —
children stare up out of
a bowl of soup

They're slicing off his jeans with a scalpel
Scissoring off his T-shirt
"What shoes?"

Midnight neon light always reminds me
of ice on Omaha sidwalks
I don't care what the color

He was never mean or cruel   Misused
nouns & verbs & time & breathed
air calmly

The phrase rigor mortis makes me think of
a nest of copulating worms

I like the letters of the alphabet
that have hook edges    Serifs
It seems they want to say more

Your name will look beautiful in stone

Some leaf bleach flower stains for effect

Save it   You could put my pity in a Baggy

The kind we used when kids to carry
our homemade chunky Skippy
peanut-butter powdered-sugar
sandwiches to the Caddy Shack

You actually believed the golfers
had something worth wanting

Good Bye    Good Luck

In Dante, one of the books after Hell
is Heaven



Letter    Read Along with the Author

My father came to me in a dream on a cobweb
Gleaming   In sunlight   Through a window
A lake of stars suspended in each thread    Saying

“Remember   Those threads of incense   Nothing’s left
Remember   Those altar candles at noon   Nothing’s right
You think that I’m here   But I’m not   Or there”

“You’re not my father”   I said   “My Dad had
Thick coal black hair slicked back tight with red
Wildroot Hair Oil Tonic    A rough gray beard

Prickly bristles as my brother Jim & I
Gave him the haircut special & a shave
As he lay exhausted    Barely breathing

On the living room couch   There   Forever
In the hum of Omaha’s purple twilight
On Cass Street    The neighborhood's pop-bottle

Whistles screech-herding their children home
“What was it like to die?”   We wanted to ask
“Anything like washing the blue Buick

In the street    Saturday mornings    In front
Of the house    Those huge pale orange sponges
Oozing soap suds    Whisking the dirt & grease

Into a concrete macadam rainbow
How in the fall football Saturdays
You’d lug those huge filthy storm windows

From the coal bin basement    Orange sponges
Leaking their reeking vinegar    The squeegee
Whispering its mirror clarity in a noon sun

Bringing the world tighter into our bright eyes
“Come back!”  we wanted to chant  “Here   To your death
The doctors got it all wrong    Look   We will try

To squeeze the insulin back into the tubes
Of the green IV    We want to peel your eyes
Open again    We are slapping your face

Again     Bringing some color back to your eyes
And here are my small hands pushing on your chest
Trying to get you to drink another quart

Of air    You can’t go yet into the other world
You have to protect us from the neighbors
Their smiles and the chatter of Boys Town

Girls Town    Coils of foster love & hope
And look    There is your brother with his tray
Of fly-specked day-old doughnuts & cheese

Sandwiches    You have to push him out the door
Again    Disconnect doorbells    Dim the lights
Pull shades  Save us from . . . [Who were those people?]

With their parade of red Radio Flyer wagons
Dripping sugar flour kidney beans Malt-O-
Meal pickled okra canned turnips beets mush . . . .

Your beautiful wife in her stunned brown hair
Will circle the room staring at 7 kids
Their eyes peeled open by sleep    Tiny arms

Glowing like chicken bones in a crock pot
Their toes inside new shoes clawing the green
Airs of a new smelly carpet    If you don’t

Return    We will spend all of our lives
Undoing that day     When the hammered morning
Of your scream    Like a bright red kite    Floated

Over Omaha    When the June noon sky was
A needle and each of our eyes     It in all
Was the target    Point-Blank    You never missed



John McKernan: Poetry
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue SixThe Cortland Review