Occasion by Matt Dennison


Theirs was not a ghost story per se—
the old couple would never have stood for that.
But they were dead and sore confused
by locks and such, wind in the hands
that could not grasp no matter how slow
the approach, mirrors, and the arrogant
strangers in their house. ‘Surely they can
see us,’ they would mutter to themselves,
sitting on the beds of the intruders as they
shifted in their sleep. They shouted into
the ears of the grownups, lowered their
faces over the lips of the children and blew
mightily, stirring nothing but their own
annoyance and doubts. Commands
and invective were ignored. Obscene
displays were attempted and abandoned,
for they simply walked through each other:
one hugging the curtains, the other stroking
a tulip. Banging on walls and floors was also
no good, for they could find no surface willing
to be struck by the likes of them. Off-key
singing and the rattling of pans were equally
impossible, they soon realized, and shrugged
sour. They took to staring at their hands
on old grey sheets until they grew faint.
Then at each other. Then back to their hands.
Whole days were consumed in this manner,
where they learned they had neither bones nor
names, heat nor taste, only the air of everlasting
occasion as under the house in a low, minor key,
an old cat told a Chinese tale—eyes closed,
mouth near dirt, she droned on and on
to the delight of her young. This they heard
and did not wish to howl upon. With eyes slowly
closing, lips pursed as if to kiss time, that time
once more… Well, if sleep would have them,
they would go.

by Matt Dennison

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Editor’s Note: This narrative poem takes the reader from one moment to the next via superb imagery, until at the end, the story folds into its inexorable, inevitable close.

Il Connoisseur Sanguinante by Matt Dennison

Il Connoisseur Sanguinante

“Actually,” said Death, pausing to wipe
his bony chin, “I find that I miss the old
method of flavoring. What was it called?”
he asked, rattling fork on finger bones.
“Marvelous aroma, if memory serves,”
he added, glancing hopefully up the
length of table stretched to everlasting.
But on hearing no reply from his ravenous
companions, only the clack of knives
on china, he fell silent. “Unfiltered!”
he cried out, sitting up straight. “Un…filtered,”
he sighed, savoring the word’s invocation
of days gone by. “It was strong, I tell you,
possessed of an imperishable integrity.
It presented a challenge, of sorts;
you felt larger when it was over, pierced
with the incessant rhythm of Earth’s eternal
depth and darkness, unlike this… soup,”
he ended, gesturing at his plate. “Ah, well,”
he sighed as he cracked another rib cage
and speared the soft brown morsels which
he inspected with a wary eye before
popping them into his mouth,
“life goes on.”

by Matt Dennison, first published in The Spoon River Poetry Review.

Editor’s Note: Third person point of view is interesting and rare in poems these days. This narrative is a gruesome delight. Ah, the good old days…

Painting a Chimney by Matt Dennison

Painting a Chimney

He leaned the old wooden ladder against the house,
climbed twice to extend its heavy sections,
retreated to pick up scraper, brush, paint
and mount the lowest step to rise. Remembering
the horses he had read about or dreamed
who late in the race would bite their necks
for oxygen, he cursed his slowness
and general delay toward the chimney,
last painted some ten years prior—for the life
of him he could not remember, or grasp
the need for such an act at all. Pausing
at each rung to lift a foot and boost,
he reached the grey-stubbled tiles,
placed one hand on the gutter and gazed
at the impossible slate. Luckily he had thought
to pour off some paint, for there would be
no setting down the can up here. He climbed
the final steps, swung behind the ladder ends
and sat, accoutrements in lap.

Gauging the sunset barometer served
only to speed his tics, so he pushed against
the ladder, somewhat, which lifted in the air,
causing him to scuttle up the roof a bit
in instant crab recoil. Pleased to be embarked,
he looked about until he spied his neighbor’s son,
raking leaves and weeping proudly to himself.
He whistled his plain-tooth note to signal
the boy’s exposure, and when he looked up
waved, though the youngster only scowled
and turned to attack the growing pile—
reminding him a house requires some trinity
of occupants to thrive, that one plus ghosts
will not do. Feeling the wind lift his hair,
he moved backwards up the tiles, not as slick
as he had feared, hands and feet propelling
him slowly to the peak. What masters of lead
and rope they must have been, he marveled,
to have built a roof so slant.

Arrived, he straddled the crest and stood,
bow-legged his way toward the bricks
with arms outstretched, eyes lowered to guide
his angling feet. The chimney, of course,
loomed at the farthest end, as if, in running
to expel its breath, had teetered at the edge
and stopped. I have you now, he thought,
and slipped face-forward, mind, gravity
and paint unspooling a fount of arching red.
Tasting slate and blood, he raised his head
to see the hawk land on the chimney,
shoot him with bald eyes and pull dark
strings from the neighbors’ half-eaten
dachshund. Spinning the best he could
to find the boy hidden by roof-line, he flung
the paint can hawkward, and when it swooped,
the brush, which dropped the gutted fur-sack
in the crimson at his feet. Below, voices
bent over in shadows as he rose against
the sky, howling, red carcass aloft.

by Matt Dennison

Editor’s Note: There is not one unnecessary word placed awry in this brilliant narrative poem. The ending is unexpected and oh, so exceptional.

Scrofula by Matt Dennison


After the old man found it, the solitary
upright marker bearing his mother’s
mother’s name, we worked for several days
clearing the small hill of its hundred summers’
growth and then marched with pitchforks,
side by side, shoving their fingers into the ground,
feeling for what had been slowly bowed
and buried by the dull weight of time
that had lain so heavy upon these obstacles
in its path of desired flatness.
And when we felt the grip, the pull,
we would slice the earth and slide
our fingers below, force the cool slabs
against the wind once more, restoring
the eddies and swirls that formed their borders
and lifted our hair as we brushed away dirt,
reading names and dates to each other,
moving hands over faces growing
both older and younger until the entire
hill was awakened and not once did I
think of the skulls that stared
beneath our feet but noticed,
instead, how entire families would be
laid out in descending scales of grief,
all voices stopped within the same small
circle of days and how one family,
from suckling-child to father,
had been Taken By Scrofula
in the winter of 1868, the dark,
earthy sound of which I tried again
and again in the thick summer air, imagining
horses in snow, their hot breath warming hands
in stubble fields and thought it beautiful.
Scrofula, I chanted as I slid the tines in—
scrofula is what I am searching for. It begins
as an unspoken sound of blackness circling
high overhead, looking for someone able
to hear its message of release, to blacken
their lips with the passing of its taste, alone
and then in staggered harmony with those nearby.
It begins as a whisper in a child’s ear
growing louder and louder until no prayer
for health or moan of love can penetrate
the rush of night—so loud his very eyes
become the lips which form the name and all
he can see is the small hill behind the barn
so it is there that he flies to lie in untouched silence,
waiting for the others and those who would come
much later, seeking soft marble.

For two more days we built a fence
around the hill, digging the holes by hand
and tying the posts together in a complicated,
old-fashioned way whose secret of doing
I knew would vanish with the old man
when he heard his own irresistible sound,
the high-whispered calling of his name
in the ultimate foreign tongue.

by Matt Dennison

Editor’s Note: Long sentences and surreality lend this poem a haunting sensibility entirely in keeping with its subject matter. So many lives pass so quickly that when one stumbles upon a buried hint of past tragedy, it’s nearly impossible to ignore.