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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

In his bone room, Thomas Jefferson

displayed the skulls & tusks

of wooly mammoths, polished

to a glisten with white vinegar.

Some men want the past to stay still.

Others would like it to arch its back.

My father, corralling the mess, keeps

the biographies of presidents on his bookshelf,

arranged by the color of their spines.

Days of Fire, American Phoenix, American Lion.

Having a form of dominion, he names

the source of every animal noise

billowing from beyond the dense treeline,

correcting my baseless assumptions.

What I thought was the snort of a ghost

is a deer with a broken hoof, stuck in a cattle grate.

What I thought was a screaming woman

is the agony of a red fox in heat.

One night, in anger, he towered over me,

pelting my torso with crumpled up dollar bills.

The nature of the punishment was unclear.

Something dog-like was barking.

When I flattened out the money,

the dead men stared, frozen in their green ovals.



There has to be a German word

for this relentless stacking of history

on top of history, a word like the one

in the travel guide that’s best translated

as inner pig dog, or your favorite: a face that’s begging

to be slapped. Over dinner, Johann maps

it all out for us. There have been two or three

Berlins, & time has stopped somewhere in the fourth.

We are eating small plates of salmon rillette

in a biergarten converted from an old

Soviet surveillance tower when somebody

outside screams fuck in plain english.

It reminds you of Celan—you say later

in the apartment we’ve sublet from a sculptor

who has filled the rooms with exact

ceramic copies of his ancestor’s hands—

how the language here feels scarred over,

dislocated like a shoulder blade.

I look at the words you’ve highlighted with red pen

in his selected: hourwood & crowswarmed wheatwave,

a fat asterisk next to hearttime & worldblind.

On the way back from the club we tracked down

in an abandoned TV store, we count

the mustaches on the bronze statues,

the prefabricated rectangles of housing blocs,

the phallic cornices that have outlasted the bombs.

Falling into bed, I ask you to choke me & you do,

my hand tapping out, an iota away from death,

the wordless signal we’ve conjured in place

of a safe word. It’s fun to play this game,

doing damage with permission, more fun

than the one where I ask you if, back then,

you would’ve found a way to keep me hidden.

Silence. Different translations of it. Silence I fill

with descriptions of the trip I took

to the anatomy museum while you were sleeping,

the many minutes I spent looking at the manifold

little bones of the human ear, the collection

of skull drills, a fetus floating in a jug of formaldehyde.

You pretend, eyes glazed over, to listen.

You ash the spliff into a giant porcelain fist.


MATTHEW TUCKNER is a writer from New York. He is currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at NYU, where he was poetry editor of Washington Square Review and taught in the undergraduate writing program. He is the recipient of a University Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the winner of the 2022 Yellowwood Poetry Prize, selected by Paige Lewis. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The Adroit Journal, 32 Poems, Copper Nickel, Colorado Review, Pleiades, West Branch, Nashville Review, The Missouri Review, and Bennington Review, among others.


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