Back to Issue Thirty-Seven


2021 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry


1. Speaking in Tongues

When I told my father about my boyfriend & his boy,
he screamed at me in some seraph-soaked tongue,
his teeth live coals, his mouth a furnace firing Babel bricks,
his tongue the fourth man in the furnace, the unbound shadow,
like a son of the gods—but no flames ever licked my own lukewarm lips.
When I was a child, I tried to slip a glimpse of my father’s cock,
prayed he’d cast down that staff into a serpent that would swallow
up my own. When I was a child, my father stood behind
as a man pressed his sweaty shuddering palm to my forehead
praying that I be baptized in a blaze of holy oil. Not a syllable
of sibylline babble could anoint my cottonmouth tongue.
I let my legs go limp, tried to drop, to play slain. My father held me up.
The man pressed harder, pressed deeper, his tongue swollen & spewing
the language of God—a dead language, resurrected, but come back
babbled apart, missing limbs. (Imagine Lazarus, four days dead:
a bloat, blood-foam leaking language.) My tongue wanted so much,
but not this. The man sighed, spent, & my father lowered my heavy,
unhallowed body to the floor. When I told my father I was in love,
his throat-throbbed tongue-twitched rising baptized bellows said
nothing, said shutupshutupshutup, said notmyson, said godIloveyou.
When the Spirit seeped out, leaving him flaccid, bashful,
he whispered, “That wasn’t me.” He said, “You have to believe me.”
When the Spirit clamps your tongue between its atoning tongs, you can say
anything. You can say nothing. You can say exactly what you mean.


2. A Prophetic Word

When I told my mother I was engaged to the man from the dreams
I couldn’t remember when I woke up, her unveiled face was masked
with the harsh, unswayable light of someone who’d spoken with a god.
She reminded me of my father’s vision of a lank lion swallowed whole
by a hyena, of the time a decade ago that God himself woke her
with a cold, demanding hand, crept into bed behind her, & breathed
into her ear to tell me, Satan is a conniver. I said, Has the LORD not spoken
through us also? But sometimes a prophet, the pillar of cloud pulled away,
is left leprous, half-eaten from the womb, stillborn of Spirit. In the night,
God’s words turned to glyphs & runes. My mother’s hands became prayers
in the spirit-thick dark, became uninterpretable signs. On the shelf,
she found the dictionary beside the medical reference book
that had introduced me to penises covered in rashes & scabs,
to disease & desire, to my leper colony lust. (Imagine the leper skin,
starved for touch, grazed by some messianic hand.) She found the word
somewhere between conceal & consecrate—vb. from Latin conivere, “to wink”
1: to cooperate secretly 2: conspire, intrigue 3: secretly allow to occur.
But with whom did Satan connive? Did he reconvene with God
in some dim-lit backroom of heaven? Did they contrive another impassable test,
plot a plague of flame & raid, wind & boils, on another family? Did they dangle
a fishhook for my leviathan tongue? Skin for skin! Satan says. The stage was set,
our movements blocked, a potsherd & some ash the only props in our hands.
In the dark, a waltzing masquerade of angels of lightning began to flash
in dizzy dance around my mother’s troubled body. In the dark, Satan winked.



Diagram of the Body Held in Worship

2021 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry


What do they mean, the ways we move
our bodies in worship? The professor, miming,

raised his arms like a cornered soldier,
then cupped his hands hungrily at his sides.

Let’s read our bodies with the same care
we’d give a holy text. It was American Literature

After the Civil War: the class discussed,
& everyone disagreed. Each of our bodies

whispered in its own language to its own god.
Before sending me off, my mother warned me

about the heresy of postmodernism. But it was
inevitable, how my eyes would adjust to the infinite

shades of truths. In truth, she was right
to be scared. I don’t believe

anymore. How could I?
My body has only ever known

the language of an unknown god. But still
I am only a body. After winter, there’s still

spring. Air on skin. Trees made up
like an old drag queen. Still

when I sit by the creek, something in me
raises its arms to the bluest god

& hops like a Pentecostal college student:
too earnest, desperate for your attention. Someone

is stacking altars by the creek. An endangered creature
slips from the trees to feel the sun on its flank. Praise

is an instinct our bodies can’t unlearn. God
becomes whatever can open these empty hands.



Invasive Species

2021 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry


We knew which trees were going to die,
not by the shape of their leaves, but by the purple
traps that tagged their branches. My mother

taught us that the emerald ash borer smuggled
itself into our country in packing crates
aboard foreign ships. Each Missions Sunday,

she’d pierce the map’s skin
with another pushpin, a red string
stretching out from our church

to each of its mission fields: Madagascar,
Uganda, Pakistan. What began
as a star turned into a spider

& then something darker, malignant:
a bright red blotch. At night, the beetles
would slip their eggs beneath the bark

of our backyard’s ash. It takes ten years
for the emerald beetles to reduce a region’s trees
to memory. By the time I return home, all the ash

will be gone. When our neighbors
the Ashes woke to their house burning down,
I couldn’t sleep for a week, terrified

that a name could hold that much weight.
After I married my husband, I changed
mine, left my father’s behind. As it ages,

the ash tree can change itself from male
to female. Once, as a boy, I slid my fingers
into the tree’s grooved skin,

through the maze of scars the beetles
left behind. One landed on my wrist, a jewel
of a certain color—but when it stretched its wings

to fly away, the light flashed against
its rubied abdomen. Even the most beautiful thing,
out of place, can become a knife. Every night

my mother kneels by her bed & prays
for that part of me we can’t unname
to pass away. On Sundays, when my father

asks for prayer requests from the altar,
she calls out, I have a son I have a son
I have a son I have an unspoken.

Note: “Charismata” previously appeared in PANK, and “Invasive Species” previously appeared in Shenandoah. We are grateful to reprint these poems as part of Brandon Thurman’s Djanikian Scholars portfolio.

Brandon Thurman is the author of the chapbook Strange Flesh (Quarterly West, 2018). His poetry can be found in Beloit Poetry Journal, Shenandoah, Nashville Review, Sixth Finch, and others. He lives in the Arkansas Ozarks with his husband and son. You can find him online at or on Twitter @bthurman87.

Next (Carrie Fountain) >

< Previous (Natasha Rao)