The Patron Saint
of Toledo, Ohio
Christopher McCormick is a poet located in Toledo, Ohio. Most recently, he was recipient of the Fern R. Kalmbach Memorial Scholarship for Creative Writing while studying at the University of Toledo. His work focuses on the limitlessness of human hope juxtaposed with the limits of human existence and suffering. McCormick's work has appeared in The Mill as well as his most recent work: a Chapbook of poems entitled Aliens on the Au Sable River. It has been published through his own imprint, Canticle Press and is now being made available through Working Artists Collective.
Last twenty Bucks, March 2020
As an ever-hotter sun sinks
toward 5 o’clock, the neighborhood
grows jaundiced, deprived
of the healthy pulse of cars
that used to shake
themselves awake at dawn.
Spring is a month too late.
And because I have declared moral bankruptcy,
left my scruples at the door
when I clocked out for the last time
a month ago, tonight I’ll sit on my stoop
and open this bottle of Tanqueray
carried out of the Rite Aid under my coat,
held nearly as tight as that last paycheck.
I am what you see.
Scuffed shoes, socks
rarely matching, discount
shirt and pants, tuft
of unruly hair jutting
out of the crown:
governed by wind.
What you don’t see:
family history of diabetes,
Atrial Fibrillation, a fleet
of mobile homes, enough
empty whiskey bottles
to fill them all, resting
on a mass grave of Marlboro butts,
concrete naps in parking lots
the promise of upward mobility.
Portrait of My Father as a Dead Fish
As a reward for a day spent scorching
our asses in a hot tin rowboat,
we haul back six Bluegill in bad shape.
One has lost an eye, another swallowed
a hook, blood pooling in the gills
and dripping onto newspaper as the fish
gift their vapors to the late August sun.
All caught in my father’s
“honey hole”— his name for that
stretch of lakebed where the Bluegill
lunge at anything in their campaign
to procreate, even a helpless worm
dangling on a silver hook.
At ten-years-old I watch
my father’s sun-hardened fingers
guide the filet knife along gills and spine.
His knuckles, covered in nicks from
years working colossal dies for Chrysler,
accumulate sinew and organs
that look like the kidney beans mom
leaves to soak under the kitchen window.
He smears it all onto old newspapers
that soak it up like earth drinks rain,
like the trees they’re made from
soak up light. “It’s best to do this
while the fish is still moving,
when you know the meat’s
fresh” he says, inserting
the knife into the flesh beside
a gill that never quits its search
for a lake now thirty miles away.
When it’s my turn to take on
this profession, older than the mud
thickening between my seasonally
bare toes, it’s as if the knife senses
my lack of experience, my hesitation
to take a life. It enters, instead,
my thumb, a single ruby tear
falling to the ground.
I look up to see a dead
bluegill’s eye, discover not mockery,
but a blackened looking glass
which once watched for threats
from the murky lakebed
so his little eggs, prolifically fertilized,
might have the smallest chance to survive.
Aliens on the Au Sable River
Son, it was 1980 and I was in a cracker
of an accident on my bike,
laid up in the hospital for months
waiting for my leg to take the skin grafts,
you know, where the exhaust pipe
pinned me to the road, cooked my shit
like a Christmas ham.
Well, your grandfather came to check on me,
I could see something wrong with him,
wouldn’t meet my eye, white hair
every which way, skipped a few
buttons on his shirt, you know, like he was
neglecting himself, always paid special
attention to his appearance,
a certain point of pride.
I tried to force the matter
but he just wouldn’t give it up, kept
fidgeting with this watch he always
carried, winding it, playing
with the dials obsessively.
He called me up one day,
didn’t sound as nervous, must’ve
had a couple drinks in him, voice low
and full of gravel, like he’d chased
the beer with a cup of screws, said
he’d seen something in the woods,
camping out on the Au Sable.
Back then, you were small and tearing
the place apart driving your mother
to tears, I was working at the plant so hard
grinding these hands into nothing
I didn’t want to hear it but he just
kept on talking, I heard the cool
pop as he opened another beer
and told me how everyone was asleep
when one night and how this light hit him from above,
brighter than any day the Au Sable had ever seen.
Your grandfather said he wanted to scream
and shit all at once, but he was paralyzed
and that’s all he remembered
until he came to a few hours later, never
talked about it with anyone until me,
but he always thought they would come back
for him, he really believed that
You know, your grandfather had diabetes,
was born with it, had to shoot himself up
with insulin every day, it was painful for him.
Sixty years of that shit takes its toll,
his feet were gnarled full of sores,
I watched the pain wave cross his face
every time he shuffled to the fridge
to get another beer, passed out
on his plate of food once too,
when your mother and me visited
before we were married.
I started to worry about leaving him,
about living so far with you and your mother,
thought he might be eating one night
and suck a baked bean down his windpipe
and that would be that.
Well, until the day he died he believed
those things, whatever they were
hiding in that light, would come back
and take his pain away, take away
the needles, the sores, take the pins
out of his feet, take him to a place
where his wife wasn’t living
with another man across town,
where his garden was full
of sunflowers and gigantic
tomatoes instead of flies buzzing
around half-starved mice. You know
your grandfather, he always told
a lot of bullshit stories, but the thing
was they always changed with the telling,
this one stayed the same until the day
we found him, laying on the couch
looking like an empty sock,
too still to be sleeping, door open,
lawn mower still running in the tall grass.
In the Hospital Waiting Room
Terror is a state of complete understanding.
At nine years old, I didn’t know
much about death, only that
it lived here and these
men and women in stethoscopes
were its lackeys.
Thanks to every white wall
looking same as the last,
there was no telling
where I had come in.
If my parents and Father Mike
were right, and we slip
out of our bodies like
from a bath when
it’s our time,
what good would the ability
to walk through walls
amount to here?
Was this place
filled with newly emancipated
souls like a rotting pumpkin,
ready to burst?
If only I could be like them
for just one day, meld
through wall after wall
until I hit air,
go home and sleep just
long enough to churn nightmare
After summer folds its clammy hands
and the world yellows
like an overwatered orchid, shrivels
like and unpicked apple
getting heavy on the bough
the firefly’s staccato language
will abandon tempo,
their neon lackadaisical
as monks wandering aisles
in this dying-light cathedral
who form processions
thick as birch trunks
and lay to rest another year.
King for a Day
At twelve years old, I was a Pharaoh for Halloween.
Not a vampire or ghost, I was looking to instill
a different kind of fear, to be something
made immutable by three thousand years in the ground.
Flanked by a wheezing father and mom warming
a Busch Light in hand, my pillowcase heavy with plunder,
the denizens of the neighborhood trembled as they
offered up sweets as tribute to the boy king.
I returned that night with enough delicacies
to make an emperor blush, basking in that Eden
of childhood where you could jump from one costume to the next,
before you found one comfortable enough to be buried in.
It comes as an answer
to a question formed
in deep drums of human
hearts. A strip of light
torn clean through sky
as if it were nothing
but a piece of old wallpaper.
Can you blame the ancients
for believing their gods
At this hour, sun
slips beneath horizon
and night creeps into
every empty space
like water seeking its’ level.
Cloud’s bellies burst to release
what must come down.
The lighting has a way
of revealing—in each
half second flash— what
can be accumulated
in a workaday life:
two or three photos hanging
from the bedroom wall, clothes
thrown on the floor after a day
of too much toil and care,
and a softly breathing
sleeper on the next pillow.
If Chopin Lived Next Door
Would his nocturnes evoke
the fluorescence of streetlights
doubled in the oily sheen
of curbside pools,
instead of lantern-lit Parisian fog?
fumed with the breath
of neighborhood dogs
who have barked themselves hoarse,
not an amphitheater
melting from the heat
of a thousand clapping hands?
How might he compose rhapsodies
in rooms so cramped
he could stand against one wall,
spit at the other, and hit?
Or would a phone call sever
his line to the muses,
from two stranded friends, penniless,
voices like asphalt, with instructions
to pick up cigarettes on the way.
Sanctuary in the Aisles of Goodwill
Past a cathedral’s worth of Precious Moments figurines
beside a stack of paintings salvaged
from long gone dentist office waiting rooms,
I saw a chair with delicate filigree, Tudor Arches
carved in the back, a crimson seat
like where the altar boy would sit
in white stillness while Father Gary gave his incantations.
I would sweat through Tuesday mass
and do signs of the cross,
twice as many as the other kids
(one to open the prayer, one to close it,
one to open the opening of the prayer
and one to close the closing, just to be sure)
and wonder: did he ever look
at the steeple and see
a cavernous maw, a mantis’s pincers
ready to take his head like Saint Denis?
Yet the abyss between breakfast and lunch
was one I could not cross without that tasteless wafer,
brittle and disintegrating in my mouth
like cardboard in the rain.
How many of these once-venerated thrones
grace the margins of attics and sitting rooms
like long-forgotten pagan gods, gathering dust halos
as veins of mold climb their beatific legs?
How many churches have shut down in this town
as if God can just pick up
and scatter his wheat somewhere else?
Now I sit in the chair, at a desk whose drawers bear nothing
but condoms and weed dust. I ask for wine in the morning
and get a funny look from the man in the liquor store
as he guards rows of behind-the-counter scotch,
untouched, unmoved like incorruptible saints.
No, he won’t pour it out or even tip it to my lips.
the Aliens on the Au Sable River Chapbook
$15 each. A gallery attendant will be in contact to confrim and complete your order.
* Denotes poems included in the book.