The 80s By John Amen

The 80s

At first, the beast had no name.
Then we whispered that acronym,
as if by speaking the unspeakable
we might explode in our shoes.
My friend’s sister died in her aunt’s guest room,
skin bruised, eyes like a newborn’s,
an ancient child with a shrinking memory.
New wave sparked in the eastside clubs,
a bartender named Richard dove from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Crucify them! the preacher screamed.
Lock them up! the protester said.
Millions reduced to ash, a tireless enemy
flitting from blood to blood, corpses
& corpses in that sinister game of tag.
I stuffed my backpack, descending the steepest stairs I’ve known,
so many red handprints on the banister,
bus tires pounding like a cocaine dream.
I’ll never go back, I said. By the time I reconsidered,
I looked like the glowering strangers
in those shoe-box photos, relatives whose names
were scrawled in Mom’s worn bible.
Hello Hudson, hello East River, hello Joralemon Street.
Every door I slammed I had to reopen,
scratching letters to the deceased, burning them
in cemeteries, at busy intersections. & while
that strobe of angels mostly moved on
to wherever angels finally go, a few
still linger. They track the new flood
as it swells in the dark, bracing for its arrival.


John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm, finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award, and work from which was chosen as a finalist for the 2018 Dana Award. He was the recipient of the 2021 Jack Grapes Poetry Prize. His poems and prose have appeared recently in Rattle, Prairie Schooner, RHINO, and Los Angeles Review, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew.

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