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  • Adam Tavel

Five Poems


A father pins his son against a wall

and wraps his hand around that little throat

to squeeze it only once, as if to say

I cannot take this wildness of your wings.

An hour afterwards, he wipes a cloth

across the stinging eyes his boy can’t close

enough, the soapy rivulets a burn

that rinses with the ducky song they make

together out of time. In thirty years

looped tubes and wires of the ICU

will worm the father’s bed. His son will hum

until the nurses flutter off like wrens,

until a final thirst surrenders light

like feathers fanned across the star-burned ice.

A Drought September

I wanted the bank agent to find me in pieces

down by our mailbox, just as the crows

came hopping back after the blast

like gossipers at a wake. We had paced

three weeks without rain. Each cabbage

was a kindergarten shoe charred

in a school fire. My wife begged all month

for me to telegram her rich uncle

in Columbus. She rocked, fretting needles

on the porch. Whenever a distant tractor

rumbled on a neighbor’s hill

she’d shiver at the billowed lion-manes

of dust spun up by its wheels. Nothing

was paved then. No one thought to name

the numbered roads. My quail shotgun

was a Christmas gift I hunted with

once. Two shells clacked in my pocket

through clouds of gnats. The bank man

was due at four. I broke the chamber

and stared into its empty wells

when, echoing off the barn, a breeze

brought my youngest daughter’s voice

from her knotted rope swing

singing olly olly oxen free.

The Loneliness of Kings

Each duchess twirling through the masquerade

avoids their gaze, a pale refusal.

No rain weeps down their shirts, darkening

the dreariness of magistrates who flit

and tattle by the fireplace. New chefs

express their pedigree with greasy soup.

Daughters fritter velvet afternoons.

Secluded in their towers with lorgnettes

it’s hard for lords to see the terror frieze

of lopped-off heads that tumble down to straw.

At night no distant cannon’s song can crack

the moon. Our kings all lie awake, fatigued

that some lands throw their sons against machines

to drown in blood before they’ll hail a crown.

Black Lotus

June 11, 1963

It must have stung Duc’s eyes, the gasoline

other monks poured down his head that ran

to soak his robes and puddle in his pose.

Did he try to blink them clear and take

one final look at June, a cobalt sky,

the palace down the boulevard where guards

kept watch for their buffoon? Might he have grieved

for prayer beads his fingertips caressed,

the clack they’d never make again for night

like bones a shepherd tosses at his dogs?

Inside his budded hands the match stayed dry.

Ogling whisperers clogged the road. If god

spoke then, he raged at death with death and blazed

a second sun to curse us with its flames.

On What Would Have Been My Father’s 65th Birthday

Minnows scrawl cold hieroglyphs

across my feet. Invader, I enter

their stream, having come to rinse

hike sweat in this glassy burble,

a postcard serenity. Father,

I crouch and splash, remembering

how ashamed I was to ask,

and the insistence of the undertaker

that someone identify your body.

When he wheeled you out, cocooned

in sheets, your scalp turbaned

with a towel, I admired the farcical

concealment of an autopsy.

The stream quivers its silver skin.

Your pale, unmade face was one

of these stones, whiskered with moss.

I have carried your lesson here,

inside the mountain’s thousand greens

so I may try to refuse

the uselessness of awe.

Adam Tavel’s third poetry collection, Catafalque, won the 2017 Richard Wilbur Award (University of Evansville Press, 2018). He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, 2017) and Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015), winner of the Permafrost Book Prize in Poetry. His recent poems appear in Verse Daily, Willow Springs, Crazyhorse, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, 32 Poems, Third Coast, and Arts & Letters, among others. You can find him online at

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