Sunflower Brother

(Cleveland State University Press, 2006)

Winner of the 2006 Cleveland State University Press Open Book Competition

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“Sam Witt” confesses, ‘The truth is,//I love the world./Sometimes part of me even loves/what we’ve done to it.’ Witt loves out world hard, and what he does for it is to fashion a language, sad and bitter but tough and full of sunflowers, that shows us a way to love it, too. This is poetry for strong readers.” – Robert E. McDonough, CSUPC Editorial Board





Selected Poems:

The Cold War

The Cold War

A field of razorwire
drifting through my sleep, a chip of magnesium
glowing faintly under my fingernail,
I swear it was my own

little war, the terrified world
spinning like a coin—
and I could never find the finger to touch your face,
by accident, in a filling station.

For instance, two boys catch
a hummingbird out of the living air.
They seal it in a jar without holes, its flecked,
metallic wings tremble, flutter still.

I watched it just now, spinning
to a stop, this dwarfed planet breaking down.
I suppose I am an instant, a cooling tower
of concealed clouds.  We were that close.

From a thousand miles away
you burn a valley of flammable air
into my chest, and I breathe it, when I sleep.
In school they taught us

each atom was a solar system,
with a sun, and thousands of planets.
They were wrong. They were wrong
about my finger,

capable of touching your cheek.

A Brief History of the South

—for Emmett Till, July 25, 1944-August 28, 1955


Night air.  Sweetgum and oak; the stain
of Sunday greens, all the life boiled out.
Once again the fields are virginal,
gauzed in mist.  A whippoorwill sings high

in the cottonwood, sings absurdly;
the Tallahatchie, a lead angel
that rises and falls back in its chains,
keeps sliding nowhere to the color of rust.

Why are the trees cloaked in black?
Heaped with a requisite sorrow, like
the attics of the dead, sheeted, emptied out:
dust, ash, the shadows of the world—

the moon has swung to a stop.
Like a brass clockweight it holds down the sky.
And why are the stars cloaked in black,
expectant, only the tips flashing?

Because his eyes continue to fill
with a wild darkness: a last song whistles
through his teeth, falls still.  Because there’s no air
in a river, and a body to breath it,

his lungs are filled.
O Father, O Holy Bruise.

Afterwards they chained an old gin fan
to his neck.  Arms, chest, fingers,
into the river’s dark love: a mouthful of dogtags,
silt.  The blood.  The wine.

Sunflower Brother

1.  Poppyship


Nights like these he visits:
                               fistful of needles, jar of fireflies
dying like an ancient, walled city on the sill.
I can’t see it,
                   this black fire

softly folded home, this window pane that drips
as he drifts from room to room.

Here in the kitchen, the pendulum swings off-time.

Here, everything and nothing swings off-time.
I can’t see him,
                   I can’t see him, he’s alive: a sunflower, unfolding
out of these spiny needles drawn with dew, it bursts into flame,

the blazing pupil of a God, then pinpoints to an eye, just a child’s, really,
                   there, a Japanese paper flower that blooms

into this little junkyard of lights
                                         in the window’s black waters.
I feel him like broken glass,
                               swimming in my veins,
nights like these—


His arm won’t bleed, empty blue sleeve.
His porcelain head will not break.

O long-lashed, innocent eyelids slid back,
that’s his breathing,
                               all around me.  Then it echoes to a tick.
Little ocean of breath,
                               I bury you in my clenched fist,
I put you to my ear, doubled over, I listen.

It ticks again: alive, alive.
I’m blowing my fist into a mass of faintly glowing glass,

a bottle, and just when it hardens,
                   just when I call it brother,
                                      we are sinking
into its immense belly,
                               we are tiny now, a ship
of skin-and-bone, carrying its immensely expensive cargo
of poppy seeds and blood,
double-helixing down into this black, down,

into little nothing-waves as we breathe.


2.  The Sunflower


Shadow of an arm, blueprint of veins
etched into the nightsky; I limp through the hanging garden,
my left leg dead as a pendulum,
                                      an axe that won’t swing.

The valley of your elbow slides into the Milky Way.
Like bruised stars, like caterpillar eggs
shining on a bed of black leaves, your trackmarks
pulse into their own Aurora-Borealis:

one half of your skin lies on the horizon’s side,
its purple veins shaken down, glowing like a marbled seam.

One half of your breath fills the ash-tree’s empty suits.

If the breeze carries a scent of burning tar and hay,
if the ash tree lifts its cancerous robes
to reveal a knotted gut of piano wire and gear,
the shadow of its side slapped with grease,
I know it’s you.
                                      Black luminous dew,

beloved of garden spiders and hummingbirds,
black venom, the outer leaves shredded

like torn rags—ah, Sunflower-brother,
faceless young god of the weedpatch,

I limp to your sulfur-glow,

seedless pregnancy, explode!


3.  Within


You will be discarded like the days that anticipate winter;
rooted like the dead, whose thought touching fingers
limp toward the sun.  Lift your toothless head.
The Son of the flower has risen, not quite a man;

rooted like the dead, whose thought touching fingers
explore the sulfur-darkened sockets of fallen seeds.
The Son of the flower has risen, not quite a man:
I stare into its slumbering golden face,

explore the sulfur-darkened sockets of fallen seeds.
Where a black seed should rest, where ants pull a bee’s wing,
I stare into your slumbering golden face
and read the words tattooed into that Bible of yellow skin.

Where a black seed should rest, where ants pull a bee’s wing,
the eye limps deeper like an eye—it doesn’t pause
to read the words tattooed into these Bibles of yellow skin:
our sins, our aluminum sins.  It’s candlelit,

the eye limps deeper like an eye.  Don’t pause
by the rooms, the empty chairs, by the stained windows that sing
our sins, our aluminum sins;  it’s candlelit
within.  And like one lost body, we wander

by the rooms, the empty chairs, by the stained windows, we sing:
remember me, and wake into this tiny burning field,
within; you are just one lost body wandering
through my meadow lit by another sunflower’s torch.

So we remember, and wake into a vastly burning field,
and like a drunk shepherd, call the flock back home,
through a meadow lit by another sunflower’s torch—
our beloved, our dirty little black-faced sheep.  They’re coming, too.

Like a drunk shepherd, have I really called the flock back home?—
sugarfluffs, soft eggs the moon has lain:
my beloved, my dirty little black-faced sheep:
Emptiness yawns at a stone’s throw in the grass.

Sugarfluff, soft egg the moon has lain,
cricket legs are building a matchstick gallows in the cracks,
at a stone’s throw, where emptiness yawns in the grass:
this little sheep sinned at market.

Cricket legs are building a matchstick gallows in the cracks,
we cannot see their tiny threads of song—
this little sheep sinned at home
which pierce between the ribs of our fading, woolen side.

I cannot see their tiny threads of song
from which I hang, and as each dirty snout lovingly strokes the wound
pierced between the ribs of our fading, woolen sides,
they fall, these yellow thoughts of within,

and lovingly stroke our dirty snouts, our wound,
and like the discarded days that anticipate winter,
we rise on a thread, one yellow thought of within.
Sunflower-brother, lift your toothless head:

we are limping at last toward the sun.


With Crickets

With Crickets

for Victoria Helen Johnson, 1958-1988


It could have been on a night like this,
with crickets and rain,
when the swallows and the wrens
have sounded their last wing-flaps
through the branches, have taken roost.
I could feel the crickets like a fever on the air,
their last, dumb song maddening, alive:
you are standing again in that spring of honeysuckle
and oak, in a garden, your stomach barely swollen.
Of all this, though, what matters is here:
two camel crickets, after the rain has stopped,
mating on my window sill, one on top
of the other, abdomens splotched
and spangled as a lizard’s back.

I can’t believe how still they are.
One antenna tentative and sweeping, how slowly
they turn towards me, opening,
pulsing now, stirring the dried shell
of a yellow jacket.  When one leg lifts
and rubs across another, I’m holding my breath.
Then, at last, the warbling call cracks,
draws itself out, a single breath
in my room.  I put out the light, lie back,
I slowly draw one leg across the other.
When a human embryo is seven weeks old,
the brain shines through its forehead, a cloud
of light, belly-deep and breathing,
the whole, luminous mass cabled and alone,

as the moon, torn off new, must have been,
cooling in its black waters.  When I heard
what you did to yourself, the cyanide
on the fruit roll-up, the easy chair reclined,
I could hardly see your face.  I had never
even touched you—a night like this one,
with rain, and crickets, your eyes cracked open,
still.  If I could build a boat

with these words, and float back, I’d drift
on a sure tide, back over the depth
of your last living room.  I’d stretch my arm down
into that still black, and connect
for a moment, my body filling with light,

slowly, the way an oak draws water.                    


The Kiss

The Kiss

I kissed your wrist,
your faintly burning page,
I kissed the sun to sleep—
What a little ocean I hold in my palm,
three stars and a sharp moon, what a little surf
burying itself wave after wave. . .
into coils of concertina wire, they freeze.
I can feel it, if I listen, if I close my eyes,
I can feel it, this breeze lifting its shadow
from the shadow of your hair,
on this coastline of skin anything can happen.
Your lips divide my ribs one by one.
The sun comes and goes with our name
on its lips, my fingers in love with the instant
it takes your breast to be there,
under my tongue.  I wanted to believe
I could fold it into my pocket, this vacant lot,
this harvest of baby’s breath and broken glass, look,
the sky is touching the sky, O blue vein
buried alive in the neck: my kiss.

Listening Room

I start by eating these words
the way that starling picks his wing-lice
on the window sill. I start here: a slight touch
of sunlight in your eyes; I’m following
these footprints as they spill from your mouth
down into the region of the stomach.

This tiny desert I bring to you,
drifting in my hands, signifies exile.
When I touch you, it’s an oasis, miraged
on the air between us, a beautiful fingerprint
soaking the sheets with these skeletons of rain—
my tongue is listening in as it traces
a blue vein, and sets your arm free.

I call it freedom,
this tiny bird puffing its thin, bloody chest
in your wrist. I call it now,
an answer: do we belong to the air yet? Call it a lie—
moments ago, in a rush to meet my angel,
the one with wings instead of ears,
I took a bite out of my angel’s cheek;
it hissed away into the air,
a forgettable sigh. Look,

a curtain has appeared at the window.
Gingerly it lifts, offering these generations
of air. We accept.

I call it linen,
your skin breathing into my ear, this collapse
of air into flesh; its resulting ring,
what we call silence, only shared, touched
with heat, flushed, a little red.

Now we must dismantle our tongues,
something like soft-wrestling
an angel, untying the dock rope.
But we are not a boat, not even an immense, green apple.
We are set free, rising from the bed, adrift now
in these continents of air.

We are constructing this damaged rose
in terms of fire. Fingers,
listen closely to the shadows of your name
as they slide away
—we are not legs anymore, not an ear.

We are a tiny thing, listening closely.

Too big for this room.