Death of a Nation

poems by Jon Corelis

And they served their idols: which were a snare unto them. Yea, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters unto devils, and shed innocent blood ...

-- Psalms 106

The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.

-- Walt Whitman

Children with guns

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In the church they worship spiders, on T.V.

Christ with a neat goatee foretells the rain.

Men drunk on anger oil their blood machines,

women ingest the pennies of their dreams,

and children with guns

dance howling on the entrails of their brothers.

At the Union Hall they’re slurping poison soup.

The flesh rots from their faces. "Who are you?"

they ask each others’ mirrors.

Men scream at machines in isolation,

women can’t catch their breath, and children with guns

take aim at the morning.

Only human

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If you were me, you’d be inhuman too.

A glance at what we share should make it plain

I’m only human, so I’m just like you.

I need the things I have: too bad for you.

My inconvenience justifies your pain.

If you were me, you’d be inhuman too.

The big boys offer me a chance of gain:

if I don’t take it, what else can I do?

I’m only human, so I’m just like you,

and if my boot should crush your baby’s brain,

I’m only doing what they tell me to:

if you were me, you’d be inhuman too.

This cross of lies determines what is true,

and makes our being human inhumane.

I’m only human, so I’m just like you.

So don’t be so judgmental: of us two,

one has to be an orphan of the rain.

If you were me, you’d be inhuman too.

I’m only human, so I’m just like you.

Over the rooftops

When night came I rose and dissolved through the wall of my flat

and floated over the rooftops of the city, across the faintly

luminous band of the horizon, and into the world where the sun dies.

Forgetting myself I roamed forty days among pallid

smudges of hunger until I came upon one

brighter than the rest, who reclined in a honeyed song.

Drawn by that sweetness I hovered over her croon,

which seared my eyes blind when I knew it was not for me.

Angered I stung her womb and was slung in a web

of blood and desire where I grew on an infinite sea

of pressure and warmth until I cracked open the sky,

emerging into a place of rocky points

and gullies crazed with dry heat. The people I saw

in that land were born without skins and with fractured tongues,

so the tiniest nudge of the breathless atmosphere there

grated an arid squeal from their impotent mouths;

yet sometimes one was born who could speak, and his cries

of anguish maddened the others to tear him to death.

Leaving this desert of sterility and filth, I managed

to climb to a cleft on the mountain where a child was seated

weeping at his own severed heart that lay at his feet.

He told me, The wind is saying, the wind is saying;

and I listened to the wind but in its urgency

could not discover what message it had for me.

So intent was my concentration that I dissolved out of that world

and found myself floating back over the houses of the city of dawn

and into my room where I thought about these things, to tell them to you.


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Sketches from my commute


Wet-ashes scent of early fog

tinged with acrid odor of the joint

smoked by a couple huddled in the entrance

of the pleasant suburban train station,

one white, one black, both shabby.


My seat-mate mentions his sister’s suicide,



I am looking at a large bright knife

half hidden in the large dark fist

of a man standing three feet away

as I wait to alight from the train.

Does the object in question bear

any significant relation to my person?


"Doctor! Doctor!" screams the blonde woman

wandering through the park-and-ride lot

in the wheezing screech of an asthmatic cat

trapped in a burning house. "Doctor!

I shot him! Doctor! Doesn’t

anyone hear me?" she cries, stunned.


An accident on the tracks by my office.

I go to look: lights, cops, crowds,

and two canary-yellow body bags

a dozen feet from each other.

I ask some onlookers, "Were two people hit?"

"No," they answer.


"Excuse me sir can you help me out?

I need to buy some corn bread and beans

to feed my kids. Thank you, thank you:

God is going to bless you,

and you are going to go

to heaven."

An Abortion

It wasn’t really:

it happens every month.

I used to wonder,

were the nuns really bald?

I am standing on a hillside.

The shearing wind cuts my hair:

it drops, drops, drops.

I am gazing into a pool.

The white-robed wizards turned

the fishes into glass.

They nod and float in water clear as they:

beautiful dead things.

About a bicycle

An old man rides a bicycle in the sun

in California.

He casts a shadow definite as death

in the meticulous light of November.

An old man rides a bicycle in the sun

in California, this blonde shire

with all its pointless beauty,

through marshes of emporia in the valleys,

past bungalows and cyclotrons

and the unidentifiable debris along the freeways.

In the hills the earth lies dead,

her womb split with an axe.

An old man rides a bicycle in the sun

in this decaying paradise where sins come in pastels.

His thoughts are a whale sounding far at sea.


California spring at the turn of the twentyfirst century:

the sun is chill and warm like Chardonnay;

from the news box windows in front of the Whole Foods Market

headlines recount why people are blown to bits.

A grey gaunt man scrapes a coin return with a finger,

evincing no dismay at finding nothing.


As I turned down the dark alley the wind blew a crumpled page

from an indecipherable newspaper across my shadow at such an angle

that all the images of the city were invoked, and I saw:

a hooded woman on a misty plain

a man in a garden digging a hole that fills with blood

a bush of roses which secrete a viscous film to trap insects

a boy flying a harp on a string like a kite

a beggar whose hands are reversed

a blind man wailing through the crowds, "Can’t anybody see?”

a group of children playing jacks with bullets

a dog fetching a tarantula

a white phallus on a red flag rippling in the wind

an accordianist dripping mucous from his ears

a cat laughing out loud

a statue that shifts whenever you look away from it

a book that turns to dust when you open it

a coffin that begins to speak when you close it

a skeleton nailed to a cross

a nun in rags

a bride in mourning

an infant born with burnt flesh

It is because I am a ghost who has not accepted my death

that I have been condemned to catalog such things.

Hot Club of France

Jerry was one of the people

who collect in the cracks.

He’d been around forever,

doing odd jobs

and playing guitar on the street,

mostly tunes

by Django Reinhardt, and playing them

fairly well.

I’d give him a dollar sometimes.

He managed to scrape

together enough for a room

at a cheap hotel

in a rare run-down patch

of a very rich town.

So at least he wasn’t homeless.

I hadn’t seen

him around for a while when I heard

that he’d climbed to his hotel’s

roof and thrown himself off.

It was one of those deaths

that doesn’t cause a ripple

in the flow of the world.

I suppose he had a story

like everyone else.

I wondered though if he kept

on hearing Django’s

smooth, intelligent riffs

on the way down.

Things I know for sure

Your life cannot be judged until you’re dead.

Our individual nature is our fate.

Freud was right in everything he said.

Only a fool draws to an inside straight.

The stronger will prevail in any fight,

although the weaker side is always right.

You can’t define a person by their looks.

The news can tell you what, but never why.

History is not what’s in the books.

The way to be a leader is to lie.

No war was ever fought except for gain.

No soldier ever died except in vain.

All wealth and poverty are undeserved.

A critic’s works are best left on the shelf.

The soul is where our childhood is preserved.

Human hatred punishes itself.

Both life and love are simpler if you’re brave.

There is no God. There’s nothing past the grave.

Hey, guy

Hey, guy:

the sun has a headache.

Hey, guy:

you’ve got to kick those dead birds out of your path.

Hey, guy:

don’t look now but you’re dead.

Hey, guy:

the President has murdered all the poets.

Hey, guy:

you can’t get rid of the stain.

Hey, guy:

don’t tell the truth they’ll kill you.

Hey, guy:

it could be worse at least there’s no hope.

Hey, guy:

we just need some angel to smash these ashen brittle faces with a hammer of song.

Hey, guy:

It doesn’t make sense to me either.

An advent calendar

the first is a golden skull

the second is a cobweb harp

the third is a machine that weeps

the fourth is a poisoned rainbow

the fifth is "send money to jee-suhs hal-leh-yew-lah!"

the sixth is a severed tongue

the seventh is a slaughtered dove

the eighth is an echo in a mirror

the ninth is an eyeball looking at itself

the tenth is "I’ve got blowdried hair adore me"

the eleventh is a spinning compass

the twelfth is Old Glory rippling proudly in the breeze

the thirteenth is a cobalt rose

the fourteenth is a siren in the night

the fifteenth is "we will pay without admitting wrongdoing"

the sixteenth is a psychotic captain

the seventeenth is a singing worm

the eighteenth is a leaking chalice

the nineteenth is a dizzy eagle

the twentieth is a baby on a cross

the twentyfirst is a soiled lily

the twentysecond is a murdered taxi driver

the twentythird is a bag lady waiting for nothing

the twentyfourth is a toothpick child

the twentyfifth is a black hole

Christmas ‘72

Sixteen hundred sylphlike souls

rising from the redness

form a Christmas wraith.

In Washington Nixon blows his nose,

examines the result,

discards the tissue.

A girl receives her gift in Beverly Hills,

a brand new car in a huge red billowing bow:

she gapes and bites her hands,

squeals, moistens, warms.

Someone drops a quarter in Chicago.

Snowflakes mask its brightness one by one,

cold as a country’s heart.


It was dawn when they came to kill us. The bleak sun

of winter was only a whitening of the mist

over the far hills from where they came.

The earliest screams brought others from their houses,

and their cries roused more sleepers out to die.

My mother, who’d gone for water, was one of the first.

Young as I was, I still ran to protect her,

was stabbed in the chest and thigh and fell to earth

as she fell over me: lying there, I felt her

give three desperate gasps, as if the air

could anchor her to life, then breathe no more.

Some instinct made me lie completely quiet,

and since the murderers turned to deal with those

our fight had drawn outdoors, I kept my life,

seeing through the lashes of one eyelid

how neighbors, cousins, friends all died around me.

It all seemed very slow and ordinary:

the killers took their time and liked their work.

Their victims each met death a different way:

some pouring curses out with their life’s blood,

some vainly bartering with promised gold,

some weeping childlike tears of acquiescence,

some pleading youth or age or prime of life

as reasons why their case should be exempted,

some numb with horror, some quite mad and laughing.

Their deaths were individual as their lives,

and as identical as all lives’ ends.

The raiders left to search for people hiding,

and I crawled out from under my mother’s body

and lowered myself into the largest well,

the only one with hand- and foot-holds in it,

fearing that they’d come back, and I was right.

For centuries I heard the further slaughter,

bleeding into the slimy rock I clung to.

Twice I was grazed by bundles tumbling down

to sound the earth’s wet heartbeat far below.

I don’t remember coming out, but somehow

I was standing in the sunlight watching people

loading the dead for hauling and looking on me

with amazed kindness. They pulled up from my well

the bodies of two children, a boy and a girl,

both with slit throats, the bruises still

livid on the girl’s small and hairless sex.

There were inquiries held, of course, but no one punished.

The government blamed the rebels, the rebels the army,

and the army denied it. The rulers had no answers,

the priests had no answers, the poets had no answers.

Only in silent dreams, two naked children,

angelic, unblemished, with grave and luminous eyes,

hold the answers flowering in their hands.

Negative entropy

He woke up and heard his voice

saying, "Negative entropy!"

Of course, it was obvious, how

could he never have seen it?

He went out and told every person

he met, "Negative entropy!

Things can go up just the way

they go down! We can all

be rich be young forever

only with negative entropy!"

He quit work and wandered the streets

crying, "Negative entropy!",

lost his house and his health,

slept rough in the park,

till during a cold snap he died:

when they found him his pockets

were filled with scraps of paper

reading, "Negative entropy!"

Sort of a ballad

Davy Crockett’s

lost in the woods

with a pig in a poke

and a bill of goods;

he went out hunting

for the Cisco Kid

and ended up ashamed

of whatever he did.

Baby, baby,

beat my heart,

snap its strings

and make it smart;

New York City’s

floating in air:

is it always this way


Baby Face Nelson

and Abraham Lincoln

went into the bar

and came out stinkin’,

and Rip Van Winkle

has a new disguise:

a riverboat gambler

with a pack of lies.

Mama, mama,

lift my basket:

looks like Chicago’s

blown a gasket.

All these people

would be better off dead

than trying to live

on the devil’s bread.

There’s plague back east

and dust out west,

floods down south

and the north’s depressed;

the cargo’s vanished,

the wheels are gone:

this wagon’s broke

and we won’t see dawn.

Father, father,

shoot my wad,

crack my whip

and bust my sod:

San Francisco

fell into the sea,

but nobody noticed

except for me.

The Twentieth Century

The twentieth century was a heap of corpses:

Auschwitz, Jonestown, Hiroshima, My Lai,

Cambodian clusters of skulls, shiny with dew,

range after range of mountained carcasses,

as if, when we summed it up, our world was death.

But what were we trying to say, by doing this?

So huge a crime must surely be a gesture,

but one with a meaning beyond our understanding,

like those Peruvian megaglyphs, meant to be read

from a vantage point their makers could only imagine.

The Map of America

The map of America doesn’t mean anything any more.

No mournful mosses shroud the sluggish bayous.

No wild lone freedom soars over broken mesas.

No woodsmoke ancestors haunt the maple forests.

The topography has been wiped clean as a cancer ward.

The states are alike each other as corpse to corpse.

When he woke up

When he woke up that morning he knew

that all the flowers had vanished, but not

because it was winter: this time

they wouldn’t be back. Eventually

the plants and trees would all die

and the bees would stop making honey

and the effects might ultimately mean

the end of everything, or at least

its great diminishment. But for now

there would be a period when the world

was just as it was before, except

there wouldn’t be any flowers. It seemed

like an oddly clean and poised

world to think about, a world

of expectation defined by what was gone.

In the National Garden

As I walked through the National Garden

a young woman gave me a flower and wept.

In answer to my unspoken question she said,

‘For the gaunt and haunted cats that sleep under cars,

and the faces pitted with alcohol like naked meteorites

and the faces shattered by the bullet of the vacuum that used to be god

and the faces tattooed with the poison of rage.

They will not grow again from the sterility of our choices:

the children’s laughter has all been crushed

by the bitter pestle of our rejection,

but because we have permitted this gesture to blossom between us

we may live for one more day.’


The sun has risen in its usual fashion.

Its only colors are the ones we name.

We have no word for sunrise any more.

Birds break out in territorial lyric.

There used to be a country. I’m tired of talking about it.

The brightest suns are those that you remember.

Streets fill with nerve-jerked meat: the resurrection.

‘Whom Thou hast stablished in wondrous Dignity.’

This is the kind of music the dead make.

It used to feel like one huge question mark,

buried in the universal beating heart.

These marionettes are governed by machines.

I knew a girl with eyes green as a cat’s.

Life, as you may have noticed, is a tragedy.

It’s starting to fall into place, and I don’t like it.

Current events

So I go down to City Hall to answer my summons

only when I get there it’s not City Hall any more,

it’s some kind of castle with towers

and bridges and stuff like that,

only when I look close it’s all made out of

lightweight plastic and cardboard.

So I try to take the elevator but when the door opens

it’s jam-packed with people,

and they’re all milling around mumbling and looking down

like something had happened they don’t want to talk about.

So I ask this cop by the door what’s going on and he says,

"We got a problem, the King is psychotic."

So I decide to get out of there and I go out on the street

and take out a dollar for the bus,

but when I look at it George Washington’s face is getting all brown

and curled like it was burning,

only it’s not burning it’s getting old real fast

like in a speeded-up movie,

and the flesh on his face gets so old that it rots and falls away

and there’s nothing but his skull and it winks at me,

and I’m like, Whoa, what’s happening, since I never knew that a skull

could wink without any eyes,

but everyone else is walking down the street like normal

so I guess everything is OK.

But I’m really freaked out when I get on the bus

and the driver says to me,

"They’re going to kill us like mosquitos on the wall,

there’ll be nothing but splotches of blood left."

Abu Ghraib

There are black holes in our world

where existence has collapsed upon itself

into a void so dense no light escapes

where insect pleasure feeds on insect pain

and the lips of leering legionaries

erupt in smiles like tumors

who falls therein comes out God’s other side

where the rustling of rats is the only answered prayer:

Gestapo Gestapo Gestapo

Why we fight

I love my car and I’d never want to sell it.

It’s so cozy inside that when I fart I can smell it.

All material on this web site copyright © 2014 by Jon Corelis


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