The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


William Varner

Elegy For the Not-Dead-Yet


My joke about the doctor
curing his baldness failed,
​​my father-in-law nodding
his head, recent scabs
mapping his temples and forearms,
​​burst capillaries back roads
only the locals know.
A few times with his left hand
he warmed the Celtic cross
that hung down across what was once
a big beer belly filled with brands
that are hard to find now
Schlitz, Carling’s Black Label, Genny
Cream Ale, his plastic tumbler
of Black Velvet, neat.
While we waited for our food,
he pulled up his shirt to show
me his shunt where they drained
the ascites, fluid from his failed liver--
his explanation of how it worked
ordered and slow with the logic
of an old engineer. ​​He talked
on and on about the speaker
he was impressed with at his AA meeting
that day--a place called the Triangle club --
some tough Irish drunk named Billy
​​​who fought his way out 
of the projects of South Boston.
I didn’t tell him I knew who he meant.
We fought over the check
I didn’t want to let him pay
but did and he let it sit unsigned
and kept asking his daughter if she
remembered camping near the Finger Lakes,
that drive to Florida to visit schools or that day
on the Cape when they stopped
Jackie O walking alone on a sandy road,
asked her for directions she didn’t know
and only realized it was her a few miles
later. He laughed the way
I imagined he did that day,
a laugh that could twist balloons
ended now with phlegmy cough.
On the ride home from dinner
my twelve-year-old son
who’d been more quiet than usual
asked me about God,
what I thought, and I told him
about my childhood friend,
so emaciated and tired when
I last saw him he slept
​​​with his eyes open,
how moments before his death
he sat up, swung his legs
from the hospital bed,
called his dead grandfather’s name
​​​​and asked him where they were going.



William Varner

Imagining a Sister


Eyes of coral, breath
of salt air, and the mane
of the sun.

Face the round light above
the dry sewer cave I lived in
when I was fifteen.

Cheeks the moth wings
I pinned to a board.
August like a slow burning fuse.

Tongue slowly turning
sheet music on a cellist’s stand.
Lips a ballad in a minor key.

Hands a snowstorm in early spring.
Arms a river flowing back
into still ice.

Heart a cross on a bare wall.



William Varner

Still Life, Forty Years On

                                                                                                 But whoever hates his

                                                                                       brother is in the darkness and walks

                                                                                       in the darkness, and does not know

                                                                                       where he is going, because the

                                                                                       darkness has blinded his eyes.
                                                                                                                              1 John 2:11

in the back of the classroom
   where they stationed
                        those who couldn’t read

                        I painted           a box of magnetic letters

my own colors

green    for the letter “F”
white    for “U”
yellow   for “C”
“K”      a deep scarlet orange.

Is there a more beautiful word?


move on, my mother says
over loud kitchen fans
in the chain restaurant

Why can’t we just be more German about this?


His dendrites storming in hormones--

anemones swaying in the shallows.

the grandfather clock’s chimes

its gilded queen moon descending


Call this my confession. Call this

the birthmark that is my face.


There is a clinical term   I forget
for shaking one’s legs
                         in the backyard
and not shitting for weeks.


             voices above
my grandmother’s cold tiled
bathroom floor   that I laid upon
what to do
with such a shameful condition
             rehearsals for hospital admissions.


Somewhere police uniform blue paint
on a wall. Somewhere

the smell of eucalyptus. Somewhere

a blood pressure cuff squeezing and letting go, somewhere

a dirty litter box, a tray of dirty dishes, the de-
humidifier’s hum.


I don’t know how that
            comes back again the way
years of smoking do.


How do you rebraid
neurons in the brain?

(Don’t look at me.)

When do the two palms
of forgiveness open?



He kind of laughed
when he called it fuct tape.



Lord and Savior          burn my tied hands,
                       my blindfold,
burn the footage I have
                                   of this little boy
learning lessons
                                   in the profane.

Pick the teeth      from his ashes,
throw them skywards,
                        make them

hail down upon the sea.




WILLIAM VARNER's poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Cincinnati Review, New Ohio Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. 



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