The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Brendan Constantine

The Opposites Game

                              for Patricia Maisch


This day my students and I play the Opposites Game
with a line from Emily Dickinson. My life had stood
a loaded gun
, it goes and I write it on the board,
pausing so they can call out the antonyms –

My                 Your
Life                Death
Had stood ?   Will sit
A                   Many
Loaded                     Empty
Gun ?

For a moment, very much like the one between
lightning and it’s sound, the children just stare at me,
and then it comes, a flurry, a hail storm of answers –

Flower, says one. No, Book, says another. That's stupid,
cries a third, the opposite of a gun is a pillow. Or maybe
a hug, but not a book, no way is it a book. With this,
the others gather their thoughts

and suddenly it’s a shouting match. No one can agree,
for every student there’s a final answer. It's a song,
a prayer, I mean a promise, like a wedding ring, and
later a baby. Or what’s that person who delivers babies?

A midwife? Yes, a midwife. No, that’s wrong. You're so
wrong you’ll never be right again. It's a whisper, a star,
it's saying I love you into your hand and then touching
someone's ear. Are you crazy? Are you the president

of Stupid-land? You should be, When's the election?
It’s a teddy bear, a sword, a perfect, perfect peach.
Go back to the first one, it's a flower, a white rose.
When the bell rings, I reach for an eraser but a girl

snatches it from my hand. Nothing's decided, she says,
We’re not done here. I leave all the answers
on the board. The next day some of them have
stopped talking to each other, they’ve taken sides.

There's a Flower club. And a Kitten club. And two boys
calling themselves The Snowballs. The rest have stuck
with the original game, which was to try to write
something like poetry.

It's a diamond, it's a dance,
the opposite of a gun is a museum in France.
It's the moon, it's a mirror,
it's the sound of a bell and the hearer.

The arguing starts again, more shouting, and finally
a new club. For the first time I dare to push them.
Maybe all of you are right, I say.

Well, maybe. Maybe it's everything we said. Maybe it’s
everything we didn't say. It's words and the spaces for words.
They're looking at each other now. It's everything in this room
and outside this room and down the street and in the sky.

It's everyone on campus and at the mall, and all the people
waiting at the hospital. And at the post office. And, yeah,
it's a flower, too. All the flowers. The whole garden.
The opposite of a gun is wherever you point it.

Don’t write that on the board, they say. Just say poem.
Your death will sit through many empty poems.



Brendan Constantine

Nights with the man who was not our father


He knew no lullabies, and so
sung to us the national song.
We knew it from school, from
baseball and July. We didn't
recognize it from him. His
voice was deep with a bright
edge, the moan an old house
might make if you tried to
bend it in half. He missed
half the notes and repeated
words when he didn't know
the next one, which seemed
half the time. Each night
we understood a little more -
Oh Oh can you see twilight
red glare bursting bursting
the night night night star
. And when at last we
figured it out, we corrected
him, because we were children
and almost brave. The man's
face darkened and he said
he was sorry and he took us
home. Our parents were
sad furious; we couldn't say
who had kept us. When
we tried to describe him
our memories worked like
his. He was a man man, we
said, with dark straight eyes
and deep deep deep scars
running down his voice. He
was red, he was twilight,
he was sorry.




BRENDAN CONSTANTINE's most recent collection is Dementia, My Darling (2016 Red Hen Press). He has received grants and commissions from the Getty Museum, MOCA, LACMA, the James Irvine Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches poetry at the Windward School in Los Angeles, California.


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