Poems by John Hennessy



What an agony not to wake up next to you.
Not to have fallen asleep with your head on my chest.

I made the bed quickly, as you did every day,
sheets that still smell of your hair and skin.

Your pillows, one that you took with you, take
with you everywhere, sandalwood to the feathers.

Coffee solo but not alone, my son still asleep, landlord
fixing, planing the screen door. And this note to you,
who are here in my head like a razor folded in its case.


We were telling our most embarrassing stories. Mine? I was running in the woods about a mile from my house when I swallowed a fly. Glad I can’t see myself: big duh-mouth. Face like a feeding trout. Trotting and puffing, dumb-galooting up the hill toward a blackberry bush I’d been raiding for days. The bear spirits must have been pissed off: I’d picked it clean. Ha ha, trot trot, pfff pfff. Next thing I know, I’m coughing on a fly.

Only, it wasn’t a fly. It was a white-faced hornet. By the time I hawked it up into my hand—and it flew off, untroubled—it had stung the hell out of my throat. Luckily I wasn’t allergic to bees. At least, hadn’t been. My throat started to tighten—but that could have been a topical reaction, not necessarily systemic. Just in case, I booked it home. Called the doctor, who called an ambulance.

High on adrenaline, I did horizontal stand-up for the EMTs, rocked the gurney. Dumb shit I’d done in my life: surfing in a hurricane, swimming the Rahway River downstream from Merck, running past a moose, driving the Jersey Turnpike on Benadryl, chasing a purse-snatcher down a Paris alley where his friends were waiting, hitchhiking across the old East Germany to Berlin.

Don’t worry, an EMT said. You’ll survive this too. Worst-case scenario, we go in through here. He tapped near my Adam’s apple. We can do a tracheotomy right here in the ambulance.

That shut me up. Propped on the gurney, I watched out the back window as cars pulled over and everything receded: house and family and neighbors, the oaks and sycamores on our street, redbrick facades of downtown Amherst, my favorite bookstore, friend Nat at the desk, the tall dorms, skyscraping library at the University where I work, the graveyard with Shahid Ali’s tomb. They didn’t have to cut me—just jacked me with a blast of epinephrine when I went into shock, heartbeat crashing below thirty.

But that last bit? I didn’t get to tell that. Cate was horror-mirthing through her hands. Tracheotomy! Hollie recited from her Survival Guide. Could have been worse, she said. Someone used a pen to trache a choking victim in Berkeley. The patient nearly died at the table. Then they were off and running, stories of survival.

In conversation with myself I remained philosophical. Give me a spectacular death. Or at least a dignified one. No bathroom accident, choking on a cracker. Let my legacy be startling, a story my children tell their children. Cougar attack. Plane crash. Car bomb. Quick if not commanding, sudden as a blown tire, thorough as drowning. Trampled by a horse. Beheaded by a falling window. Anti-Trump demonstration, truncheons plunging, I’m cold-cocked from behind by riot cops. No whitening of gray cells through twilight, fog-horning my son, mistaking him for my brother, demanding, What’s happening to me?

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John Hennessy is the author of two collections, Coney Island Pilgrims and Bridge and Tunnel, and his poems appear in Asian Signature, The Believer, Best American Poetry, Harvard Review, The Huffington Post, Jacket, The New Republic, Poetry, Poetry Northwest, The Poetry Review (UK), Raedleaf, Poetry Ireland Review and The Yale Review. Hennessy is the poetry editor of The Common and teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


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