NARRATIVE IN WHICH OUR FAITHLESS SPEAKER STANDS ATOP THE WATER TOWER OF HIS CHILDHOOD IN RURAL ILLINOIS WATCHING THE WORLD END


JOHN MCCARTHY



                         Word has it the rise of Lake Michigan

surrounds Chicago’s skyline. It looks like a Viking burial—

            drowned skyscrapers drifting off like islands on fire.


                                     Windy City, Second City,

it always wanted to leave Illinois. When it waved back

            at the rest of our nowhere,

                          it was not an acknowledgment of longing.


Now it’s just us—you and me. We climb to the top

            of the water tower like we did with different people

who have passed through us the way the moon sleeps

in the backseat of an empty car until morning

                          during that useless mystery known as high school—


that place where time promises not to end,

but does, inexplicably and sudden.


                                      I’ve got one hand on the railing

wrapped with fistfuls of rust and one hand laced with yours.

                        Hundreds of robins have gathered

on the grain silos in the distance and we can barely make out

their panicked calls through the rain.


They’ve never seen so much water turn violent.


The water rises and the cornstalks look like wicks

jutting through the surface.


            If I were capable of reaching down from this height,

I’d strike them. I’d show you how a thousand flames

can dance on water before being swallowed.


                         Lightning, though, like a yellow-leather bullwhip

snapped in every direction reminds us what is real.


Smaller tractors are swept up in the aleatoric current

            along with thresher trailers and the steel arms

of pesticide equipment. Beneath our feet, they brawl

                         and mangle with the bottom of the tower.


            The smashed quarrel of metal looks like the wreckage

of an industrial arc we were told would save us,


            or some giant mechanical whale that would swallow us

if we doubted anyone but ourselves.

            But we doubted, we believed only in ourselves.


And I’m willing to go down with you.


            Even though the wind scares you in this moment.

There’s always something left to say about the wind.


                          I see fear explode behind your eyes

like a car careening off a bridge.

             All our words and desires are falling through us.

We’re soaked through and frozen.


We don’t say anything

when the bowling alley to the south of us topples over—

             that place where we met once a week,

where what we struck down—we praised and celebrated.


                         Now I must imagine the bricks

and balls sinking to the bottom of the submerged fields

like treasure, worthless and chipped.

            The bowling pins bobbing and floating

like the bodies of paralyzed fish shocked to the surface.


Our whole lives were spent tilling and cultivating this dirt.

            We planned on being buried side-by-side in this dirt.

The one thing we shouldn’t miss when we’re dead is dirt.


I’m not ready to be buried under water, you cry. I don’t want to drown.

Just pray, I lie, because in moments of finality our beliefs change

often and without discretion.


And the carbon windmills spin wild with their own anxiety.


             And the dairy factory’s tin warehouses and receiving tanks

collapse and clang against each other like thunder,

                          like the crass caterwaul of some unknown animal.


And car horns, along with the shattering sound of metal,

shriek and yowl as the other people we love speed away

in search of a hillier landscape, one above the flooding plains,

where they will have hope for rescue instead of being flown over,

or where they can hold on just a little longer.


             And the radio tower’s signal flickers for the last time

like giving up.

Out here, you can see and hear the end for miles.


                          And the earth moans

                                                                like a prayer answered

in the wrong way.




Listen to John read "Narrative in Which our Faithless Speaker Stands Atop the Water Tower of His Childhood in Rural Illinois watching the World End" below:

00:00 / 03:50

JOHN MCCARTHY is the author of Scared Violent Like Horses (Milkweed Editions, 2019), which won the Jake Adam York Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets 2015, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and TriQuarterly, among others. John is the 2016 winner of The Pinch Literary Award in Poetry. He lives in Illinois where he serves as an Associate Editor of RHINO.

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