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.