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.