George Looney

Work Done on the Flesh

A cave-in one county over keeps me up.  The late news has live cameras at the entrance where men come out, coughing up clouds of dust that shroud their faces and shimmer in the stark light of the video cameras. Their hands are filthy and tremble. Some are bandaged, though it’s clear the gauze was wrapped in a hurry in the half-dark. We all want to learn something from this tragedy.

You have to listen without breathing, one says. The others remain silent, though one or two try to smile for the cameras. I’d call those faint attempts grimaces, not smiles. 

Asleep in the next room, you mumble words I can’t make out. Truth is, we’re like any other couple. Live together long enough and you get lazy, listening for familiar code to interpret rather than for anything authentic that might be being said.

All day we were at each other, the distance between us full of collapses. The dust raised into the damp air by the inevitable falling in of all those intimate contrivances we come to rely on having formed a kind of consolation that drifts in the air, a patina of what’s become comfortable, a balm of sorts.

We can’t live on nerve alone.  Like miners, we need structures we can count on.  And it’s hard to dig out from under what we believe we need, or get a good night’s sleep with things collapsing all around us. 

The coal dust will have colored another county by the time we can say what kept us from touching, the anger a distance difficult to map or name, though we waste so much time and fervor trying to pin it down. What we want is to get it in a room under hot lights and interrogate it, to break it, to make it talk.

The bodies brought out of the mines are often nameless for days, until the proof of work done on the flesh can make grief personal.  The naming goes on until the bodies run out. 

Those who don’t come out of the earth are thoughts, and stay with us longer.  What we can’t claim haunts us.

Tonight, the dust isn’t enough to keep us from sharing breath. Tonight, all we’ve shared doesn’t need to be broken. It speaks without coercion; it’s the mystery of an old song catching us off guard, reminding us just how it is we’ve become us.

It’s time to forget the haggard men come up from the earth’s wound.  We call these constructs of light news, and believe we see what’s happening, when it’s the past we see, reconstructed, edited, and enhanced.  The set off, the signals become what they always were, waves of light inscribing our bodies with the names and gestures of ghosts. 

Your body, like mine a screen for every bit of unseeable light, is warm.  No cold static wavelength can deny the weather of flesh.  Our bodies are clear and familiar, able to touch in ways we think of as our own.  And though I haven’t entered the earth or been caught far enough below rock to be in a time before the thought of air, when I put my head to your chest I hear a sound that seems to come from a distance farther than flesh allows. 

It could be nothing, just one of those tricks our senses play on us.  Or it could be a canary flying in your ribs, breathing pure air and singing.

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George Looney’s books include the recent Red Mountain Press Poetry Award-winning What Light Becomes: The Turner Variations and the novel Report from a Place of Burning, co-winner of The Leapfrog Press Fiction Award, Meditations Before the Windows Fail, the book-length poem Structures the Wind Sings Through, Monks Beginning to Waltz, A Short Bestiary of Love and Madness, and the novella Hymn of Ash. He is the founder of the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, editor-in-chief of the international literary journal Lake Effect, translation editor of Mid-American Review, and co-founder of the original Chautauqua Writers’ Festival.