top of page

John James

Story with a Shriveled Nipple



I cannot see what briars are at my feet,

Nor what leaves from which tobacco plant

Pass through the hands of migrant workers,

Smelling like disease. Which sticks to burn,

Which to toss out, nor which eyes

Reach over the stripping board to pierce

The skin of my white hand. Derrida says

This is context. This is perception.

That I’ve created it, and this is how

I read the barn walls planked with wood,

The baled hay, and all the people around me

With a stroke of recollection. I cannot

Say if he is right. Just that in the spring

Two Mexican boys took a goat by the leash

And led it to the stream where they hit it

Seven times over the head with a hammer

They had stolen from my granddad’s garage.

Either way, after the burs are shucked,

I’ll throw the green leaves in a pile, the stems

In another, and set the dry waste to flame.

This is how I bury the past. Take the wet pulp

Of a ram’s head and spread his memory

Over the pavement. Context, there is always

More context. A woman comes limping

Into the dim barn. She’s carting a baby,

And though she’s not supposed to be here

I don’t say a thing. I just keep on pulling leaves

From the stalks, one leaf, then another,

And beneath me a widening pile as she says

Something to her husband I don’t understand

Because it’s in Spanish, and nobody

Where I’m from gives two shits about Spanish.

She removes her breast from the shirt

And offers the twisted nipple to her son.

He isn’t thinking yet, he makes no judgments,

And mouths the dark circle like a plum.

I try not to think of him as a symbol,

Or any representation other than himself.

And in the end I let it go. Even here

He is text. Even here he is representation.

And from my truck I passed those boys,

The ones who mutilated the goat,

Leaning over a naked woman in the field.

One was touching while the other one watched.

This is vivid. Everything is so vivid.

The woman with her child limps off in the cold.

Someone sets dry brush to burn so the night

Begins to smell like two boys pouring gas

Over the body of a goat. And if this is context,

I don’t want to know. I don’t want to see

The things in front of me as anything other

Than themselves. I want only to feel the stalks

In my hand, the prickling burs, the leaves

I cut and hang in the window. But I can’t.

Outside the trash is burning. The workers

Look on as I strip one leaf, then another,

Until I’ve shucked the stem clean. And then

I drop them, I let the leaves sift just for a moment

In the air and settle in the hay beneath

The stripping board in a mounting pile at my feet.





bottom of page