Five Poems by John Grey


No foot can survive unscathed,
not walking over these coals,
not while the city burns
and before the guilt rains down.
Nowhere to run
that isn’t molten,
a pool of tar
flooded with crying,
a conflagration,
where even the gutter creatures
barely survive.

Broken glass, syringes,
acids and powders,
hookers in flaming dresses,
the angry heat
sputters around,
red and luminous,
yet weeps to itself-
incandescent tears
in a dreaded backstreet
of people fused to the spot.

Heaps of them burn,
variegated scars
begin to smoke
intense as hell
in clots of black,
red-stained rivers
smog orange moon,
overheard wires sizzling,
the sky is aflame,
the coast can never be clear.


I don’t do
this out of despair.

It’s just that the part of me
that’s been down so long
wants to exert itself,
to make something
of all this nothing.

It is a series of events
that do not aim
for release,
and certainly not joy.

How it works
is that

all off my truths
hit the water
at speed,

create suffering
for myself
but end it

Then I can claim victory,
that one breath left to me.


Prideful is the last word I’d ever use
to describe the man
but as we step outside
through the sliding doors,
there’s more than shyness
in that awkward smile,
more than addiction
in the way he releases a cigarette
from the box
and lights it in a kind of
unspoken triumph.

His blue shirt is open to the throat.
His skin is leathery
but his mood is as smooth
as the petals of the tulips
slowly shutting down for sunset.
I feel as if I’m on a tour of
a historic house
with him as my guide
when it’s just the place
he finally can afford
after years cocooned in one of those
pale stucco dwellings
pressed into the side of the hill.

And now here he is,
after a hard day’s work
in which he can feel every dollar earned,
with a cigarette in one hand
and the palm of the other
flat against solid brick.

He watches the smoke rise.
dissipate, be rendered invisible by air.
Now, for certain,
with his name on a deed,
that will never happen to him.


You know there’s rooms such as these:

a dull kitchen
with a woman slumped in her chair,
a cigarette burning down to ash
in one hand,
a cold coffee cup holding up the other

a parlor
and a man crashed on a couch,
staring at a baseball game
on a dusty television screen,
half-slobbering, half-drinking,
his fourth beer of the night

a dark bedroom
and a young boy
hanging from a belt,
one end wrapped around
a light fixture,
the other crushing his throat,
and a chair kicked to the side
for all his life was worth

You already live in these rooms.
And some day,
you’ll meet the occupants.


People stop what they’re doing. The guy in the
bar raises his beer in salute. The ones who’ve been
there overnight toast the uniform with slowly
raised eye-brows. A little kid is slapped by his mother.
“Stand to attention,” she says, as if the anthem
is playing though it’s just the usual voice warning
all and sundry not to leave baggage unattended.
An old woman wipes a tear from her eye.
She’s seen it all before. It doesn’t always end happily.

It’s not like you see in the movies, the train load
of men in brown uniform hanging out of the window
kissing their childhood sweethearts. The farewells are
scattered. And it’s a busy airport of course. Over
by the x-ray machine, an entire family is paying
their tribute to a bespectacled man in his thirties
who was a banker yesterday. By the sign that says,
“Welcome to Rhode Island”, a middle-aged couple embrace.

Boy kisses girl between sobs sure but it’s the girl
who’s in green and brown, her tickets stamped Baghdad.
A pregnant woman leans over her belly to peck.
And a child of eight or so turns away from a departing
figure, cursing his father for leaving him. Goodbye is
a strange kiss, odd meeting of the mouths, one lips
off home, one to war. Swapping spit, we used to call it.
In lieu of touch, a jaw full of each other.


File0005 V3 (2)

John Grey is an Australian poet and US resident. Recently published in New Plains Review, Stillwater Review and Big Muddy Review with work upcoming in Louisiana Review, Columbia College Literary Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review.

Please note: Poetry is compressed to fit smart phone screens. If you are reading this poem on a phone screen, please turn your screen sideways to make sure that you are seeing correct line breaks for this poem.

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