top of page


Josh Kalscheur



The liquor stand boy said it started when rocks flew from a breadfruit, 
when it was still windy, but the girls parsing their hair for lice 
say no way, there were two of them, and their pants were down


same as always. The blanket was clean on one side. The one dog 
whose vagina hangs loose and bleeds, barked the whole time. 
The goiter dog might be dead. That's what the kids say who were playing

with the brake pads of a broken car. The uncles drank yeast 
and Asahi and sang those songs about home. Their sons 
agreed and dented an oil barrel with rebar and pig bones.


The rusted satellite dish echoed the sound. The boy who speaks 
good English says a gun is buried by the cookhouse, 
next to where the thighs bleed out. The one who works


the Dirty Curve told a man bullets are only for slingshots. 
That explains it. The mothers say no one screams like that. 
It was more of a muffle. The volleyball net was tangled


and ripped open. The man with scars and big ears 
insists the house with the warrior masks shook. 
The painted names on the Japanese tank bled, but the high titles


won't look to the cliff. They speak the old language and spit. The rain 
factors in somehow, and the green clouds hanging over Mabuchi Hill. 
The gas-sniffer shakes his head at the cage hut where four men play pool.


Follow the bleached rat-tail says the unmarried woman. If he holds 
anything in his hands, don't look at the fat of his face. Forget 
what she says and follow the trail of batteries to the rail ties,


says the boy who boys call a fag. Maybe they took the two A.M. 
to Guam. The aunties wonder what will happen in the taro patch. 
It could be worse with a gas can or vines. The order of things


makes a difference. The girl with the burned face says so, she wants this 
piece by piece. She says men will come when the hibiscus 
ropes dry, and when they point and pick it all up, the prayers are done.


Mercy Ship

Here come the uniformed men with their cargo 
and clean needles, their jackhammers and plaster bags,
their steel supports, drill bits and provisional masks
packed in airless crates, their locked guns tucked 
in their belts, driving their big engines, their American 
trucks in a convoy to the State Hospital, the trauma
center and TB ward, leper colony and insane asylum, 
the HIV unit where there's a man no one touches.
Here they come with sterile gloves and test kits, 
the strict measures of chain-of-command charts, 
stripping the floor in the main hall and bleaching 
dim rooms and broom closets, check-marking forms 
for tainted blood, staph-soaked scalpels and towels, 
soiled hands, faulty doorknobs and doctors 
who should quit. Here they come tearing down walls 
eaten to nothing by termites, promising to build them 
again with boards of foreign wood. Here they come 
through Mwan with their pink-tinted triceps 
and tattoos, their buzz-cuts freshly groomed 
from time in Guam, tossing quarters and dimes 
to the shirtless boy running at second-gear speed 
through the road, dodging potholes and mackerel cans, 
slapping a handprint on the back-hatch, yelling 
bombs away, bombs away, bombs away.


There are hymnals stuck in potholes 
praising the miracle of the sparrow. 
There is a boy asking the chief


for mercy, for a last chance to live 
again in the village, with no war at his back.
There are names we drew on our arms


with battery acid. There is a Baptist placard 
praying for abstinence, the red letters faded 
to pink, signs on ships with Japanese words


for tuna and trespass passing through 
en route to Guam. There are words
the chief writes with the end of a dried root,

into a patch of mud he made red 
by singing the sacred language. 
There are words the boy says


only under his breath. When Barack won 
we loved him even before we knew 
his voice. We loved him in his Hawaiian shirts

and hung the black and white papers 
on the meetinghouse walls until they curled up 
and fell. We practiced his five syllables, chanted


and waved dry palms down the road. 
There is the word tong which means love
but what do we say to the boy

who might as well be dead? 
We say good evening but mean 
where are you going?

There are chants meaning war
and there are prayers we sing 
when the bread has been blessed.


There's a dance we do in our red cloth 
with our hands spinning to a trance. 
The chief takes a hand to the boy's head


and carries the spirit to the mangrove swamp, 
but where does the current send him then? 
Where does the trade wind lift him?


There are clouds over the ridge at Wittapong 
breaking apart in green strands, from village 
to village, sometimes in rain


sometimes in darkness. There are names
for how the dust rises up and catches 
in the trees. If we could dream him back

we would.


-from Tidal, selected by Guest Editor Judy Jordan


"Explanation" from Tidal (c) 2015 by Josh Kalscheur. Appears with the permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.


"Mercy Ship" from Tidal (c) 2015 by Josh Kalscheur. Appears with the permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved. 

"Scroll" from Tidal (c) 2015 by Josh Kalscheur. Appears with the permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.  

PROMPT: Write a "list poem" that begins each sentence with "There was" or "There is" or "I was" get the idea. Include the name of our current president (yes, I know, but have fun with that), at least one species of bird, some dialogue, and make sure each line ends with an evocative noun/verb/image a la Josh Kalscheur's "Scroll." And be as surreal or as literal as you like. Have fun!


BIO: Josh Kalscheur has published poems in Boston Review, Slate, jubilat, Ninth Letter, Witness, Blackbird and Best New Poets 2013, among others. A graduate of Saint Olaf College and UW-Madison, he teaches classes at both UW-Madison and Madison College in Madison, Wisconsin.

bottom of page