Back to Issue Thirty-Two

Trying to Grow

2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry


Should he have taken more notes
about the pig’s legs, pickled on the tray?
About the blonde fingers of the girl
he’d been partnered with, her scalpel
slitting the heart? The boy walked home
after class and stared at the stipples
in the field, the radish flanks of the horse
lit by a rain he could only describe
as sudden. He’d been ashamed to not
make the cut through that skin,
toughened and grayed by the freezer,
the pig’s eyes pressed in a squint
As if even in death she could feel
what was coming. So he let the girl
do it. She held down the throat
with its tiny, barely perceptible hairs,
steadied the slightly teetering body
and told him It’s fine, I’ve done it before.
But in the boy’s mind, what is absent
enlarges to make up a landscape:
spring, desiccated. Another boy, shirt
on the carpet. Light overtaking
the classroom that morning, spilling
through the acacia in the window,
pouring over the anatomy textbook
and settling in the pig’s bright aperture,
all of her insides shining, like anything
severed. We spend life trying to grow
either harder or softer, and mostly
just wanting reprieve; even the horse
Seems to know this, watching the boy
walk fast again down the road,
the boy having looked long enough
at this animal muffled in the pen
to imagine its body asleep, hauled
onto the slab, still steaming in rain.



Little Brother

Previously appeared in The Nashville Review.
2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry


In the photo of the blue raft I don’t remember
you are reaching one arm out, staring

straight at our mother, whose hands
do not yet shake when holding a camera.

This is the past where nobody flinches,
the moment you climb away from our brother

becoming the moment where always
you will climb away from the shadow of his hand.

You do not know that in nine more winters
to please the voices in the attic of my mind

I will throw into the frost-storm
every suit our father owns, will toss

the locked-in pageant of the music box,
relic from before the disaster,

its dancer a flock of electric lines cut,
and you will gather what I’ve offered to snow.

You don’t yet know that while our mother
will sleep, blanketed all season by shock,

past the wrecked spires of the topiaries
I will drive you home from school,

waiting in the carpool line, hot breath
of a song I don’t know on the back of my neck

and seeing your head in its red hat lowered
as the families around you assemble.

But in this photo it is not yet winter,
in this photo what exists is not the future

but only the gesture toward it
and not the fact of our father’s leaving,

only his white shirt rippling over your chest
the second the yellow pail rolls away

as you turn to the balled fist of a wave
and squint, trying to see him.




2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry


He’d get off work at the bar and come over late
and adjust his flat-brimmed hat. He’d say I’m sorry
I’ve been the worst
. Then he’d say I want to rip you
He’d talk of his hatred for New Jersey, firewood
rotting on the porch, his mother’s dumb husband.
When I told him, drunk, I think we’re all here to do
something, he said he didn’t really know. He was called
maricón at his last job and his friends live scattered
all over, and this year on Mother’s Day, when he fought
with his mother, he threw the azaleas he’d bought
on the doormat. Once, he said that his brother
and his friends poured a bucket of ice on his head
in the garden, holding his legs down, his mother
in the kitchen, salting the dinner and not intervening,
and once, Tyler watched from the grass as the boys
poked an injured bird with a stick on the pavement
for half an hour, the bird trying to haul itself back
into wind with one infuriated wing. So it makes sense
that Tyler keeps moving from one red-throated city
to another. It makes sense that Tyler’s first boyfriend
only fucked him from behind. I can see why Tyler
stumbles when he walks, even with wide open space,
why he only fucks me from behind, at my apartment,
over the boxspring, and late. What we fill with our sadness
we end up tearing a little, sometimes all the way open,
no matter how we want to fix the broken architecture
of wings. For every bird baking on asphalt there’s a boy
years later, far from home, filling another boy’s bedroom
with the softer parts of himself that Tyler wanted me
to see. Feeling my hands pulled straight back behind me,
my face avoiding its reflection in the window, I think
yes, we are all meant for something, and Tyler left
something out of the story: the part where the creature
accepts it, where its body just stops attempting the air,
where it’s wiser to lie down into the pain, to get
comfortable choosing the ground.



Watching the Heron

2020 Gregory Djanikian Scholar in Poetry


All afternoon we waited
for something to happen

to the river. Then the heron,
great blue, with miserly neck

and legs, arranged its shadow
on a rock, not dissimilar

to a boy in a Greek myth
staring at the black undercarriage

of earth, the centrifuge
of its two prongs ready

to skewer the least careful fish.
We do not talk about time,

my thinning hair, your visa
about to expire, though the air

around us is soft enough
for disclosures at this time of year,

you of the British undertones,
the craver of salted meat,

the Parliament smoker,
transcriber of longings for long-

dead poets and your mother’s
ruin by lamplight. We do not

talk about time, walking
in tall grass, clouds above us

steady as ichor, silence
a native language we abandon

then come back to together.
We do not talk about time.

We stare at the river quickened
by trout, the heron searching

for some sort of talisman,
for something to make its own.




Matthew Gellman holds an MFA from Columbia University. His poems are featured in Poetry Northwest, Narrative, The Common, Lambda Literary’s Poetry Spotlight, Ninth Letter, The Missouri Review, The Nashville Review and elsewhere. In 2018, Matthew was the recipient of a Brooklyn Poets fellowship and was included in Narrative‘s “30 below 30” list. He was also a finalist for Narrative‘s Tenth Annual Poetry Prize as well as The Missouri Review‘s Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize. A recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and residencies and scholarships from the Vermont Studio Center and the New York State Summer Writers Institute, Matthew lives in New York, where he teaches at Hunter College and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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