for Justin

In the back room by the wood stove, the bark
of hickory and oak sizzled, popped--still ice-laced
in April in these blue veiny mountains--
my fingers collapsing as I began to tie
the swatches onto a line of organic string

     use an old shirt or some worn out piece of clothes
     he said, my friend, teacher,
     something with you in it
     I'd spent the previous night cutting them,
     an inch or so square, the flannel shirt,
     not mine but my father's
     which I wore after he died

      think of someone you know, devote each piece,
      a prayer maybe, invest with good energy

each square, drawn by the corners into sacs,
bulged with pure Indian tobacco
I thought of all the people, alive and dead, in no order or rank,
transformed the swatches into emblems
for power to ward off demons that might beset me

        in a wilderness
          still howling

by the fire that evening, Cathy floating somewhere upstairs,
our baby not yet born, I fashioned the long string, my circle of protection--
           mandala, though I didn't know it yet
           to thwart enemies and evil

I who did not believe, just humoring a friend
though I needed whatever I could get, holy water or icon,
to, yes, drive off demons, or one demon, Pan

             whom the ancients spotted behind a rock or wall
              as they froze in cold sweats,
               a god who seized and harrowed
                without mercy
                  or warning, abruptly as hail

and I remembered my own death
not long before, immobilized on a sheetless, filthy mattress
in some student apartment with ruptured water pipes
lying inert as bilge seeped into the room

             the mattress seemed to float atop it
             like a grotesque version of the ship
             that carried Wynken, Blyken and Nod to the stars

and then I died
like my father

              an instantaneous, momentary rupture
                ancient sword ripping apart the light
                  though soft as a sigh
                   curtain of ice
                     explosion of black roses

but rising to stumble out the door
revenant survivor who staggers
from the charred fuselage of himself

sinking like feathers into the lawn chair on the balcony
   to watch fireflies at dusk, and nibble cold strawberries
     touch the flesh of my lover, my wife
       in almost holy dumbfoundment

extraordinary pleasures mine again, I, Lazarus
 I, Lao Tzu returning to history
  on a broken mule alert to each new breath
   with serene reverence

thus one of the pouches I sanctified to myself,
old zombie flung out with that stained mattress,
and another to my self, newborn, astral

that April, by a fire, in uroboric shadows,
scintillant flakes of snow evaporating before they touched earth,
I chanted the names of the quick and the dead

and those dozens became all of us
              as the trance lulled me
                like feathers
                  as Pan grinned lecherously
                    from the flames,

             reptile god, Typhon, assaulting the soul
               Psyche, butterfly wings drooping
                   yet ripped like tissue

and on I chanted, the names, until they lost meaning,
eased into the syrup of pure incantation, mantra, rosary, litany
until I became no one
            shadow of a memory

and a greater fire engulfed the room, consuming the other, the flames
of Pan, powder ash, the God of Horror swept away like dust

I thanked the spirits
the spirits who had arrived for this new purpose, new life
     my father whose shirt I wore and had ripped to pieces
      the spirits of the living arriving for this purpose
       my daughter
                 eight hundred miles away
                   stolen, prey of black-suited jackals
                    and Medea with saw-toothed jaws
                     rising like ice from her crypt

spirits who had gathered in that back room,
the enormous energy of the spirits
who came to me, caressed me, breathed upon me, routed the Demon,
dazzled my broken

wondrous eyes
 like old leaves protecting a sprig
              bursting from the ground in spring

and I rubbed the swatches like holy beads,
breathed in measure, thanked the spirits,
I, non-believer, thanking the spirits, still inert to the core, grieving my lost child,

   rising from the dead not like a phoenix but a man
             clinging to the old beast
               mane brushing
                across my face
                 like the wind.

Louis Gallo

About the poet: Louis Gallo's work has appeared in American Literary Review, Glimmer Train, Berkeley Fiction Review, Texas Review, Missouri Review, Portland Review, The Ledge, The Journal, Baltimore Review, storySouth, Oregon Literary Review, Rattle, New Orleans Review, Louisiana Literature, Amazon Shorts and many others. His book on Katrina will soon be published.