The following poems were originally published in Tin House’s recent “Rehab” issue and are written by US Navy veteran Brandon Courtney (with featured art by Guy Catling):

Lazaretto

Without a shipboard morgue,

we kept the dead Iraqi

in the dairy box—his corpse

supine beside the eggs

 

and sour cream—a figure

draped in cotton sheets,

stretched to keep the still alive

from witnessing the mouth

 

and eyes of the nameless

drowned, whose tongue,

embalmed in wind and ocean

brine, capsized between

 

his teeth and, like a ruined

clementine, hung low: a thick

inch of fruit on the branch

of his throat. Yet every look

 

I stole revealed some skin

still beautiful: oil slick,

sulfuric-sweet beneath a shroud

of faded sheets, quiet

 

as a mezzo note. Forgive me:

I saw the man as meat—

 

~

 

Paradoxically, I think of light

as an obscurity, the way night

arrives, but shouldn’t. Stars crowd

every inch of graphite sky—

 

above, below, and beside

each needle-prick light—

like waves blown flat and pacified

as mortuary tables. Night

 

should burn like the inside

of a bulb, the sun’s umbilical,

but how, then, would the dead

hide? How could he appear

 

to me? Pitiful body, devoured

by sea, everything’s a mystery:

on cloudless nights, the naked eye

sees nothing of our galaxy.

 

~

 

What has left returns to me:

O-dark-thirty, my father

wakes his sons from sleep

to augur pupils in the creek.

 

Beneath our feet, their blue

hearts beat in syllables of blood,

condemning them to breathe. I slip

two fingers into gill, remove

 

what life the water holds,

and like some lone memorial,

circle fish around the hole

we tunneled through the snow.

 

I dream, now, when I’m still

enough to sleep, that the sunfish—

unmoving—are Iraqis.

I could not look away. Still,

 

I cannot pray to what I cannot

see—I refuse to believe

there’s a ghost inside me,

satisfied to praise the trees

 

or find the sacred in their leaves.

Forgive me—I don’t believe

in loss: every tree can be remade

into a coffin or a cross.


Afterworld

Once, an Iraqi spoke of a bird asleep

on his throat before he opened his mouth

to that white rush of waves. Believing

he’d turn into a tree from his grief,

 

he planted his tongue-seed into the sea;

a hundred birds fell into his branches.

The whites of his eyes were black with flies.

Heaven is nothing how the living describe:

 

the roads, paved with gold, burn like white

phosphorus—you wear what killed you

on the outside: Your lungs are two

overturned bells filled with water—

 

your wounds are still warm to the touch.

Beneath you, the earth burns so brightly

it looks like the head of a nail hammered

into the darkness of a palm.