House Soon to Catch Fire
Upstairs, a man
with swarming wasps for eyes
paces the carpet bare.
Bent birdcage of a woman downstairs.
Falling matchstick of a man
who only wants to rise
like song, like the blush of pride in
his children’s cheeks.
Brief fever dream of a man
whose senses whisper lies.
What gift can he offer
his children? His name,
that prison cell inside his neighbors’ glares?
The desperate shame
of broken teeth, of ugliness
that can’t afford disguise? That man
looks at his wife, sees only bars.
Listens for birdsong, hears broken cars.
Such a man would maybe
trade a match for unheard blame,
would settle for ash lifted skyward on a flame.
Whatever you think you know of me is wrong.
I came up in church. I remember all the songs –
Amazing Grace. Just As I Am. For All the Saints.
I spent a lifetime being what I ain’t.
I spent my childhood on a desperate man.
He spent himself against me. Now, I can
touch a man without him touching back.
I’m real good, too. I got the knack
for making an invisible man feel seen.
That’s why they come, you know? They clean
their dirty fingernails and shave up neat,
and sit there still as Sunday under me.
Just as they are, so wonderfully unmade.
I’m the patron saint of getting paid
for less than what a man will sometimes steal.
Sundays, I repent. It’s a good deal.
South from courthouse square, the church bells ring
time to clock in. A call to partake in the sacrament
of making. Here’s a factory, placed in the crease
of a hand. A factory, the promise of daily labor;
here’s peace in the land. A factory is a lung,
breathing a people, exhaling a town. In, deeply,
with sweat and life-time and dreams; out, with
force behind it, order. A factory is the land resting
behind a border, and the border itself. A factory
is a pantry full of stocked shelves. A town is a place
where a person can go to a store and pay a bit
of her life to buy a thing that she made with a
bit of her life, and she can walk away feeling
proud of her life. A town is what happens between
work and church. A life is what happens around
a town. There are men whose hands get lost
on the way to work, end up wandering the paths
of the forest called woman, the desert of a constant
thirst for wine, the grasping vine of a hot pipe.
A factory requires no leap of faith. Repetitive
work is a kind of balm for the open wound
of doubt. The church bells ring the workday out.
Rachel Custer is an NEA Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017). Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals, including Rattle, OSU: The Journal, B O D Y, The American Journal of Poetry, The Antigonish Review, Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (OJAL), among others.