Paul Killebrew



I wonder if I’ve really scrutinized this experience like

you’re supposed to have if you can type

– Frank O’Hara

“For the Chinese New Year & for Bill Berkson”


I was born in Tennessee.

I was raised on ideas.

Now I fall down

as a person

in bodily emulsion.

But spiritually speaking?

I’m not suffering.

I’m looking at nine pictures on a light blue wall

in black frames with white matting.

In one the Secretary of Defense walks through Iraq

in a suit and boots,

surrounded by a thick white line.

If it wasn’t like this I wouldn’t care,

which is not to say I wouldn’t mind.

Some find this layering of thoughts within the ever-diminishing moment

to be a complete defense to the charge of privilege,

but surely more is expected, and there is no defense;

we commit crimes

and show ourselves and each other

unbelievable mercy.

To be meticulous is to give up in a way still marked by effort,

which for many is the one, true art.

What did the New Critics think about plagiarism?

Repetition as a form of time travel?

Conservatives prefer repetition in service

of an incantatory mourning for a lost world,

but one plagiarizes the self

in the commission of boredom.

Maybe it’s the difference between new meanings

and a complex weave of old ones,

or those who hold no new meanings are possible.

Or maybe all that’s possible

is a new ordering of priorities within experiences.

A sensibility and its chosen course are what matter most to me.

The present calcifies into interlocking crystals,

leaving so much gratuitous precedent

to be lined up in the narrow hallway of one’s attention

that a trajectory could be plotted to anywhere.

You go through each room and remove a single wall,

but only in your mind,

and still the house collapses. It wasn’t built to last.

What kind of imposition would that have been anyway?

Words on a page

and a bare molecule of intentionality

coming through this pinhole of sensation and time.

My face, lit by screens

and angled penitently towards coffee,

withers like a democracy

under its loudest features.

Sometimes it’s hard to watch,

I know. Not at all like yours, or yours,

presences to which my life

is a distracted vigil,

having found no higher calling.

Certainly not this,

which could happen or not

and all that’s at stake

is whether I’ve told you.

You drive us through the rain in Virginia

after taking me to see

my 93-year-old grandfather in Nashville.

My dad and I went to his hospital room at night,

where he told me about the Korean man

he’d met at the church he built in Nagoya

who had to hide from police

after becoming a suspect in the kidnapping of a local teenager.

He hadn’t kidnapped her.

Years later they learned

she’d run away in the middle of the night

to avoid an arranged marriage.

But prejudice against Koreans

ran high in late ‘40s Japan,

so my grandfather’s friend became the target

of an investigation whose misguidedness

ensured its longevity.

I forgot to ask my grandfather, whose name is Ernest,

what Nagoya was like in the late ‘40s,

after a quarter of the city was incinerated

by American fire-bombing

that Robert McNamara, who also lived to see 93,

later conceded was a war crime.

A few weeks after the Korean man disappeared

he called Ernest and asked to meet

at a popular restaurant in town.

Ernest arrived at the appointed time

and found the restaurant packed with people.

A hostess, upon learning whom Ernest was meeting,

directed him to the restaurant’s second floor,

which he found completely empty

except for his friend

who sat alone at a table at the far end

and waved Ernest over

as soon as he came up the stairs.

They talked for a couple of hours,

during which time the man explained

that he was innocent,

but, given the conditions in Nagoya,

he would have to remain out of sight,

at least for now.

He thanked Ernest for his friendship

and went on to explain

that he owned the restaurant they were sitting in,

as well as a couple of nearby hotels,

and he was actually quite wealthy.

A few years later,

Ernest’s job as a missionary

was moving him to Tokyo,

and apparently his friend learned he was leaving

because he called Ernest again

and asked to meet at 10 p.m. the next night,

this time at an address my grandfather recognized

as being in the industrial section of town,

mainly warehouses and the like,

with few stores or restaurants

and probably no people around at night.

With some trepidation,

Ernest went to the address at 10

and waited. The streets were empty

except, after fifteen or twenty minutes,

a yakimo man whom Ernest heard a couple of blocks away.

Yakimo men drive carts around at night

selling sweet potatoes—yakimo—that are roasted over charcoal

on the cart itself. You can hear them at night bellowing out,

“Yaaakiiiiiiiiiiiimooooooo!” Eventually the yakimo man

came right up next to Ernest, then stopped his cart

and said, in Japanese, “It’s me.”

It was his friend,

who explained that this was one

of several disguises

his circumstances unfortunately required.

He said he’d heard Ernest would soon be moving,

and he just wanted to see him again

to thank him for his friendship.

They spoke briefly,

and then my grandfather’s friend rolled his cart away,

occasionally calling out, “Yaaakiiiiiiiiiiiimooooooo!”

And now you and I

are driving through Virginia again,

the sky a further gray.

I woke up this morning with you

in Roanoke, thirty-five years old

for the first time, in love

and astonished. I jogged three miles

while listening to “The Weight” seven times in a row

and thought the song

could be a pacifist anthem:

you righteous people

go on and kill each other;

all us sinners will be here,

living in peace and mutual assistance.

The feeling vanished, or perhaps deepened

past visibility, when I heard about the acquittal. Bastille Day.

A wary sun bided its time

in the drowsy grad school of an overcast sky,

and then, finding its moment,

delivered a bleaching intensity

to the reading glasses

resting on the dashboard

of our financed Acura

under a dewy windshield,

casting bleary water shadows

through the double lens

of windshield and glasses

across the car’s front seat,

the deep blue fabric of which

was brushed into dark and light patches

working crossways from the sun

cast complexly through fat leaves

of the adjoining yard’s many hardwoods.

A single leaf shadow

bobbled over the plastic lid

of a day-old coffee cup

sitting in the center console

next to the gear shift,

white and blue-gray

mixing over the still black hole of the spout,

a small, circular cinema.

Doubled, tiny threads of dust on the rearview

glowed in a stripe of light

reflected from the trunk forward,

trembling minutely

as the air inside the Acura

warmed, circulated, and gained humidity,

seashells of fog

developing from the bottom of the windshield

at the defroster’s vents.

Spots of dew on the roof

shrank as they dried,

leaving concentric trails of pollen and air dirt

in a yellow-brown haze

against the car’s light blue exterior,

sediment at the level of microns

building glacially over weeks

of quickly warming summer mornings.

Seatbelts and downward seams in the upholstery

leant no sense of vertical logic to the interior.

The passenger side buckle rested partially

on a pile of folders and papers in the seat.

The silver tip of the buckle

breached the edge of a pie chart

printed on the piece of paper

at the top of the pile.

The chart was in grayscale

and demonstrated striking productivity.

Before the dewdrops on the windshield dried,

the bumpy shadows of four of them

fell evenly along the rounded edge

of the chart’s largest triangle,

giving the edge’s black line

the appearance of growing darker

as it travelled through the dewdrop shadows.

Up very close, the paper itself

was a thicket of rough fibers,

a cotton ball flattened,

and the black line of the chart’s edge

was a dense, black dust

resting on the thicket,

containing to one side

a far less concentrated

swarm of black particles.