New | Poetry | David B. Prather

        artwork via Wikimedia commons



Fluctuating Water Levels Reveal the Startling Trauma of an Unexpected Deified Species



The crocodile should be deified,

but surely certain peoples along the Nile have beaten me to it.  Despite this,

I go on, I repeat the process because some of us need reminding,

some of us need to hear day stifled

into night, and some of us must watch death

repetitively as though we could cast a spell, bring on the mojo that averts disaster.

The gods of disaster.

          We need to be persuaded,

shaken into rhetoric.  The dirt needs

brushed and swept and carted away to break the passionate embrace of geology

and biology; hundreds of millions of years between the lovers

that are mineral and bone—desire so powerful they fuse.  But, it’s this,

a disquieting evidence at our feet that tells us these reptiles survived

the others, those toothed and mythical beings, dinosaurs, thunder lizards.


Then, unearthing a skull is like proving the face of Thor.  A femur

gives body to Vishnu, who has appeared nine times on earth.  Which is nothing

compared to the centuries that Crocodile and its family have remained,

putting the fear of demise into all of us, as though into a specially-reserved gland in the brain.

A gland that accretes and expands

        with only those memories of the gods

of conscious death, the gods of being-eaten-alive.



Worshippers would come as zebra to the temple, the rain-swollen house

of the river, and faith would come as instinct or migration as they entered one

by one, carefully, into the muddy, sacrificial water.  And, yes,


a few will not make it across, coming to rest, instead, in pieces

in the stomachs of these carnal entities.

     And it would be considered an honor

to be held by the long white machetes of teeth, to be surrounded

by every hungry mouth of the pantheon—then the water rushing into the head,

like small fountains into the lungs, and the wrench and twist until

bone and muscle are audible, almost spoken,

prayers of the deconstructing



flesh.   The mating of crocodiles is, as yet, unseen.

The male climbs onto the ridged back of the female, and then they both disappear,

able to remain submerged up to three hours, into the darker pools…and this

leads to conjecture.

         Joined, as they must be, perhaps

they lock together in a spinning motion that could represent eternity.  Hidden

gods of perpetual cycles.  Or, they lie

motionless while occasionally snapping their jaws,

some kind of reptilian sweet nothings spoken at crucial moments

because it simply must be difficult and dangerous to conceive, or even comprehend,

such a misshapen ethereal smile.


Maybe they merge as one large body for a time, starting with the scalloped

edges of their tails, moving on to the callused pods of the feet, and finally, tooth

by sacramental tooth, they are fixed to a genderless form

from which they must tear themselves apart.  Beyond this,


it is all a matter of temperature, the embryos suddenly male or female

by the edict of a few degrees.  But it doesn’t matter, either way

they begin in terror, collected in the mother’s mouth,

so close—to the tongue, the palate, the throat—that survival itself is a miracle.

And each is transported to the water,

 leaping through the stars

which are teeth, out of the universe which is a gullet.  The gods of the mouth

swallowed by heaven.  Yes,


there is more.  Sometimes

drought reduces the House of Crocodile, and everyone sees

the mistakes of fear, which are numerous and cause the dying to imagine

other ways and other places in which to be born.  Under the temple

there is only more earth.  And it is fear that makes a god.

         To drink of the water

you must be brave, watch every ripple as it folds itself into the riverbank.  It spreads


without understanding or belief.  This is the fallacy

because as the water recedes, everyone steps closer, braver thinking

only to partake and depart.


And then, the rains will touch us like cloth

dragged slowly over the skin to tell us we will not always leave


this place.






Guiding Principle of Faith



If ever a god of cleanliness existed

it must have been responsible for


the soap beetle, which flicks itself

up onto the floating leaves


from the murk of a pond to bathe

in pressured air.  It is


an oddity, this beetle, angling its legs

to a spot behind the eyes until


a stream of bubbles foams down

each side—odd because


an ancient observer might have called this

magic or elemental or some such


cursory observation, instead

of what this is—a triggering of glands


that releases hydrogen peroxide.  Still,

this is strange, something utterly


inhuman, something that seems more

mechanical than natural, something that could


only have been constructed by

supernatural means.  Perhaps


the water strider, buoyant as a god,

is another mechanized body, unlovely





                                                      and frightening, not because of what

it can do, but what others cannot.


Perhaps the same god leaned

over a work bench into


the wee hours of creation experimenting

with shapes and sizes, each one


sinking until the comprehension

of weight distribution entered those


patient fingers.  Then, each leg

fitted like the points of a compass, the insect


lifted a bead of water, north

south, east, and west, to praise


its maker—which it could not identify.

So let me step in for a moment to say


just this.  Apparently, the created

is lesser than the creator.  And yet,


a fundamental law of physics states

that matter is neither created nor destroyed.


In which case, I hold us all responsible

for, possibly, a man, a tinker


of sorts who learned to be immaculate

working in a bio lab, or


that is, a crude semblance of a lab

where leftover genetic material was tossed



for scraps.  Nobody expected anything

to come of this mish mash of DNA, RNA,


protoplasm and nucleotides.

Not even this man who pinpointed


what he liked to call “the clean gene.”

Which he inserted into every creature


as though it was a toy, and this gene

some sort of bio-microchip


pre-set at birth to assure the obsessive

washing of cats, the habit of birds


to frighten ants for showers of formic

acid, and the picking and prodding of certain


shrimp that clean not themselves, but others.

The universe reduced to cleansing.  Like a frog


that contorts its limbs to spread a moisturizing

fluid from the back of its eyes and the base


of its spine over the entire surface

of skin, sealing in the liquids


of its life, discarding old cells—

which is as peculiar as any number


of snakes.  Say, for instance, the king

coral snake, a typical representative


that yawns to snap the dull skin

from the head, which appears to break, and the scales


slowly release, an inverted ghost

of the living thing abandoned, useless,


a hollow misrepresentation.  Though,

it is not as easy as it sounds.  Most of us


lose our exterior one minute

particle at a time, never aware


how quickly we come undone, yet

the snake unravels all at once,


scratching and scraping itself along

any edge, stone or wood


or metallic gleam, to tear its way

out of the past and into the future.


If I may be so grandiose.  Yes.

This is a positive thing, this


washing—the hair, the face, the hands,

the body.  It is transformation, without


seeming so dramatic.  And this is also

insidious, replacing each cell with another,


except the brain, which is its own

godless creature.  And, if ever a god


of cleanliness existed, he has been replaced,

reduced to something we continually leave


and take for granted as it grows beneath us—

or we are the skin and are already lost.


Correspondence to Alan Turing: Who’s the Fairest?



There is no test for humanity, by which

I mean compassion.

By which I mean the results are inconclusive.


Yeah, people

call me names and push me around, but you


suffered chemical

castration, love without libido, Eros without

erotica.  When


you walked down the street under those spires

and façades,


could you feel accusations pile up around you

with old newsprint

and the leavings of all those unexamined lives?


You know,

I have apple trees in my back yard, most of


the fruit pecked

and purloined by jays and juncos.  Everyone

thought you died


like Snow White, of a witch’s poison, a half-

eaten apple


by your lifeless hand.  But you never got that

reviving kiss.  Maybe

you have the answer to my query now:  Why


do smart people

fall in love with someone they know they


cannot trust?

If only you could have conjured the mathematics

of weather


to create a storm so strong it could have swept

you and your lover


to safety.  Was he worth your punishment?

Mine is,

but I’ve never been put to that test.  What if


all intelligence

is artificial?  What if birds have a sense of self,


if plants can

comprehend the cosmos?  The difference

between us


and gorillas is the smallest percentage of DNA,

that twisted ladder,


spiral staircase.  There’s an old library downtown

with a three-floor

spiral, glass floors it takes a couple of minutes


to get used to,

to make yourself believe you won’t fall through.


It’s been closed

for twenty years, and I imagine the books

left behind are dry-


rotted, those glass landings cracked, the walls

discolored with mold.


Would you know if I were man or machine

if I could only

answer you from the confines of that abandoned


building?  You might

tell me the general design of living things


is symmetry.

And I would respond, except inside, where

everything is


shifted to accommodate the heart.

                                    All mine to you,



                                                   Einstein Epistolary: Last Words



Dear Albert,


Were the McGuire Sisters singing Sincerely

when you died, the radio turned low in the next room?

April seems a terrible month to leave this world,

but you did it anyway, just as trees began to gossip

with spring wind.  I know you weren’t home,

but I find it more romantic than the antiseptic halls

of medicine.


I’ve heard your brain was stolen,

as though comprehension could be extracted

from the flesh.  It’s a labyrinth, all those folds

and crescents of intellect.  Was it your minotaur?

Or was it your daughter, Lieserl, born out of wedlock?

No one seems to know what happened to her,

adoption, scarlet fever, conspiracy, shame?



your marriage failed, withered with a lack of wisdom,

because of impure thoughts, because of unsound

decisions, because of ivy grown over your own

stone walls.  I imagine you, limestone,

blocks cut so perfectly they settle into each other

without mortar or earth tamped into every stone

seam, where mosses root and spread,

a long-lasting thing, like Hadrian’s Wall, ancient,

a memory of something that no longer exists.


People still find ways to prove your theories,

all those scraps you left behind.



                                                           I still think

you lost some of your joy when your second son

said he hated you.  But schizophrenia is like that,

the mind succumbing to electroconvulsive therapy.

Did you ever wonder at the insight of electricity,

the random results of lightning?


I know

your last words were German, but your nurse

didn’t understand anything other than English.

I used to play that imagination game where you were

my dinner guest, candles on the table, and me

asking your thoughts on traveling faster than

the speed of light.  And I would always be disappointed

with the answer.  You kept telling me that human

beings are not creatures of light.  We are soil

and water, hearts and minds.  And I imagine I am

that nurse, singing along to that tune drifting

down the hall, when you speak those final words,

which only I understand, so profound,

this theoretical moment, this academic secret.



                                           My Autistic Nephew Reminds Me of Myself



He says, Hello, Uncle David, or Goodbye,

Uncle David, as he leans his whole body

into the entirety of mine.  But he always asks


my name first, not important enough

to remember, but significant enough to get


right.  He is sure there is only one way

to do everything.  If I don’t follow the pattern,

the rules, he reminds me.  Sometimes,


he screams until I give in.  How he survives

this world, I cannot say.  Rivers change


course.  They flood.  Storms take us

by surprise, midday and midnight,

our world rearranged.  When I sing


the wrong word, the wrong note,

the wrong key, he tells me to stop.


Sometimes, he won’t let me sing at all.

It’s not my normal voice.  There are days

I don’t like him.  Let me say that


again.  There are days I don’t like him.

But I only see him a few times a year.


And when he hugs me, he means it.

As though we were an ocean, stilled,

without the tug of an everchanging moon.


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