Sounds From the Top

Politics and pandemic pried open the cellar door to our country and much of the world in 2020. Many of us were surprised at what we found, and many of us weren’t. This is one of my meditations on those early days when we didn’t know what to expect.

by Joe Engel

All I hear are sirens

and the American flag 

flapping on top of the hospital.

It whips and dances in a spotlight

to upstage the black sky

above us as I sit on my porch.

When I was a kid

I choked up

at the national anthem 

but now, it seems, love of country 

is a towel snapped by a bully

in the locker room,

that’s what I hear in the wind.

Tonight belongs to Covid 19 

empty streets

neighbors knocked into bed early

calling more attention 

to warm feet, strawberry ice cream,

little sips from a snifter of whiskey-

but mostly, for me,

tonight belongs

to a friend who video calls,

who fell off the wagon

who wants my company.

I’ll open a beer

since this is hard for him to admit.

I don’t know what that makes me.

We are both men who have

reassembled again and again.

In this beer I can taste

the mystery, the magic that each

brown bottle once brought,

a freedom. 

I won’t blame him.

I look north and south.

I could use the quiet street as a

bowling lane. Where is the woman

who leaves notes on my car?

Which way are the pins?

Who behind these black windows

turns in their bed, abandoned

by the one who snores beside them? 

Stuck on that image

that makes them clench their teeth?

Sometimes our thoughts

are like drawing a number.

Our actions as well.

My friend has been to prison.

He tells me some prisoners

grow stronger in their cells,

in the yard, in the weight room.

There he learned to like poetry.

The wind is stronger than anything

and when I hear those sirens I think 

someone has broken from reality

amid this pandemic,

or because of it.

A woman who can’t recognize

that she is not Joan of Arc,

and cops who can’t recognize

her good intent.

It’s like that, if it happens to you,

a differential in wavelengths

dissociation in bloom,

after all, the moon symbolizes night

but there it is in the sky at noon.

Justice, we think, 

will only chase the other,

never us for the wrong we do.

What of guilt?

My friend let it crawl

into his lap, shed its fur all over him,

offered a hand when it growled.

Many mean people 

raise the American flag.

Our conversation has ended

and I haven’t even looked up

for the moon, but there is something

in the trees,

a bird singing at midnight

there is something in these houses,

something in the paused

thoughts of patients sedated

in the hospital

something that hasn’t been decided yet.

Buds are just sprouting,

tenderly on the twigs

that hold the bird

trilling like a glass flute;

this one is a maverick, calling out

it’s sleeplessness, then 

again, getting no response.

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