John Wall Barger’s poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His fourth book, The Mean Game, is coming out with Palimpsest Press in spring 2019. He grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and is currently an editor for Painted Bride Quarterly.
Urgent Message from the Captain of the Unicorn Hunters
Release them. Those sealed in your attics.
Those chained in your barns. Those on the nightmare yokes.
Those heads on your walls. This is our fault.
We taught you to torture the unicorn.
That it biteth like a lion & kicketh like a horse.
That it has no fear of iron weapons.
That unicorn-leather boots ensure sound legs
& protection from plague. That unicorn liver (with a paste
of egg yolk) heals leprosy. That its tusk,
ground to dust, makes men hard. Forget all that.
Taxidermists, lay down your saws.
Keep off, ye farmers of dreams & horns.
We have done enough. Baiting them with our virgins.
Cutting the heads off the calves & their mothers.
Planting birthday candles in their eyes.
Fortune-telling with their gizzards.
Tossing their balls to the dogs. —Enough!
Free them to bathe in our rainbows.
Let them loose in their fields of sorrow.
Enough have they tholed. And you’ll have to forgive:
nothing that’s happened as yet
has prepared me for this. I have taken us too far
off course. Abominations, treason!
It’s up to them now, our lot.
First, let them go. And then we wait.
Like fast clouds they creep in.
They seem to know where you are headed,
like family dogs. They storm the restaurant where we eat
wearing coffee cups & legs of lamb.
Do your suitors ever sleep? They seem to wake up
drunk. They withdraw as one, like deer. As if running for a bus
but there is no bus. All speaking at once
like a suicidal teen. Your suitors form a hanging wall
around your beauty. On street corners they slouch,
hardly breathing. They fog in like sharks
to our corner of the party. They shark in like fog, as if dancing
but they are not dancing. As if drowning.
Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change a thing.
At karaoke they are lovely. Kind, even.
They anticipate your joy as if they’d loved you
an eternity. Even as you fall on me
I feel their proximity. That they too are naked.
As naked as that tree across the street, before a snowstorm.
That maple which is probably dying.
I was nine when the ash
drifted to our flatlands
like a mountain.
Our farms stood on hind legs,
staggered to the coast.
We stayed, eating our bellies out.
Shooting cattle, landholders.
Living inside the ash,
the cave of it. Citizens of it,
thinking as it thought,
chewed dead grass
in the yard. Father bleated.
Mother squatted naked in the road.
Ash a church in the sky.
We hacked out prayers
on the rocks & trees of it,
delivered from the bondage of the sun
& its unchaste burning.
Ash galloped off
with our small ones
to the afterworld. We offered it
everything. On the Sabbath,
I held forth my last Twinkie
to the swirling.
There came a wind,
shapes. A black spark,
an inkling—past & future among
like fallen statuary.
The monkeys stood
waist-deep. The largest,
The Grand Seigneur,
wore a sleazy grin.
Eyes gray, mouth gray.
“Let every living soul
prosper,” he grunted.
“The Twinkie in your claw,”
I said, “is that the soul?”
He placed his bloodflecked crown
on my head. “All hail
boy-king,” he muttered,
grinning, in the ash.