Blackbox Manifold

Issue 12: James Byrne


One sighs heavily down the telephone

Another pours the assassin’s quicksand

One leaves the garrison lonely as a bullet

Another fills white tubs with kerosene

One is surveyed from the border glass

Another guards against the darkness of trees

One clinks to the enemy’s thimble

Another fantasizes death in a flyway

One slugs the sitter at his pianoforte 

Another takes shade under a fig tree

One discerns bloodiness from the siren

Another brandishes the manacles

One juggles dust between his hands

Another combusts the basecamp


All night the Commander,

With a high, baronial laugh,

Peels a scent of sweet mandarin

From the waist of a waitress.




They will heap mud over her eyes. 




The boy soldiers entered the house

And rounded up the market gardener,

His two sons, his fiery old grandfather, 

And shot them where they crouched

In their shadows.




A mother counts penitence on her rosary.

The baby in her stomach grows eyes.




At the tribunal, the army secretariat

Blamed Mother Nature herself—

A great and sudden simoom that caused

The sorry fire. And nobody can condemn

The amnesiac history of the wind,

Or the amnesiac history of fire.

They did not mention the bolted doors,

Or the gasoline tanks strewn like tooth stumps.

The frost-bound face of a government judge 

Deemed the newly-widowed witnesses

Over-emotional. Unreliable.




The village has been stripped to a wound. 

Two scorpions scrap in a crucible of sand— 

The question mark of their tails singeing the air.




The boys have made a giant playhouse 

From the rubbled stanchions of the razed compound.

Two kid Generals line up teams

For a game of Guns vs. Swords.

And then the swashbuckle

And then the rat-tat-tat from their mouths

To make the guns seem real

For the onlooking father’s of the Revolution

Who pick sides, shout and cheer.




At the far wall of the bombed-out mosque,

A prayer tannoys back the Prophet’s take

On forgiveness during times of anger.    

But the muezzin dragged in the dust by his collar

Now cracks and cracks again

Against the tantara of his voice. 




These are two of the postcards that could not be sent.

Beetle-nib eyes under the slivery sheet of a moon

That quakes over her sea-wrinkled face.

The profile of the skeleton

Who visits her by night,

His mechanical arms

Upraised, still






At the military mountain base,

Five men are led down its steep side

Then deep into the shallows of a grove.

Nobody will tell the story here. 

The mountain is quiet and infinite.

The buzzards silent in their appetites,

Only the olive leaves hiss back to the sky.

The Pure Nation

after Czeslaw Milosz

Whose forcefield is irretractable as a suburban king

Who is cityless and the nutritious dirt on a microscope

Exulted by Hegel at the moment he mortgaged his soul

The golden generation subsists on a menu of breadrinds 

The auctioneers prefer impressionist florals

Art as a bidding war equal to the pure nation

Who would birdcage Beethoven as a mere romantic

Who say: ‘another language means blood in the ears’

They sloganeer contingency plans as the great leap                               

They claim the brothel matron will design a brooch from it

Inside every house they are looking for somewhere to live

enfabled rain


beyond the gulch

is heavy

at the river’s source


over black stones

rampant larrikin

to the monsoon

widening its mouth

the talk

balds back centuries  

the sitting council

adjust a wad

of files

and cannot agree


streets slicken

from the windows

of chamber rooms

green river of traffic light

crash of a house umbrella


the minutes are drawn up

hesitated over

rain fate

where the ink swells

the water rises

James Byrne’s most recent poetry collection Blood/Sugar, was published by Arc in 2009. Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poet, published in June 2012, is co-edited with ko ko thett and is the first anthology of Burmese poetry ever to be published in the West (Arc 2012 / Northern Illinois University Press 2013). Byrne is the editor of The Wolf, an internationally-renowned poetry magazine, which he co-founded in 2002. He was the Poet in Residence at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, in 2011-12. His poems have been translated into several languages including Arabic, Burmese and Chinese and he is the International Editor for Arc Publications. His next collections are Everything that is Broken Up Dances, forthcoming from Tupelo Press, and White Coins (Arc Publications)