The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Matt Prater

The Holy Shadows



A holy wood, no woman or no man,
no colonial, not even the elder shaman,
can will down palo santo medicine.

What blood root is to Tennessee, palo santo
is to Peru: the old thing, an ancient one,
a metaphorical Christ-medicine.

Each gives itself to be cut down. Each seems
dark—bleeding from the root, or boiling oil
from its sulfury tip—and yet, it is not

the dark’s dark. In each one’s time, full
of wisdom, it dies; and dying, it is consumed;
and in its sweet consumption, lives again.


Whenever Jesus healed, Jesus retreated
(only later, in that third go round, would he
assume his sweet place as incense of palo santo).

But away from the crowds, he sat under the moon
and prayed, or in the soft light played cards
with John and Thaddeus. Or both.

God whispered, God listened: come, self,
it’s snowing. Wrap this cloth around you
for the night; stay with me and rest

in this basement beneath the earth:
there is dark fire here, where turtles sleep
and the great bears nestle chest to chest.


Once, great eagles in us swooped and swirled.
We owned all ponds; who could defeat us?
We were the whir in the heart of the bower.

But in time, we grew hungry for fuller waters,
to fly upward and always away from the thrush.
So we ran away from our own dark estuaries.

Yet the running starved us all; and starved,
we slammed into the very river that’d’ve fed us
if we’d just set down the first time hunger called.

We thought that we were drowning, and we were.
We felt our eagle selves slip off of us; they did. Yet
if we could, we would explain how this was sweet.


Forgive us, darkness. We have climbed
and climbed away from the specks of ash
that you have sent to bless our ceremonies.

God’s strange mistaken angel, you pull us down
and offer up a piece of coal to purify us. But we refuse,
trained and attuned to lightness more than light.

God wanted to rest, and yet we raged.
God moved in us with rage, and yet we stalled.
God played us mourning songs, and we all danced.

When it was tear time, Jesus wept; and in due season,
everything (except for us) gives up its raw cocoon
or seed of beastly flesh; and transformed in it,


…finds God’s darkness sweet. The butterfly,
from dying, finds God sweet. A palo santo stick’s
mutation makes it sweet. Communion wine

is sweet. Quinceanera cake is sweet. The tears
of parting, sweet. The hearth and dark bear rug
of winter, sweet. Even the harshest light,

in January, when the light is darker than darkness,
even that hard strike against the snow is sweet. Even
on the cross, in the dark hour when the Lord’s

appointed burning rent apart the curtains
from the seats of human power; even then, one imagines,
the flow of incense from God’s holy place was sweet.


Matt Prater

September Of My Years


Walking to a swmming hole, once, as a boy,
            I came across a bridge VDOT had just repaved.
Seeing that the asphalt still gleamed like hot black beans on a camp blue plate,
            I chanced a melted shoe and sunk my foot in the congealing mass.
The whole day had the color of dying aster, dying heat, the creek hot and stagnant,
            covered with the first yellow leaves, dead from dryness.
Someone could have played his lute and called away children, the ghost of them
            lingering in the years it was safe to wonder, or though that way. Pea size
hail had come all June, and some had questioned whether all the crops would mildew.
            I had sense that even then all talk of the apocolypse was talk of boredom,
that the grandest temperature in any direction was the temperment of amber-captured
            youth. In fact, I remember all winters as mild in my boyhood. Only once
the pond froze hard enough to use, and that was the winter the doctor
            removed my appendix. My family was beginners in technology,
more used to onion bulbs than bulbs in the barn, or over the cribs of cattle.
            But I knew every device of the creek, every location and escape from bees
and their hexagon drupes. The world had on its mini-skirt for me.
            That fall I would write in prose about “Fern Hill,” understanding it
I was told as no other student had – but I did’t know I knew any more of losing
            than a modern pitbull might about a quill. I was supremely alone
with the earth, as a cloistering priest or apprentice rabbi parsed the translations
            of Esther, I thought on the seasons and this color of water’s appropriate bait.
It felt good to dry my only just burned body on the space heater of an abandoned store’s
            brick wall, a single trout on a rusted stringer, the bubbles of blood
clotting on its still flapping gill. I remember my long held wish for a metal canoe,
            which I never fulfilled and maybe made myself forget. I think about it now;
but I did not think about it then. In that moment, I thought of that moment.
            I was sixteen and my supremest self; filled with the precense of others,
none of them human, I did not need to sign my name, which disappeared.




MATT PRATER is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Winner of the George Scarbrough Prize for Poetry and the James Still Prize for Short Story, his work has appeared in Appalachian Heritage, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Moth, among other publications. He is currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech.



Previous  |  Next