Eric Paul Shaffer

Ceremony, In the American Twilight

In college, I lived in a house with too many roommates.
We were the bane of the neighbors with our loud,
late nights of rock, our unmown yard of grass long gone

to seedy stalks, our primered cars of blown mufflers
and blue exhaust. One afternoon, one of us half-baked
rebels tacked an American flag the size of a loose-leaf sheet

to the wall above a ragged couch, cinderblock
bookshelves, and cable-spool tables. From another life,
I knew when to raise and lower the colors, how to hang,

fold, and drape the flag, all the regulations
governing the cloth we live and die for. That night,
after the rest passed out or crawled to bed, I couldn’t sleep.

I snuck into the living room and reversed the colors,
placing the blue properly on the left. Through the long days
of the semester, the flag hung, pinned and rippling

in the occasional breeze from the front door, open, forgotten.
The holidays came. The roommates dispersed.
Some were gone for good, and more were coming. The flag

was in tatters, and whoever left last tore
the colors from the wall. I found the flag in the kitchen trash
and fished the cloth from egg shells and orange peels.

As light faded, I found an empty coffee can,
and three short, broken laths, a wad of newspaper, a book
of matches. Outside, the sun was gone. Clouds blackened

the horizon, and the blue was tempered with twilight.
In the backyard, I constructed my pyre, dropped a match
into the can, and watched flames wave at the sky.

In one hand, I held the tired flag, and I gazed into the fire.
“What you doin’?” said a small voice from beyond
the chain-link fence. The old woman next door was barely

visible, seated in a rocker on her back porch. Caught,
I blew all my breath into the rising shadows, and said,
“Burning the flag,” adding apologetically, “It’s old.”

A vague shape in the gloom, she paused long, then spoke
a single word, “Glory.” She surprised a laugh from me,
but I had no more words. The fire in the coffee can

was snapping and glad. In the dusk, I squatted over oily earth
and gray cinders, the glitter of shattered beer bottles,
and fed the cloth into the flames. The light within showed

broad bars of red and white brilliant again when the fire
caught. Night was coming. From the faded blue field,
orange sparks rose into the darkening sky and became stars.

Sylvia Plath’s Keyboard Lament

Raised in rooms redolent of dogs, I understood the exclamation
point immediately, a tail erect above the fundament before a fight.
I will have no dogs nor dollars. I long for the slash, slash, slash,

slash, slash, and I abhor the excelsior shift to the question mark.
The colon defies gravity, a spotted bore that should be an arrow,
nocked, fledged, then flying, or one of those quaint, old-timey,

fisted indicators with index finger godly and extended. I would see
all skies studded with black asterisks in constellations that tack
my horrors to the loftiest, tuneless sphere. I balk at the horizontal

fact that two hyphens make a dash, yet I crave to make my own.
I would rather write “and” than ampersand, a symbol that knots
what it knots and irredeemably yokes dual victims. I see no death

nor babes nor smiles in parentheses, and brackets angled, straight,
and dimpled raise my gorge and quell my breath. The tic-tac-toe
of numbers insists only that who plays first wins. The semicolon

reclines, indecisive, enchanted, and stronger than one has a right
to be. I long for days when apostrophes were spots, when there was
no cleft between me and the monster beneath the bed, on the roof,

or in the oven. I want to pleasantly, permanently return to the eternal,
exact moment when a period was only punctuation. I want ancient
days when commas didn’t recall or resemble spermatozoa swarming

over the black and white, two-dimensional, rectangular page of a life.
I want only one pastel pill of a metaphor most swallow by the fistful
to believe their lackluster lives are stories in someone else’s book.

Lettered Among the Stars in Heaven

A is the answer, where all begins, as unclear as any alpha offered
by our ancestors. B is nothing to be desired, pollinated, seconded,
leaves all to be stood and understood or not, as a bumpkin stands
in a muddy pen of pigs, befuddled by slim glimpses of the eternal.
C is the velocity of light, squared or cubed or worse, leaving stars,

falling in every direction away from us, in the awkward position
of proposing Heaven without providing one. D is deep and distant,
like seas and stars, like mouths and questions and glasses, and time
is her companion. E is energy, of course, the first letter of my first
name, and the grade inexplicably missing from the typical list. F is

the initial of the word we love to hate and hate to love, bringing us
together to come together. G is the squeak a country bumpkin bleats
in astonishment and embarrassment to avoid addressing God. H is
the horse in the bumpkin’s lofty darkened barn and heroin and house
and hankering and halo, all that we ride or rides us. I is the infinitely

capitalized integer we speak when we each speak of one of ourselves,
looking for something to say. J is the I that limps, a nifty fabricator,
a prospector of lines and lineaments, most familiar and recognized
least among us. K is potassium, for no earthly reason for those of us
who know one language alone, a pearl and a king among lesser letters.

L is for “Look,” the first word I learned to read, as in “Look, Jane, look.
Look, Dick. Look at Spot.” I will. I will. I will. M is the first break
in the airy stream of vowels, recognition in lips pressed thin and longing,
ma, ma, ma, oh, sweet maiden, now matron. N is the one that replicates,
in power, in thrones and dominions infesting celestial spheres no one

but rulers believe in. O is the one round mouth of the universe, empty
of nothing and what we believe, full of what we fear and love, open-
ended as a perfect, purposeless destination. P is the pint among the p’s
and q’s, when we sneak away to relieve ourselves. Q is an inventor
of gadgets as well as the tedious questions in a long line of interviewers

and inquisitors and the letter voted least likely to succeed. R is for rain
and reign and rein, which together embody a neat and sweet existential
Gordian lover’s knot in a strip simultaneously single- and double-sided.
S is more, in addition, on the other hand, opposes singularity except
in action with the other, proceeds with precision in alternating curves

and current. T is a cool drink with mint and ice, sunlight gold in a glass.
U is the other, the one I addresses, silently commands, imperiously
ignores, relentlessly seeks. V is the twin of U, making a point as sharp
as a bumpkin’s whistle calling cows home. W is the crone, the ancient
who’s forgotten her own name, thinking she’s two of one she’s not,

losing all she’s got and begot. X is the signature of the unknown, marks
the spot, frames the crucified, the transfixed, the now and the then. Y is
yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, vital answer to every event. Z is Zed,
the country bumpkin who squats in a shed, chaw in cheek, line in creek,
blank of eye beneath a sky from which he fears G looks down on his life.

Eric Paul Shaffer is author of seven poetry books, including Even Further West and A Million-Dollar Bill. His Green Leaves: Selected and New Poems will appear in 2023. 600 individual poems appear in reviews in America and eleven actual nations. Shaffer teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Honolulu Community College.