The cover was all wrong.
The strongman killed his brother
for it, his brother who purged
all entries from circus to city
for refusing an order to fire
on civilian, also murdered.
Official versions overwrote
every nigger with happy puppy,
and we ripped out every cigarette
as rolling paper. When the map
chapter proved subversive,
the border burned. The first page
covered for what passed
as civil government to pass
laws that prevented passing
security checkpoints. A hollow
in the inner margin was just
big enough to smuggle one bullet.
We couldn’t call it the gutter.
We couldn’t pull the trigger
off the shelf. Who sold out
that we stole the letters
needed to cover each other
with good luck, motherfucker
for good luck? For God’s sake
and ours, they said, they locked it
in a glass case and cracked
our glasses. Our names went in,
no word came back. To break
our spines, mandatory sentences
lined us up and lined us through
and didn’t end when we read
the end. In indices, we found
friends and lovers who signified
the vanished, fugitive and dead.
Oh what a shock to look up
over on a body only to discover
the cover shut on us.
Henry Repeater, he introduced himself
twice to the chest. We dubbed him
Double Barrel since we didn’t know shit
from shotgun, antler from greenhorn.
Dime novels claimed his mama
gave him the Christian name
Samuel and the common name Sammy
Smile, but he gave them away
to wander a badlands panorama.
Once, the stranger formed a posse
of just a pistol and a glass eye
painted with a noose. His good eye
did evil in Deadwood years before
he blew through the prairie
and the saloon doors on a stormcloud.
Our guidebooks highlighted
favorite bordellos and outhouses
with bullet holes. They translated
every use of bullseye and cowpoke.
We called him Wild Hoss, branded
by his keepers, who kept our hands
inside the tram windows to keep them
from coming back stumps.
Arrowheads shafted through their hats
always aimed at the gift shop.
While the man saddled an appaloosa,
they showed how to mix whiskey
with wishes in a spittoon,
making wickedness. When he tried
to ride into history, they rustled
one lucky winner a carousel pony
and a scope contraption with a trigger
A for Ask him to come back
or trigger B for Bushwhack.
Both at the same time at ten paces
waylaid our antihero facedown
in the mud, opened his coffin
and made him cough up his true name,
too soft and bloodstained
What catastrophe? Who disastered?
When did past go? How far underground
did escape tunnel? Where did we hide?
Could we finish? Could we finish,
triple pretty please? Where did we hide
trapdoors so nobody would trip
through and snap necks, or trip
wires that triggered more and more
difficult riddles about the before?
What had two legs and pried?
What had none and knew the difference
between flies and flies? Did we mean
distance there? When we caught
that mosquito plague, who carried
the bug from mouth to mouth?
Where did we learn how to gut
trout and bury entrails against tracking?
What if we thought what we learned
wrong? Among 101 uses for urine,
how many worked as antidotes to lies?
Did we mean fertilize or sterilize?
If we always followed the river,
how come we walked on the same graves
over and over and over? Who lived
in those caves, and how long was this
long pig? Which way was west
when fog clung in the pissingest wind?
What poison smog hung like a cross
between gasoline and jasmine
in our lungs? Did we mean minds?
Who said you forget as a threat
and made us cry? What got in our eyes?
Why was the sky ashy whitish?
Could we repeat the question?
Could we? Why? Why?
Steven D. Schroeder’s second book, The Royal Nonesuch (Spark Wheel Press, 2013), won the 2014 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award from Southern Illinois University. His poetry is recently available or forthcoming from Crab Orchard Review, burntdistrict, and Vinyl. He serves as co-curator for Observable Readings in St. Louis and works as a Certified Professional Résumé Writer.
Q: If you would, talk a bit about word magic – your poems crackle with it, lively as Rumplestiltskin.
A: Wordplay and sonic effects come into my poems naturally in any case, and it’s particularly important for these poems. Throughout the series, language is treated as a means to power, a tangible object, and a sentient character, sometimes all at once. I also appreciate your mention of Rumplestiltskin, because he really was a nasty little piece of work, wasn’t he?
Q: Paper or screen? Pen or pencil or stylus?
A: Brain to paper to screen is common for the scraps I write down in notebooks here and there, often as I drift into and out of sleep. Paper to brain to screen happens during revision. In any case, voice needs to be an integral part of the process well before the completion of the poem. If I am not reading the poem aloud to myself as part of drafting, it’s not going to work out.
Q: Can we still have the same relationship with the dictionary that we had before the OED and Webster's went online?
A: Well, it’s even easier to look up dirty phrases with Urban Dictionary, so I’d say so. Personally, I still have a gigantic old Merriam-Webster hardcover that I bought over a decade ago, but I don’t think it’ll go with me the next time I move.
Q: The line in “The Book” that “they locked it/in a glass case and cracked/our glasses” brought an immediate image of the classic “Twilight Zone” episode “Time Enough at Last.” Were you a TZ fan, and if so, what episodes haunt your dreams?
A: I was definitely thinking about that episode when I wrote those lines, though in this case of course there’s an oppressive external force doing the breaking. The series was before my time, so I know it more as archetypes: the one person who sees the threat, the strangers who aren’t what they seem, the fraught choice with ironic consequences, etc. I love turning tropes like that to my own ends.