Poetry / Brian Clifton
:: The Palpitating Wing ::
—after Black Swan
I saw my dark reflection in the subway car’s plexiglass. I was a dancer. I wore a grey coat. I lifted lipstick to the dark space and felt my puckering lips. Behind me, a man kissed the air. He wetted his mouth. He yanked at the heart in his khakis. His body told me to do the same. Then, I was outside, at the conservatory. At home, wrapped in a shawl, I peeled back my shoe’s sidewalls, removed the leather spine. My empty shoe wagged like a silk muscle when I dropped it. I felt a flower bloom and wilt within me. I stitched a circle around the wooden tip. It held me up. We spun under the house lights. I palpitated in a mirror. Many mirrors in the dressing room. My face in them. The other dancers, wrapped in black elastic, bounced between their surfaces like a gala’s soft light skipping across sequins, diamonds, glass. Glasses everywhere. A screaming face etched in every surface. All I did was look. The lockstep motion of clapping hands. Spoon against flute. I saw the improbable mathematics of a line of dancers practicing their positions at random. We stretched our tendons on the bare floor. We arced our limbs. We posed in cocktail dresses to applause—its hive-like twitching. Let us touch a crystal flute, let us bleed Tchaikovsky until Tchaikovsky drips his iron rosé into us. On the stairs, under my thin breastbone, my heart did a little number. Rapid pump to be adored, to be pecked, some bread torn and tossed into the water. On the surface the ghost hand that threw it to swans. The reflection rippled—an arm like a wing, an eye darting surface to surface while the body posed as if on stage, which it will be, which I will be. I will turn in the spotlight and then in the back changing outfits. In the mirror the thick lines dashed on my cheekbones cradle an empty face—jaw unhinged, pulled up like a veil crowned with teeth. My chest heaved. My foot in fog. In the orchestral pit, the strings increased their quivering. I counted the measures, the beat like heels clipping across the gala’s floor to a bronze statue with a face smeared white, its eyes recessed coals plugged into the brow’s thick gesture. I adjusted my shift. A woman called me a fucking little whore. My mouth opened. I spun. In each revolution, I focused on the light above the crowd. In the bulb, its filament vibrated. It sung. It licked every inch. I cascaded across the stage, eyes bloodshot, legs like a swan’s coiling neck. Then, the body like a sinking feather. The mind delayed a half-beat so the steps waver like spit from a sleeping mouth. In the light, I was asleep and wide awake; I slunk to the wings. The dark in which the director waited. I rubbed my face on his. Everyone believed I transfigured into a swan and her sister swan. The stage a bed I belonged in. A complete wound is not open but scarred. We look and say believe the skin. I bowed. On the subway’s stairs, its floodlight. At the top, in the dark, a figure stirred. I was its twin. I uncupped my fist; I saw my pulse pump. What was inside me was still at work, alone in the dark.
:: The Suspended Body ::
—after The Neon Demon We were introduced through a friend at her house party. It was high school, and I can’t remember what happened to her. We stepped outside and she said, This is K. She gestured to a slight man, a boy, who turned to us from the lawn. His body wounded the dusk, and I felt compelled to rub the dark spot he cast until it healed into a scar, the kind that brightens in a hot bath, a forget-me- not of blood beneath skin. We shook, exchanged numbers. I left. In high school, I could twist in and out of experiences. I drove to one house where I laughed. I drove to another and sat silently until finally we thrust our mouths against each other like carp at a dock. I did this often, and often in the short term I forgot one night or conflated a few. Then, months later, like the sharpened teeth of road kill suddenly visible (gums and jowls shriveled), a focused glimpse— my body splayed on the dark wheel of a trampoline, a blooming smoke bomb in the sweet spot of my mouth. Yes, every part of my body is appalled by the relish with which it took to this. At home and late, my phone shook. It was K. He asked me to join him in the city. It was raining. It hit the asphalt and turned into mist. I shimmied out the bedroom window and into my car. I drove to the city, where streetlights hung above men who lounged at their bases—sequined jackets, mini-skirts. The collected light moved like an anxious finger across a neckline, over a temple, coming to rest in eye-shadow. I stared until they returned my stare, and my face turned in theirs to a morning glory’s quickened mouth-blossom (sucking daylight until, groggy, it snaps shut). K said he could get us in without ID. The bar hummed with bass, distorted until dull like the sound of a thumb flicked slow against the thigh. I inhaled the friction’s sweet smell. Under it the rancid bud of collected sweat. K pulled me up the stairs. In the dark the breakbeats let loose their strobe. K’s face twisted into a mess of pleasure. I turned to see a shape ahead. It phased in and out with the lights as if a figure in a dream or the illusions that float in the dark when the body is ready for a dream but the mind stays pinned awake—unwinding the ceiling until it’s no longer a ceiling but the dragging belly scales of a godlike snake, no, a thousand tangling bodies searching for a mate. Ahead, a bound body, naked, the rapid strobe pumping the image into our pupils. He hung suspended by an unseeable wire. Belly pulled toward the ceiling, shoulders arched, head dangling, arms secured to the back’s semi-circle. In the red light, the body turned; it was a fine orchid, a ghost washed in blood. I watched K. His eyes on the body that turned on the wire, vibrating while the house lights quivered. Another figure joined. He stroked the body with a feather. He tugged a glistening chain. I felt K move closer to me. His slight frame and mine jostled past each other. His face brought close. My mouth slackened. But he did not cover it with his, did not tongue my tongue. So I pushed my wet mouth toward his. He recoiled. I could see his full face. It never occurred to me until then how similar a tongue and a flower are. It was as if his face were an overgrown field my hands turned until a fleshy red burst through and I craned lower. Not a flower but a tongue, slick on a creeper, not just one but a dozen. I wanted to hold of them and lift them for the wind to wag like the flesh inside the mouth of someone possessed (the ecstatic word, the trembling syntax), but no wind blew, and I did not move.
From the writer
:: Account ::
Film is such a beautiful thing. It can scramble time. It can make monsters. It can tell a story. It can lie about the story it says it’s telling. I love watching film and television. One person making an image just for you to contemplate. And then another and another. Add dialogue. Add a soundtrack. The world projected onto a wall from a plastic box.
I take a lot of inspiration from film. I always have. In my most recent poems, I wanted to do that more intentionally. “The Suspended Body” takes an image from the film The Neon Demon as a starting point and manipulates it. “The Palpitating Wing” begins and ends in the film Black Swan. What interests me is how we watch movies and television and believe it is about us, how we easily conflate the screen and the I.
And isn’t this how horror works? A shadow moves behind a character. A creeper lurks just out of their view. The violins shoot their needling, the bass swells. These things are for us. The movie is trying to scare us, not its characters. I want to capture that moment when the art form reaches beyond its 35mm into the theater, the living room, the brain.
Brian Clifton is the author of the chapbooks MOT and Agape (both from Osmanthus Press). They have work in: Pleiades, Guernica, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Colorado Review, The Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other magazines. They are an avid record collector and curator of curiosities.