That the Job of the Son Is to Fight the Father’s Battles

You’ll not be happy achieving someone else’s goals. You don’t
really set out to do that anyway, but sometimes, about halfway
through the marathon or your invasion of Iraq, the thought might
occur to you. And suddenly it’s the 90s again, and I’m
walking along some railroad tracks in San Marcos, TX,
and I step through a cow skull, mostly skull, some face still on it,
hollow though. Or mostly hollow. Kind of a crunch, half pop,
and it doesn’t really stick to my foot so much as rise with it,
and that night I have a dream I’m dead and working back
at The Blue Dolphin as a busboy. We’re all dead, sort of swimming
back into being there, and the cook is chasing a waitress,
trying to grab her by the breasts from behind using soup ladles.
He has a sunburn, and we call him Lobsterman. I’m thinking
of trying cigarettes, being that I’m dead, and death means
it would have to be the 1980s again, my clothes nothing
but zippers, when my father walks in. Suddenly successful,
he’s buying dinner for everyone, only the dead don’t eat.
Maybe we don’t know we’re dead, which a lot of people say
is a common problem for the dead, and I have to tell him
that time isn’t really on anyone’s side as we’re walking along
the railroad tracks. But he wants us to wait until dessert,
which is talking time. We’ll talk over pie. You’ll see. There
is governance to all things, and each its time and its place, like
the Mission Accomplished signs we drape across the break room
or the sudden blank look I get when waking, watching myself
dragging sixteen bags of trash from the house after his heart attack.

The Universal Flood

The great gods Anu, Enlil, Ninurta, Ennugi, and Ea were sworn
to secrecy about their plan to cause the flood in the Epic
of Gilgamesh, tablet XI, now housed in room 55 of the British
Museum in London. It was baked into clay in the 7th century
BCE, which turned out to be a very good idea, durability-wise,
much better than how we’re writing about it now, these files
that barely exist anywhere. So what will they be reading of ours
in 27 or so centuries? I’m falling asleep already, thinking about it,
our digital ephemerality, how no one will be able to dig up
our old wedding photos for the memory walls of the future.
There’s a guy building a non-functional replica of Noah’s Ark
in Williamstown, Kentucky, as a world-class themed attraction
now open to the public. Hope floats, they say, and it looks
pretty big, but it also won’t make it to the year 4,700. They’ve
been saying for a while now that the next generation will live
forever, that we’ll be, those of us over twenty or whatever,
the last to die. It’s always us, isn’t it? As if we needed another
reason to hate the young, because they’ll replace us, like Noah
replaces Utnapishtim, and science will replace them bit by bit
with application updates. But in the story, it’s Utnapishtim
and his unnamed wife who get the immortality. They were human
beings, but now they’re gods, and go to live by a river far away,
where, apparently, they still reside. What are they up to now,
day 84, 210? Just now, a pink and yellow flamingo pool float
blew by the front and then side windows and across the lawn
of our house into our neighbor’s yard where it got caught up
in their shrubs. It’s my daughter, Natalie’s, who’s 14 now,
and who just ran around the corner of the house chasing it
as all these stories stand for something real that we can’t stop.

For the King of Nothing Left

There’s this version of Hell I learned as a kid,
where the condemned are at this great feast,
but they’re starving, because all their forks are too long
to reach their mouths, which means they’d have
to cooperate, to feed each other, only they’re too selfish.
It’s Hell One, the Hell of Fools. And we like
thinking of this Hell, because we know, whoever we are,
we’re not that selfish. Here, mostly, once someone
is starving, really getting down into it, and if
they’d have these super long forks, and the options
of throwing oneself on the food and pushing people off
cliffs for the food are off the table, they’d do
a pretty good job of cooperating. It’s transactional.
Hell Two starts with the fed who want to remain fed,
to be the best fed, the promise of always being fed.
It’s how walls work. Wall around the garden.
Wall around this blank page, this open field,
which protects Hell Three, the one of other people,
and it’s a conceptual thing, a conceptual Hell, the one
we tell people to go to, blank page adopting the face
of a transaction, where a vote for and a vote against
is the same, when neither of them affect you.
“Yes,” you could say, “exactly,” and then move on
to whatever you were already doing, chewing tinfoil
or socks, as examples devil or put feet to Next Hell,
and in nodding along, the fashionable Hell, Hell Four,
maybe, or Joke Hell, where it’s not about lapse, or Hell,
even. “If only there had been signs,” we say,
surrounded by signs. “Then I’d know what to do.”


To see a selection of Gallaher's collages, visit our Visual Art category. 

JOHN GALLAHER’s poetry collections include Levis Poetry Prize–winner The Little Book of Guesses (2007), Map of the Folded World (2009), Your Father on the Train of Ghosts (2011, written in collaboration with G.C. Waldrep), and the book-length essay-poem In a Landscape (2014). With Mary Biddinger, he edited The Monkey & The Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (2011), and with Laura Boss, he edited Time Is a Toy: The Selected Poems of Michael Benedikt (2014). Gallaher is an associate professor at Northwest Missouri State University and has served as an editor for the Laurel Review and for the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics. He lives in rural Missouri.