plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

The Sky and Everything Beneath


by Austin Ellis

Untitled by Cobun Keegan

For LeRoy Bryan,
my grandfather and stroke victim

The spokes
of the wheelchair,

the spikes of activity.
The sides of the bed

barred like a crib, and between
those walls, his body.

The family speaks of him as living
but thinks of him as dead.
We treat him as neither,
but as one who might wake up.

* * *

The sky like an opening.
The sky
   like a landfill
       that throws the garbage
  back:

    acid rain,
   octane—a breathing
             in, a becoming.

The sky like fear,
and beyond that—
   nothing.

* * *

We talk to him
in capitalizations.
We shine lights in his eyes.
We ask him questions:
  the year,
  names,
  the date he returned from the war.

We want to know
what he knows.  He answers.
We want more.

* * *

His hands pluck the air.
As if he were pulling
    bullets
from ammo cases.

He shoots.

There is no wind, but the trees
rustle nonetheless.  There are trees
and bushes but he doesn’t know
their names.
There are human
emotions but he doesn’t know their names.

Tracers wind around him,
unravel the night.  He stands there,
amazed
each second
  he doesn’t die.   He stands
until the forest falls
silent.

* * *

Over his dinner, he shakes
an unopened salt packet.
He takes a bite, shakes
the packet again.

His hands hover
in benediction
over tuna salad.

* * *

The moon does not look like the moon.
Which makes sense.  Cool
creeping breeze, flat-
leafed trees, no ferns like the Ozarks
he’d known.

The night in fast forward,
skipping things,
the landscape
crawling through memory—

and then it stops.

* * *

“What are your goals?”
a pink-shawled lady
wants to know.

“Drink coffee.”
He replies.

“Drink coffee?  We’ve got some
here.  Let me make you a batch.”

But my grandmother corrects her:
he wants to go to coffee, Monday
through Friday, at Curtis’s Hamburgers or Luby’s.

He wants to see his friends from the war.
He wants to say their names.

* * *

Who would not trade
memory
    for red clouds,
nightfall, a cool breeze
like the first
after birth?

Things return
      to normal
or they don’t.

Things return in pieces
like the men who died
      on the night you stood
and drew flames around yourself
like clothing.

The sky
      like the earth and water and fire:
interchangeable
under barrage.

The sky,
approaching night,
      is red. This means
   the air is burning.

* * *

“Get that damn cat
out of my room”
he yells.  There is
no cat.  We are
startled as much
as we ever are
anymore.

About the Author


Austin Ellis

Rice University

Austin Ellis is a senior at Rice University, where he studies English. Of his poem, he says: “Several years ago, my grandfather invited our extended family to his house because he wanted to tell us about his experiences in WWII while he was still able. About a year ago, he suffered a stroke and the poem just sort of wrote itself through a series of visits to him at various hospitals and nursing facilities.”