Joseph Ross

Five Poems from Meeting Bone Man

A Grave Marker at Gettysburg Soldier’s National Cemetery

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

A cube of stone sits silently,
its granite teeth tight
in this stiff, green place.

The words Unknown 425 Bodies
are carved neatly
into its blue-grey face.

It stares up at an angle,
professional, mature, documented.
As if it has just looked

up from its desk,
work still to be done,
buried by eternal tasks.

The original stone
would be furious if it could see
the use the carvers made of it.

It would have strained
and struggled to get away
from becoming

the announcement of this much misery.
It might have thrown itself
into a stream had it known.

This dusted stone
was destined for
a water-goddess’ form,

something cool and wet,
curved and delicious
in its desire.

But no, it remains here
in this land of loss,
unable to remember

the names of those it marks,
unable to say their names aloud,
in a voice the living can hear.

The Buddhas of BamiyanMBMCover6-194x300

You held your breath
for nearly twenty centuries.

One hundred and eighty feet of sandstone
made you into a standing sand painting

for the wind to frighten away.
In teaching us the impermanence of rock,

you taught us the permanence of fear,
and we have lived here forever.

Your compassionate gaze drifted over
valley and village and river,

a fixed star, a buoy,
in this land of stone.

Your monks lived and slept
in caves that wound all around you.

Here they could
awaken within the image

of the one whose life meant
being awake.

Your grandeur taught us a deep truth:
our beautiful human smallness.

Perhaps this was your downfall,
your silk turning to dust.

Before My Father Was My Father

Before my father was my father
he slipped off a sinking ship.
In 1942, in the war waters of the Pacific,
two explosions tore holes
in the skin of the SS Coolidge–
underwater mines,
the captain should have known were there.

This mammoth troop ship shook, shivered,
and then leaned into its own death.
Its yards of steel strained and winced,
shrieking in unnatural directions.

While thousands panicked
my father slipped out a porthole
with a friend who couldn’t swim.

He could see Espiritu Santo Island,
and, knowing that a sinking ship
is not your friend, out he went.

He wriggled through the porthole
and then, with chest and stomach
pressing the ship’s side,
slid down that vast grey metal wall,
which was slowly flattening itself.

He crawled past welds and markings
which were not intended to see daylight,
designed only for the emerald light
of a drowned world.

He groped his way over thousands of rivets,
and acres of steel, curving and slipping
into their own wet grave.

Finally, he could let go,
and with the SS Coolidge,
he too plunged into the sea.
But unlike the ship, he could swim.
He came back up, tossing water droplets
from his army haircut, breathing,
and splash-walked to the shore
of an island named after the breath of God.

At ninety years old, my father has let go
of wife and home and so much more.
He walks now in the waist-deep waters
of age and quiet, toward an island
whose name we do not know.

On Emptying My Childhood Home

The rooms of our house
feel swollen with air.
Its walls once bloomed
with photographs of backyard roses
and a beaming teen
standing beside his first car.
But now, they stand empty-handed,
unsure of where to look.

The ceilings snap with a noise
living people do not make.
It sounds like gone.
It sounds like goodbye.

As I stand in the kitchen
the walls nearly shrug.
They have nothing to say.
They look almost

Where a living family
once smiled out from wooden picture frames
now only dust frames
guard the faded paint
of these walls.

And these frames,
these skeleton-lines
that took years to be born,
outline photographs of nothing.
These dirt frames cannot be straightened.
They cannot be taken down and saved.
They can only be wisked away
into the empty picture
of air.

When the Dead Stand Up to Sing

When the dead stand up to sing
they clear their dusty throats,
remembering a song they learned long ago
when breath actually flowed through
their beating bodies.

Today they stand to sing,
not in their own world of damp and darkness
but in mine.
They are a surprising choir, for sure,
row upon row of stony singers,
heads thrown back,
mouths open wide as water.

They pull air into skeleton lungs
from all sides and they sing it out
the same way.
First quietly, then stronger,
a melody that rises and falls
like they did:
without warning.

Their choral sounds layer each other
like graves,
their notes slip in and around each other.
They are dense, with barely enough space
to breathe.

Their song is sometimes hope
and sometimes horror.
At one moment their voices
are bright, like light.
At the next, they drop like darkness.
These singers have fallen and risen,
they have come through
and come out.

This skinless choir stands always ready
to sing its searing notes,
while I wish, in my childish way,
for the piercing hope that their song
will come to an end.

But no. Their song is not
of blood and breath.
It cannot just stop
like those things.

Their song is of victory.
Their song is of overcoming.
It is not the music of ashes,
clinging to us all.
It is the music of light
breaking through every crack
in every stone.

Main Street Rag publishes a quarterly print magazine, poetry chapbooks and full-length collections, and operates a bindery and publishing company. Founded in 1996, it is located in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Reprinted by permission.

Joseph Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Ache (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017), Gospel of Dust (Main Street Rag, 2013), Meeting Bone Man (Main Street Rag, 2012). He is co-editor of the anthology Cut Loose The Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib Painting (DC Poets Against the War/American University, 2007), and founded and directed the Writing Center at Archbishop Carroll High School. Ross teaches English and Creative Writing at Gonzaga College High School. His poems have appeared in the anthologies Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality; Come Together: Imagine Peace; Poetic Voices Without Borders, and Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC. He has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations and won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. He served as the 23rd Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in Howard County, MD. His website: To read more by this author: Joseph Ross: Evolving City Issue Joseph Ross: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue Joseph Ross: Floricanto Issue