Mary-Sherman Willis

Excerpt from Graffiti Calculus

First Books IV
Volume 16:2, Spring 2015

from Kilroy

In my Cold War duck-and-cover American girlhood, in the bull’s eye
of Washington’s nuclear radius,

under a blue sky etched in contrails and filled by day with keening
air emergency sirens, in brick-walled

Horace Mann Elementary, Mrs. Wilson drew her chalk across the board.
Let AB be a line segment with midpoint M.

Let two small semicircles X and Y rise above AB; a parabola Z below AB;
and a large semicircle L, above X and Y…

And I doodled this charm: now let two little eyeballs fill X and Y! And
two sets of cartoon fingertips below AB!

Printed KILROY WAS HERE. And because I could: let AB become the
horizon of the whole Earth,

flexing along lines of longitude and latitude from sea to shining sea. Hail
Empire’s wandering warrior, king killer…

He was Kilroy, Super-GI, all-present all-seeing. Like God. There first
to greet advancing men on rubble

at blood-soaked beachheads, on shattered battlements, his face and
name daubed on still-smoking walls.

Kilroy was here. The peeping imp kept a step ahead of American troops
from Europe to the Pacific.

He was there at Potsdam, when Stalin came back from the toilet asking,
Who is this Kilroy?

A year later, safety-suited, Geiger-countered Blandy found him on the
nuked SS New York’s port side

as clouds of sand and shattered coral rained Strontium-90 from the sky
onto Bikini Atoll.

Natives on Kwajalein, sucking Lucky Strikes and bottles of Coke,
goggle-watched two sunrises that day.

Kilroy is back. He’s bombing walls, destroying, killing train cars, busting
and ex-ing tags, sidebusting throw-ups,

dropping and burning pieces. He’s on maneuver, alone or mustered
in a crew, with his cans of ammo,

his digital intel. He finds his spot, cuts his lines fast and with precision,
an insurgent dodging cops and thugs.

He’s a hardcore free agent, straight-edge or into 40s and cigarettes,
into hip-hop, into go-go, into punk,

into guns. He’s an upstart, a raider, a thief—steal paint, steal the wall—
a commando outlaw ninja samurai,

locked and loaded, with his uncontrollable urge to get up and wreck
every wall in sight. Every underpass

and overpass, sidewalk, billboard, subway, train-yard, toilet booth,
garbage-stinking alleyway is his.

The wall knows itself to be inexhaustible and endlessly renewable.
It brings us Kilroy, sizzling through

cathode ray tubes, LEDs, computer screens, flatscreens, jumbotrons
with the ping and zip of electrons.

He comes to us (even as the screens reflect us), and speaks to us
in the first person of the brand.

He wants to be of service, flapping tongues of cash, setting out
coordinates, helping us decide

what to buy. Coins and bills course from his fingertips: currency:
the circulation of a name.

And Kilroy is there, screaming through space on a unilinear subway,
logo turned logorrhea.

It’s the wall upon which to leave the free stroke of the name,
the same story over and over.













The wall is a mirror waiting for a mark. Rauschenberg took an eraser
to a drawing by de Kooning,

signed his own name to it, then sold it. I think of you, buffing you
own tag as punishment.

Photographing it first. I think of Plato’s cave, its walls knotted up with
the tension of learning to spell.

From the heart of the Bronx, walls erupted into a jungle of ego creepers.
Inflorescences bloomed

on decayed institutions, prisonlike projects, on huckstering billboards
by the sides of throughways

that sever neighborhoods. Everywhere, boys in molt circulated their tags
like fungus-flung spores,

martyring themselves to the ghetto. Angels of a new aesthetic
or cavepainters calling up the beast?


CW Books is an imprint of WordTech Communications, based in Cincinnati. CW Books seeks to publish a wide range of poetry that celebrates the diversity of the art today. Many poetry presses focus on one or two styles, such as formalism or avant-garde, or one or two groups of poets, such as women. CW Books aims to publish a broader cross-section of American poetry in style and theme than other presses.


Mary-Sherman Willis is the author of Graffitti Calculus (CW Books, 2013), and the chapbook Caveboy (Artist's Proof Editions, 2012) and translator of Appogiatures by Jean Cocteau (Grace Notes, 2017). Her poems and reviews have appeared in the New Republic, Hudson Review, Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and Poet Lore. A graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she serves on the board of the O.B. Hardison Poetry Series a the Folger Shakespeare Library, and has taught creative writing at George Washington University. To read more by this author: Mapping the City Issue