This week in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Mike Lala. 


from In the Gun Cabinet

in the hospitality
of war
We left them their dead
as a gift



When their bodies met the ground from one hundred & ten stories
                                                                                 ribbons unknotted

so old, they disintegrate (fine red mist) & curl up
                                                             into the day


into the day, the gun cabinet              

you wake

the radio on the table, the airstrike                

the first glass of water clean & gleaming

with sunlight


in the museums, the galleries, archives of a century

drawers whose mediating walls are rotting, that single image repeated        

(I remember, somewhere, saving the front page because I thought it was worth something)



in that same light

streaming through the dust, the light

playing off your lips as they mime the arc

of the brushstroke’s blunt end

We left them their dead as a gift 


in white paint

to remember us

and in the ponds broken off from the sky…





as a child


one too

many lives, I

loved me as myself

I was my brother      Last

I entered the gun cabinet      I kept

forgetting who I was, what he wanted, which side

or surface I belonged to

in his despair, he drew the colors  

independent, like letters from the same word [twenty

children dead &

not even the end of his magazine]

what work to be done then

when the birds falling right out of the sky

the sea mammals blind from the concussions


you place the glass down & begin your day, light

flecking off the surface, doubled & blinding

on the formica        rose   oh   sheer contradiction


how will I


address it                there is a moment from my childhood where my father lifted me

to straddle the 30-millimeter, hydraulically driven, seven-barreled Gatling cannon

on the nose of the plane he flew       

my mother smiled & my younger brother looked up from her shoulders

in awe

there is a picture     I remember


what is the value in making now I see        how

will my work speak from its place to this

great violence   shining   white air trembling              

white light             

                      am I so seduced I believe

                 the time I spend

and what I produce

are untethered to the economy I live by        


hand that raised    I   reflected   the white flat

sea           look around you

how you gaze beyond the gun cabinet                              

a birth water the better nation does it exist?

to an end, our winter


what parts of the story were you told dark evergreen

what parts

our seaming duration

do you remember                 what parts of the story

did you take to be your own


Our time here in the gun cabinet is limited

and yet           there on the other shore

under the dark gaze of the oak

sun in your eyes   you were there


brother, sister I never knew (here, within my question, you

you answered)

the other side

the other

dawn my half                       the other




and yet you were

in the vast




[This excerpt from “In the Gun Cabinet” uses language (in italics) from several Cy Twombly paintings and sculptures, including Epitaph (1992); Untitled, a Painting in 9 Parts (1988); Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair (1995); and Say Goodbye Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (1994). These pieces quote from Archilochus, Rilke, Rumi, Catullus, and George Seferis, and include writing from Twombly himself. All are on permanent display at the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Menil Collection, Houston.]

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