Artifacts

Buffalo Bill hung
three feet above my head.
His spade-cut beard and arrow-eyes
tilted down at me from below
the wide lips of his hat brim,
spread around his head like eagle’s wings,
his horse’s backside reared upwards,
kicking at the sky as if to punt
the sun into its half-past-noon position.

He hung down the hall from James K. Polk,
from model combines, thrashers,
“Votes for Women” flags,
buffalo hide,
the bones, oxidized and dark
as tobacco spit,
of a ground sloth who milked
the land millennia before Bill
and his movable Wild West.

“I think the Beatles wrote a song about him.”
My dad’s voice jars me, even at a whisper,
in the halls of the museum,
empty but for us below the poster,
escaping the dry electric buzz
of heat lightening in Nebraska
that summer my eleventh year.

“Hey, Buffalo Bill, what did you kill, Buffalo Bill…”

Those weren’t the words, but this was our story,
the one for where we stood.
The one we could place
within the smell of wet corn,
the rot of wood we’d known.
We’d climbed in through the window
of the family house that morning—
not what once had been the family house,
now boarded up, a danger, overgrown
with poison ivy, thistle, nettles,
but what would always be ours,
even as it sinks each year
deeper and deeper into the ground.

The house was not curated,

its artifacts not organized
into a theme or a progression
of a narrative that you could walk through,
its aging documented and spelled out in plaques
and neat chronologies, preserved
and vacuum-sealed in hypoallergenic
shadow-boxes.

This house was wild.
Time had dumped all relics
randomly within its rooms,
as if the roof had opened up
and books and bottles had rained down,
not nourishing the soil but crashing
down to bury it.
It was kill or be killed.
Only the strong survived
the centuries.

The stained musk of fraying fibers
in a pocket-sized A Dog of Flanders;
dirt-caked blue glass mixing bowl;
report cards, spelunked
out of the caved-in crawlspace
of an attic, reading, Evelyn’s a bright student,
but talks too much in class.
These were the things I removed.

Their decay both sickened and alarmed
me like the birds that flew out startled
by my footsteps from within the old piano had,
while at once the living they embodied
thrilled me, comforted me,
overtook and toppled me completely
like an old story does,
like the place you always set it in,
existing in you for as long as you recall,
a spot you’ve never been to
but that somehow you are homesick for.

Like the smell of dwindling mesquite smoke
as it stirs a loneliness in you, the kind you relish
as you feel the world begin to swallow
you, alone without a compass while home
within your skin.

Like all the breaths I breathe in
as my own today, that hang
suspended in the condensation,
in the cracks between the bar bricks:
words that once were spoken there
that fill my head and swell
with the swelling ring beneath my glass,
my sour mash of corn.

Like my father’s mis-singing of the Beatles.

Like the heat in summertime Nebraska.

Something That Was Never Ours

The man had on a collared green shirt, leaning
elbows-down upon the wooden porch
rail when you first ran into him. His son,
a balded little bean, had eyes that shone
like bottle glass, like kelp beneath the water,
like that shirt.

You didn’t know he had a son. Not then.

You knew he had a tired smile, sturdy
shoulders, soft eyes. And then you knew the feel
of his back beneath your palm as you walked past,
bestowing half a second of your hand
to rally him to join you with the others,
to depart the porch for wider plains.

Instead he stood there scrambling, quietly,
to make a record of your finger prints,
prolong their indentations in his skin,
delay their fading into songs whose notes
you can’t dredge up but which have settled in
you somewhere, you can tell, because you feel
that same old pull within your abdomen,
the spot where they once burrowed when they played.

You both made sure to walk a line.
To always thread
your needle back around the eyehole
from the distant land of Wrong,
in all its sweetness and its song,
back through to Right, or Righteousness—
whatever name they gave the ground
that itched the bottoms of your feet,
that made your bones throb
when you sat too still upon return.
You never lingered long in Wrong.

Unless to bask within each other, side-
by-side and silently, is wrong. If wrong
is measuring each day by the particulars
of one another. Aching for each other
without words.

He claimed a famous tune, recorded years

ago, was his creation, that he wrote
the words about his love for you.
You knew you’d hear it differently
from that point on.

Though looking back, you know
he couldn’t possibly have penned it years
before he knew you. Looking back, the strange,
slow warbling—like an aging man would sing
as day began to drain behind his bloodshot eyes—
could not have been a love song. But it didn’t
matter to you then. Nor did all
the other details that began to fall
in odd formations, all the little rips
in what seemed real.

When finally you’re forced apart, when all
the careful calculations that allowed
you both to have each other in a way
that couldn’t be contested but within
the confines of your heart are all contested
ultimately, by that woman he
could never love, or leave, you’re left alone
to say whatever words you think could bridge
the space of years to come.

He kisses you atop your head—
avoiding every other surface—and you reach
your hand for his, finding pouring rain
and glass separating you.
Finding your palm pressed to the glass
of the window pane above your bed.
Finding yourself awake.

We encounter sudden, unexpected deaths
in dreams much as we do in waking life:
we go about our days without a premonition,
thinking of ourselves in present tense,
as figures bloomed in oils upon a canvas
who will always sit upon that space once dried,
or beams that form the buttress of a building,
crucial to its standing, never rotting
or removed on second thought by its designer.

But when we find ourselves, or those among us,
junked or turpentined without a warning,

we then scramble, quietly, to make a record
of our mother’s laugh—like simmering
molasses, rolling slowly to a boil, a burst—
a photograph of how the cigarette hung
at exactly ninety-three degrees
from the edge of our old roommate’s mouth,
an imprint of the way Fernando’s fur felt
as it ran in orange rivulets between our fingers.

If we can pull them out and hear them,
see them, feel them as we did the day
we molded them, then we don’t have to think
or speak of them in past tense yet.
They aren’t written as addendums to
our prologues, the events that pass off-stage,
unseen, before the curtain rises on
the actors, who must now play out the scenes
to come as if they’re all that’s real. They are.

So we return to sleep.

We fool ourselves to thinking that we’d hear
our mom or roommate’s voices if we called
them (after all, the world looks just the same
today as it had always looked when this were true),

convince ourselves the cat is just beyond
our view, between the bushes and the fence
where he can leisurely dissect his kill
without the prying eyes of hawks, or humans,

hum that warbly tune as if we weren’t
forgetting how it went. As if, because
we know we’re dreaming, we can conjure something
that we haven’t let ourselves believe was never ours.

And then we wake, because we always do.

The song becomes the rain that splatters
on the outer layer of storm window,
the radio alarm that sounds at seven-thirty.
The face we held to ours so short a time
ago, the eyes, the nose, the patchy
beard, that shirt,
become a blur of imprecision,
a distorted mass of colored lines.

The pulsing that we knew meant blood
in veins, a heart that pushed and pulled
it through, and beat for us,
fades out, becomes the beating
of the heart that lies beside us,
tangled in the blue
of blankets.

* * * * *

Shenan Hahn is a poet living and working in the Washington, DC area.She has been writing poetry for over 10 years, and graduated in 2010 with her Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her work has most recently appeared in journals such as Slow Trains, PigeonBike, and Lines + Stars.  

Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.