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Al Maginnes

The Serpent's Faith

Judas Lightning


Elephants and Wolves

The Serpent's Faith

The snake made its way out of Eden after it was understood
the little nagging behind its eyes would never cease,
never allow him rest. The blame would always ride him,
no matter how warm the curiosity of the hairless ones,
how deep their appetite. Once the gates vanished
and fruit began to rot on the trees, the other animals
went their ways, seeking their places in a realm
that so far offered only the sound of wind. The ground obeyed
a different nature out here, spiked with rocks
and threaded by roots that made motion more difficult.
Grass grew sharp-edged and long. But the snake pushed through,
the spot behind its eyes burning, its body a long muscle,
more water than flesh, made to skim surfaces.
On the sun-scorched rocks or in the root crevices
of trees, rest could be found, far from the snuff-blackened
tongues of grandmothers who repeated tales
of hoop snakes or serpents that broke into separate bodies
and reassembled, all that was needed to give staring children
their first fear of sin, verses pulled from the gospel and misquoted
to say this life is but one more skin to crawl out of.

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Judas Lightning

Inlanders, we crouch, waiting for a hurricane,
                                                                           fill slow time
between approach and seizure counting batteries, stacking cans,
the preparations we still can make.
                                                          The air smothers
with small rain. Soft thunder ripples the sky.
The swift kiss of lightning coils behind each cloud,
its devastations muted for now though they could come
in half the time a heart takes
                                                to make a single beat.

We see it as betrayal. Violation of the small commandments
we believe necessary
                                    to keep us protected
on this earth.
                       Weatherpeople, the same ones
clogging my television to pass every blink
and hiccup of the hurricane,
                                                tell us our chances
of being struck by lightning are the same as the odds
of winning the lottery.
                                      So why do I know two people
who have survived blows from lightning
but no one who has won the lottery?

In a car with a dragging muffler,
                                                      I gripped the dash
for sweet life while the brakeless vehicle spun
on ice-glazed asphalt. Sparks kicked from
under the car in great arcs.
                                            One spark, sucked
into the carburetor, would have turned us into a rolling
wedge of fire, or so we were told once the car stopped,
once we were all out and yelling at the driver,
at the fringe of onlookers, at the unblinking sky.

I’ve heard this hurricane’s name so often
I know it like my own,
                                       though once it has passed
into memory’s cloud, it will blend with all
the other disasters
                               or near-disasters we’ve weathered.
Even at its worst, we trust the sky.
                                                         A few days
of good weather and we shine with forgiveness.
We even manage to accept,
                                              if not forgive,
the Judas kiss of lightning though the ones fallen
will not resurrect
                             to show their scars,
marks of passage from one world to another.

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In Madrid, he bought a pack of Gauloises, spoke a long time
to a woman buying fruit before walking out,
                                                                         his white suit
shining, his steps precise as a dancer’s. In San Francisco
he shuffled a brief buck and wing before a sidewalk band.
Somewhere in Mexico, he received communion, then stopped a vendor
and bought shots of the homemade tequila that made
an encumbrance of the body.
                                               Outside Fatima,
the shepherd children who saw the Virgin Mary in 1916
felt the sun slow its immolations long enough
to see a heart glowing  clear as the center of a fire
and they heard
                          Mary speak from the deep blank of sky,
the children helpless vessels, their old lives spilled,
and all before them blocked by what they’d seen.
It’s uncertain
                        what happens when the body shrugs and dies
though it seems some stay to dance in white clothes
and others vanish like furniture
abandoned on the curb.
                                          While the battlefields
of Europe split with fire, Mary told three frightened,
illiterate children that if her words were heeded,
peace would follow.
The man seen on the streets
of half a dozen cities, sported a white linen suit
twirling a gold headed cane,
                                                while the body
that had borne him for almost eighty years rested, for once,
still as a stone.
                       And no one reported any words from him
though he flickered through a handful of afternoons,
the smoke of his last cigarette hovering
in all the last places he was seen.

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Elephants and Wolves

In stories meant to frighten us into obedience, it was wolves
            slinking across snowy pages into the shadow-smothered

night jungles of our rooms. When he was four, my brother would wake
            screaming that elephants were stampeding his room.

That lasted until my father took him to a zoo and let him see elephants
            for the first time. Years before, when I was five or six.

my father took my sister and me to a small circus where you were allowed
            to feed the elephants. One stretched its wrinkled trunk

to take the peanut I held and blew a spray of wet dust across the chest
            of my new white T shirt. I remember crying over the shirt,

but no abiding fear of elephants. When I saw a wolf for the first time,
            it was in a pen and barely the size of a large dog.

Not the predator who feasted on grandmothers and little pigs.
            It’s what we can’t see that wakes us, that trembles

in our blood and waits patiently for a name.
            When I stopped drinking, a strange landscape opened shapeless

before me, its inhabitants built mostly from shade. A terrain that turned
            treacherous the afternoon a doctor said I had hepatitis C.

Now animals I couldn’t see, animals too dark for any zoo prowled
            the back trails of my blood. One by one, the nights not drinking

added to each other, giving my life a shape unexpected
            and filled with silvery creatures that flew close, each

bearing a feather-weight of sun. Then came the storm-cloud wings
            of hep C and the tumult of medications

that hollowed my body until I felt my bed-shaped grave open
            below me. Years of wolves and elephants.

Until the late autumn day my doctor, in her coat white
            as the shirt I wore that day at the circus said

the last medicine did its job, the predators in my blood had vanished,
            smoke over the hills. Last week’s rain dowsing a camp’s remains.

Things still frighten me. Unexplained pain. Fear of not being able
            to protect the ones I love. Fear I don’t know

well enough to name. Wolves. Elephants. And I recall
            childhood’s story of the five blind men trying to learn

what an elephant is —an infinity of shapes we only know
            parts of, the rest left to imagination and silence

where wolves grow long teeth and plot ways to ruin
            the shining clothes we wear to deny their presence.

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Al Maginnes is the author of seven full length collections and four chapbooks of poetry, most recently The Next Place (Iris Press, 2017) and Music From Small Towns Jacar, 2014), winner of the Jacar Press Poetry Prize. He has poems appearing or forthcoming in Lake Effect, Blue Mountain, Plume, Rattle, and many others. He teaches at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh NC.

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