Back to Issue Twenty-Eight.

Color Theory, San Angelo

Finalist for the 2019 Gregory Djanikian Scholars Program
Previously appeared in Crazyhorse

Morning dark. Tin sheds rattle in the highway
blow-by. The oilfield boys turn in their beds,

gathering up the sheets. New bars open here almost

every week, spraypainted signs hung with twine
from the awnings of the mortar-clogged

redbrick storefronts. As the sun climbs, the wind

picks up, snatching dust from under mesquites,
the eastern sky like a red house reflected

in a still lake, twin buttes dwindling to purple

on the west road out of town. Midmorning
stiffens in the heat. Coffeeshops on the stretch fill

with familiars and the old words sell, rain, dust

mingle with new ones—frack, quake, EQ
as oldtimers flip through the shop’s photobooks

and rub their dry knuckles into the afternoon,

nodding and waking to find yellow-headed
blackbirds at the feeder, another novelty

to make things spin. The stretch goes still

waiting for the bars to open. Blue sky,
blue sky. Not a prayer for rain, yet

golden hour lights a host of green—

deep taproots find the river they seek.
The reservoir carried off by many mouths,

a dry year, white rings on the cringing blue.



Standards Trio, Casa di Dante

Finalist for the 2019 Gregory Djanikian Scholars Program

The first thing I hear
as I take my seat near the back

is that Dante never lived here.
But Beatrice’s body is buried

in the parish church around
the corner. When she died

he fetishized her ghost, arming
our hearts, perhaps, forever

to do war against the world.
I imagine him rolling out

a thin mattress each night
in this long wing of the house

where abstract paintings hang
down the whitewashed walls.

The canvases unspool in red,
seraphic, each figure like a knot

of string or a decaying rose
or blood blooming in water.

Dozens of us squeeze
into his narrow room, filling

rows of folding chairs,
sitting on the side of the stage.

At the back window tourists
watch from the street, grasping

at the window’s black metal
bars as the band begins

their set. The double bass
clacks down its walk, the piano

echoes off the low timbers
of the roof, the kit rattles

under a swirl of brushes,
overfilling this little room.

What would he, that not-quite
medieval genius spinning

his vernacular heaven
in circles, make of this jazz?

All these improvised returns,
the runs always coming

back around on themselves—
almost repeating, but breaking,

veering off—and this music
making itself inside us, each

measure a room, each phrase
a room, interlocking

like well-made rhymes
but escaping fixity like a soul

that leaves and then returns
to the body. Like the tourists

hanging at the bars, we’re
always part in, part out. The trio

plays on. The crowd
outside overflows the piazza.

The rhythms unfurl
inside us, prying us open—

these bodies that (like
the melody) crumble

around us just as we come
to understand them, measure

upon measure, the tangled heart
of the song gathering in us

like a body we imagine inside
its clothes—old scars over

smooth skin, shadow pooling
in a clavicle, the thighs’ double

dive to desire, that first dark,
and from a tiny spark, a flame . . .

The players’ lines fall together
and away, stagger, recover,

now firmness, now sway. Spirit
starts to thread itself into

the world, tired of symmetry
and purity and craving

some swerve, a quick switch
of sound or shadow, the dynamics

of desire, an electric touch
from a stranger’s hand.

Foreign eyes to lose
all language in. A deep well

in the skin’s folds and creases
to plunge into. A safe,

warm room. A form to break
the old constraints

and relieve at last the soul’s
familiar tyranny over the body.

T. J. McLemore’s poems, interviews, and reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming from 32 Poems, Crazyhorse, Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, SLICE, Prairie Schooner, Willow Springs, and other journals. Individual poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, selected for Best New Poets, and nominated for a Pushcart, and he has received awards and fellowships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Boston University, and Crab Orchard Review. He is a doctoral student in English literature and environmental humanities at the University of Colorado Boulder.


Next (Hannah Perrin King) >

< Previous (Avia Tadmor)