A Chest Of Angels

By John Reibetanz

‘I have always felt that desolation,
that hell itself, is most powerfully expressed
in an uninhabited natural landscape
at its bleakest.’
—Anthony Hecht


To each his own hell. Mine was an uninhabited
landscape as far from nature as you can get
without actually leaving the planet, a man-made

moon waste on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn,
fired in the sun’s kiln through unending
afternoons when I was nine or ten.

I can never get the whole scene put together
in my head, thanks to whatever guardian
spirit flags down potentially dangerous

intruders on the verge of memory,
but parts of me hold parts of it: my ears
play out the hissing wires’ repeated rise

and fall, dry waves breaking above pavement;
my nostrils chafe where fumes of gasoline
weep from soft tarred patches in the asphalt;

through a chainlink grid, my eyes take in
some lot’s trapped beach, its black sand an amalgam
of gravel, soot, and broken glass; or they blink

in sequence with the traffic light’s perpetual
solitaire at a carless intersection,
flicking over greens, ambers, reds;

my hands remember enough not to touch
the shut steel trap doors of delivery chutes
where air trembles over surfaces

as at their beginnings in a furnace.
What fills my mind to bursting is emptiness,
the spirit of inverted Genesis

transforming light and water’s urge towards fullness
into a miracle of unearthly loss.


Sentries, a pair of gasoline pumps napped.
Their rubber arms dangled groundwards and looped
back up, hanging slack from the brass lapel

their trigger-fingers hooked at shoulder height.
They were no angels, but kept the gate of hell
whenever I made visits to the angels.

Behind them, next to a roll-up garage door
always rolled up, with an invisible car
always risen above the stone lintel

on the hydraulic lift, a soft drink cooler
sat coffin-like against the stucco wall.
And always songs from a hidden radio

promised cool mountain rivers to the hot
flat city: somebody else must have listened,
but I never saw a soul in all my visits.

The angels’ wings fluttered the moment I raised
the lid, a potent shimmer, as if the sun
itself shone from the chest, not its reflections

playing off the steel bars and icy waters.
The angels sat in rows between the bars,
their orders chevroned by the shapes and colours

of their glass capes: the bluish, scalloped whorl
of cherubim, the powers’ straight sheer crystal,
the emerald flare of flaming seraphim—

all emissaries from the sky-washed shore
of heaven. To put a coin in the dispenser,
slide one of them along its plated channel

and lift it free through the chest’s narrow gate—
to kiss the cold stars of its distillation—
was not important; it was only important

to see the angels swimming in the glitter
and dip my fingers in their flickering water
at the centre of that man-made desert,

knowing that they were man-made, and might shatter.

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