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Frank Paino



“They tell me I was down in the tomb an hour and a half.

That must be a mistake.  I was down there a year.”

                            ~ Charles P. Everett, bell diver who explored

                               the sunken steamer, General Slocum.  16 June 1904


Fire, yes.  But first there was water

and early summer sky, an unblemished blue

offered back to itself as if from a mirror’s

reliable surface.  Onboard—music,

bright confections and the liquid-silver refrains

of laughter.  Then something soft as

the sound wings make as they lift,

then pull towards light.  The swift sizzle of a

match spark on the hay-tindered floor

of the forward hold, heavy hinges swung

toward the hasp, sealing everything poised

that side of regret in breathlessness

which might have choked on its own ill intent

were it not for the deckhand who threw back

the hatch, fed that infernal blossom

just as the ship’s great wheels churned

into Hell’s Gate, thick with white-knuckle waves,

the sinister suck of whirlpools, and the clutch of

swift currents just a hand’s-breadth beneath.


Unaware, the passengers danced until

the floorboards began to bow and blister,

the band’s music halted, the dance itself,

not stopped, but transformed

into something macabre, five-hundred

spinning skirts and wide sleeves flaring white to

black through a toll of ochre, almost chartreuse

at its core, while the captain steamed upwind

toward North Brother Island, fresh paint and bunting

shedding a shawl of blood-orange in its wake,

the Slocum itself, one plumed, searing torch,

open decks flooded with men and women

who clasped their sons and daughters

or tore at each other, their choice—fire or water—

the means through which each would rise

or fall into eternity.


One-thousand twenty-one souls. 

And few who could swim.  And few who could

tread water or fight the rotted cork jackets

as they filled with East River tide

that pulled them down like anchor chains

past the light’s myopic reach.


Twenty minutes and most of the dying

was over, the steamer impaled on mossy rock

in shallows too deep for wading.

On shore, nurses and patients spilled

from the doors and lower casements

of the island’s quarantine, bearing ladders,

spools of gauze and clean linens,

a froth of white that rushed down past

the sea wall where the Slocum’s hulk smoldered

at a starboard list—hundreds still held within

that timber tomb—while above their quiet forms

eddies stirred the drifting dead, unpinned tangled

tresses to traceries.  And the white blooms

of petticoats, bonnets, child-sized blankets, opened

against the liquid blue, as if a throng of revelers

had just passed through the gates of hell,

casting handfuls of pale roses as they went.


(Rosalia Lombardo, 1918-1920, Capuchin Catacombs, Palermo, Sicily)


Nothing so coarse and fumbling

as the rituals of Pharaoh’s high priests

with their hooks and blood-stained bowls,

the dreary drawing out of brain

through nose we name excerebration.

Nor would the simple black sleep

of graveyard earth do for his darling Rosalia,

seven days shy of her second birthday,

choked by serous fluid that filled her

scarred lungs so she drowned

on dry land, a mile’s remove

from the glint of Sicilian sand.


How could any father countenance

the amplitude of such loss,

all the long days that seemed

assured and spread out

like ripened fruit on a picnic blanket

gusted away

as if by a sudden summer storm?


What remained was stillness

quiet as the star-strewn galaxies,

his unspoken prayer, if not for return

then at least suspension

of such dreadful undoing,

a deal struck with a lesser god

who guided the hands of Alfredo Salafia

toward mad artifice, a new formulary

to perfect a ghostly stasis:

glycerin to keep the flawless

flesh from dwindling to dust;

chloride and zinc sulfate

to harden all that would go slack

and fall away;

formalin and salicylic acid

to hold back those things unseen

that would consume her

from within like slow fire

that chars deep seams of anthracite.


And now, nearly a century has passed

since they tucked her in this slight sarcophagus,

sealed the glass above that placid face

with paraffin and petitions

to her sainted namesake that she might

keep the black watch of the catacombs

beside this child who’s become

little more than a weary cliché,

a girl barely past the cries of infancy

who, it seems, might rise at any instant,

slip shyly down the long corridors

of the dead who regard eternity’s endless

endlessness from hooks on the ancient walls.


Rosalia, daughter of airless dark,

patron saint of desolate fathers

and unfaltering denial, what should I say

to the woman who kneels dumbstruck

beside me, who does not know

your perfection is fragile

as the glass that guards you,

that your sleep is a delicate deceit

a simple hammer strike would shatter,

unloosing the dogs of decay?


Tell me, when should we stop

letting grief tell us its beautiful lies?



(Yagamata Prefecture, Japan)


Begin at sunrise

with a handful of stiltgrass,

hazel, and pine nuts.

Near midnight, before you

lie upon the forest floor,

fill your palms with nutmeg

for a repast. 

In the hours between, run

until the fire in your chest

extinguishes breath, then walk

until your diminishing legs

will take you no further. 

Sit where you fall—dung heap,

moss bed or snow-bank.

Repeat this for 1,000 days.


Next, strip off your clothes

as a snake molts its diamond-plate.

Let sun or ice flay you.

Let rain spill like quicksilver

over the rising bones

of your back and number your ribs

like mala beads—a  sickled mantra

that circles you at the core.

Tear bark from trees or

take their roots for sustenance.

When your tongue grows thick

with thirst almost a madness,

stoop to lap from puddles

carved by deer that passed

beside the river.

Repeat this for 1,000 days.


Now you must be done with eating.

Let nothing pass your lips but

the bitter sap of the lacquer tree

which will sicken you

nearly unto death, scour you bright

and hollow as a begging bowl.

Be still and feel yourself begin

to petrify from the inside

so that when you stand after

meditation it will be as if to a chorus

of cracked offal and breaking bone.

Repeat this for 1,000 days.

Finally, enter the chamber

you carved in root-thick earth,

a space so small the crescent

of your shoulders spans

from side to side. Settle like a lotus,

the pads of your feet turned up

as the face of a flower that follows the sun. 

Permit no final glance at distant clouds

before the stone is set above you,

nor flinch as the bamboo rod stabs

a sluice of light into the black

to siphon air enough for you to keep alive.


Ring the bell at your side

when you hear the forest stir to life

above you; 

again when the owls cry each to each,

so the priests who press their ears

against your tomb

will know you are still breathing.


Repeat this until you can no longer

repeat it.


Now the reed will be withdrawn

like a sword yanked

from a grievous wound. 

Now the holy men will

fill the gap with dead leaves

and thick resin.

Now they will wait 1,000 days

to open the mouth of your grave

and behold what has become.


You will either glow

with the hard-won polish

of 3,000 agonies, or you will not. 

You will be a thing to be praised

or reviled, to be enshrined

in bright robes or covered

with mud and forgotten. 

No matter to the blossoms

that scatter their colors without

fanfare.  No matter to the stars

that shine without artifice.

-from Obscura (Orison Books), selected by Assistant Editor, Karen Carr

Frank Paino holds a BA in English from Baldwin Wallace University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College low-residency writing program. While studying at Vermont, he had the privilege of working with poets Richard Jackson, Mark Doty, Lynda Hull and David Wojahn. Following graduation, he eschewed a teaching career in favor of a non-academic position at a university where he continues to work to this day. Frank's volumes of poetry are: Obscura (Orison Books, 2020), Out of Eden (1997 - Cleveland State University Press), The Rapture of Matter (1991 -Cleveland State University Press). He has received a number of awards for his work, including a 2016 Individual Excellence Award from The Ohio Arts Council, a Pushcart Prize and The Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature. His chapbook, Pietà, won the 2023 Jacar Press Chapbook Competition, and will be out in 2024. 

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