The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Al Maginnes

Electricity: A Requiem

 

In the commencing: a song. Fire below earth’s rim, a brand
            of coronation.
Thunder-rattled. Throat-stuck. What sparked blue across
            the half-built lobes
of the first man to register lightning breaking into veins
            across a dark backdrop
of sky, promise of how thin creation could be, everything breaking
            in an instant of fire and noise.

*         *         *

How could fire not be confused with God the first time
            it was delivered,
sudden heat, quick opening in the dark? Wanderers learned how
            to carry fire with them,
not sensing yet that its warmth, its gift of vision would lure us
            into building hearths
to cast our bodies beside?
                                            Now, pre-dawn. First blot
            of crimson cloudy
behind trees, before rising, defining roofs, dew-beaded
            and cold hoods of cars.
The porch light that burned all night, that was, an hour ago,
            a beacon
pales now in the crooked arm of the valley, as houses stew
            with lamp-light, shaking away
sticky webs of sleep, dreams not done having their say.

*         *         *

Mississippi and Louisiana, searching for quicker, less expensive ways
            to kill prisoners, elected
to buy electric chairs that could be taken around the state rather than house
            the soon-to-be-dead in Parchman

or Angola. Crowds would come to watch the chair unloaded. The executioner
            would hire an electrician
to wire up the chair. In some towns there were concerts and picnics.
            Church bells would toll

as the hour approached. When the condemned man was hooded and strapped in,
            when a stranger’s hands took the switch.
Generators, unaccustomed to such loads, groaned. Every light in town dimmed,
            then burned bright and hot again.


*         *         *

Figure the odds. Your chance of being hit by lightning is the same as your chance
            of winning the lottery.
But you buy tickets for the lottery. Your ticket for lightning is your existence
            on earth.
                            A century ago, an enterprising arborist laid bricks
            in the jagged rift
lightning tore in the great elm outside my grandmother’s bedroom window.
            I know nothing
of what it takes to save trees.
                                                    I know or once knew how to run pipe,
            pull wire for the sockets
and fixtures that bring the lightning song of electricity into our homes. I still
            know what to fear.

And the gamble. One man is killed by a charge that hardly tingles another.
            A drill bucks
and a heart sparks to its stop. Another heart courses on even after three thousand volts
            blast through it, burn hair
                                                        to a dry waste, melt shoes to the floor.

*         *         *

The name of the writer changed from year to year, but not the story.
            It was always
a writer from the south, disemboweled by whiskey, crawling
            the yellow line

of the state highway through town. Arrested, processed, he made
            his one phone call
to Miller—it was always Miller who was called when
            the story was told—

to say he needed to get out of jail before he was executed in
            the town’s electric chair.
Attempting reason, Miller was say, “Well, (you fill in the blank here),
            this is a small town

and I don’t believe we have an electric chair.”
                                                                            “Miller,”
the distressed writer would say,
“Miller, it’s a very small electric chair.”

*         *         *

When the executioner and electrician got too drunk to correctly wire
            Louisiana’s traveling chair
“Gruesome Gertie” and kill Willie Morris, be screamed until
            the current choked off.
Those collected to watch him die went home. Later Willie Morris said
            death tasted like peanut butter,
that it was as shiny as sparks the sun shook from a rooster’s tail.
            A year and nine days later,
two sober electricians ran the chains and spurs of electricity through
            Willie Morris’s body
and sent him across the river, beyond the reach
            prayer and testimony.

*         *         *

We were thirteen. The boy on the bike was ten. We knew him
            the way boys in little towns,
in neighborhoods, know each other. So when the truck hit him, we knew
            it might have been

any one of us, launched into the shock of the body leaving the body,
            the last breath
impossible to take in the blue spark of interruption, the switch
            of life ending,

a sound too small to register in the buck and hum of turbines,
            the growl of dammed water,
their revolutions sliding down branch after branch into
            the wires and outlets

the brain-fine filaments of bulbs that extend our vision deep
            into hours intended
for sleep, when unblinking windows shine translucent
            as tears on the face

of those left to mourn when the current was closed
            and men and women turned
from the day’s execution to finish lunch before the afternoon
            and a short nap.

 

 

 

AL MAGINNES is the author of seven full length collections and four chapbooks of poems, most recently The Next Place (Iris Press, 2017). He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and teaches at Wake Technical Community College. His poems and reviews have appeared widely. He is music editor for Connotations Press and a member of Liberty Circus, a music and spoken word collective dedicated to raising money for those who work with immigrants and other forms of social justice.

 

 

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