Prayer in a Time of Sickness

Mark Wunderlich

Excerpted from A Beggar's Book, Anomalous Press Chapbook Contest Notable, forthcoming

click here to read about the full project

So far I have warded off the worst of things
that can happen to a brain and to a body.

I have loved my self and the world more than I have loved you,
with your unknowable face in the firmament,

and the world ripe with detail. 
What is it you wish to teach me?

My life has been one of tasks, listed
and attended, materials curried and weeded and laid by.

I have been diligent and have done my work.
Then, a day came when I could not answer

the letter of a friend, could not offer my help,
read to the end of the sentence.  The phoebe

tossed from his nest was broken on vulpine teeth,
spirited into the undergrowth in the dark,

then the six fat wrens in their house hung in the arbor
disappeared and their parents stopped their singing.

Weeds grew, and I ignored my chores,
while the cat worried her tail of its most plumescent fur. 

I saw my body, white as tallow,
my face framed by colorless hair,

noted my appetites, then put them aside,
walked and walked to wear it all away. 

In the bin, last year’s potatoes grew their eyes
without benefit of soil or sun,

and I spent another night awake and unrested,
knitting a cap for a child come too early

into the world.  What lies on the other side?
What do I need to know that will keep me anchored,

admired as I am from a distance—
an image false as a tin star?

I yearned to be cast up on an arctic island, bare of trees,
populated by the recalcitrant

and their flocculent, half wild beasts,
the air dry and howling, cliffs exposed, the wind

stirring its cauldron of birds.  You have written
each of my days into your illumined book,

though I believe this portion will remain unread,
a page torn out and stuffed into a crack

to keep out the winter damp.
I was built by the love of my mother,

then let go.  She is now old and sleeps much of the day
like a cat, eats small meals in her chair,

bakes for funerals or dusts the small museum
visited only by accident.

And so she serves the ghosts of our town
and does not believe in you at all.

                        *   *   *

At summer’s end, I traveled north,
crossed the sea, to the salted rim of the Arctic. 

From a rented room, I watched revelers wend in arcs
bound by the corrugated street,

breakfasted on liver paste and beets,
rode tinted  in the light of a city bus

as it ferried me to the national attractions:
a heroic past reconstructed in wax,

diorama of a seeress wearing cat skin gloves
dining on the hearts of dogs,

spidery manuscripts chilled under glass,
and the rusted nails and altarpieces

standing in for an architecture
long effaced by the wind’s hand.

        *       *      *

A young man named for a god of fucking
rode his palomino next to my dun. 

His face was chapped and his hair
was combed by the wind from underneath

a helmet of foam.  We passed the named steadings
roofed in turf, the pyramids of hay

while our horses muscled like athletes
on paths cut through knee-high grass,

over lava and hill crest, past geyser
and sulphurous marsh, horned sheep

wandering wild through wind and rain.
Hours went by and no one spoke

as our animals huffed and pushed
against the reins.  My thighs tightened

on my gelding’s furred back, hands
learned his mouth like that of a husband. 

Your hold on this island is tenuous,
broken as it is by the core of the earth

seeping its sulphurous reek and sanding the air with ash.
The inhabitants live amongst the greatest powers

visible to their water and ice colored eyes. 
You, our Maddening Abstraction,

You, the Triangulator, the Great Confusor, take note—
for centuries this populace huddled in the earth walled halls,

smeared black butter on dried fish, spun wool in the dark,
washed their hair in urine and fermented their meat in whey.

How could you ever conquer a land that didn’t know bread?
You have left me here to wander, far from friends,

my family shuffling about their small farm
your absent gaze pressing them toward the grave

the night numbing me to the evident good
I might do or understand or receive.

There is a bruise on my brain that does not heal,
nor does it spread, walled in as it is by pills.

Your name is nowhere to be found
in my future, treeless and tasting of salt.

Here I stand at the estuary
My horse cropping grass, no sounds of men

save the one next to me
as he pares dried mutton with a knife.

Geese conduct their exercises nearby
the tide’s green hair recedes, pulled backward

by the blue-skinned moon.  The wind lifts,
sun flickers, guillemots trim the horizon with their wings

as your great thumb pushes against my lips
and you click the snaffle past my teeth.

Mark Wunderlich's first book, The Anchorage, was published in 1999 by the University of Massachusetts Press, and received the Lambda Literary Award. His second book, Voluntary Servitude, was published by Graywolf Press in 2004. A third volume of poems titled The Earth Avails, is forthcoming from Graywolf in 2014. His work has been translated into Italian, Bulgarian and Swedish. He currently chairs the Artistic Advisory Board at the Millay Colony for the Arts in Austerlitz, New York. He also serves on the Advisory Board of Noemi Press. Wunderlich lives in New York’s Hudson Valley near the village of Catskill.